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Bruce Willis' career as indestructible as his 'Die Hard' character

The 58-year-old actor who has starred in blockbusters and indies manages to remain vital even as the careers of his peers have faded.

February 19, 2013|By Patrick Kevin Day, Los Angeles Times
  • Bruce Willis , right, and Jai Courtney star in "A Good Day to Die Hard."
Bruce Willis , right, and Jai Courtney star in "A Good Day to Die Hard." (Frank Masi / 20th Century…)

Bruce Willis says he's never had a grand strategy for his career.

But, thanks to a fateful decision he made just as he was on the cusp of major Hollywood stardom in the late 1980s, he's managed to navigate the tricky waters of fame and remain vital even while many of his peers have fallen on hard times.

"I was doing TV for a long, straight shot — four, four and a half years — and I realized somewhere in there that I didn't want to be in every frame of every day," said the former star of "Moonlighting," whose latest movie, "A Good Day to Die Hard," debuted Thursday. "I thought I'd want to play supporting roles too. My agent and everyone around me said 'Don't do it. You'll ruin your career.'"

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Willis chose to do it his way — picking starring roles, supporting roles, bit parts and cameos. "I don't think I was trying to make a point," he said. "I just wanted to do different things, be in other people's films, work with directors I like."

As a result, he got to appear on the big screen with Dustin Hoffman and Paul Newman ("actors I never thought I'd get close to," he admitted), and worked with directors he's greatly admired (Quentin Tarantino and Robert Altman among them). From just a single day's work on Altman's 1992 Hollywood satire "The Player," Willis' brief cameo playing himself left a lasting impression.

Willis, 58, has worked steadily since 1988 — never going a year without at least one release and at times multiple films.

Industry observers think that his longevity over the last three decades as a die-hard working man's actor can largely be attributed to one thing: diversity of roles and types of movies.

"Willis has a much broader range than compared to other action stars," says Bruce Nash, founder of Nash Information Services, the firm behind the box-office analysis site The Numbers. Com. "He's done drama, he's done comedy. If you're always in the same genre, all you have to compare your performance against is the last film you made. Are the explosions bigger? Are the one-liners funnier? This can be an impediment."

It's not as though other action stars haven't tried the same thing.

"Schwarzenegger turned out to be more of a one-trick pony," suggested Nash. "He went into comedy, but it was funny because he was Arnold Schwarzenegger." Willis, meanwhile, has been able to disappear into roles as an un-tough guy as the henpecked husband in "Death Becomes Her" or opposite an 8-year-old version of himself in "The Kid."

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He's starred in big-budget studio films and appeared in small independent movies.

His most recent offering, "A Good Day to Die Hard," the fifth in the successful franchise that made him an action star, proved to be critic-proof and opened to $8.1 million on its first day. It narrowly won box office over the holiday weekend. Two films that he appeared in last year, "Looper" and "Moonrise Kingdom," burnished his reputation with critics (the latter earning him an Independent Spirit Award nomination for supporting male).

But he also had four other films open in 2012: "The Expendables 2," an ensemble action movie that did well enough at the box office to generate another sequel; "Lay the Favorite," a comedy from director Stephen Frears that flopped at the box office and had bad reviews; "The Cold Light of Day," an action film starring Henry Cavill that disappeared quickly; and "Fire With Fire," a drama with Josh Duhamel that went straight to DVD.

Often box-office failure and direct-to-DVD films are evidence of a career in trouble. While Willis has certainly had his share of embarrassing misses over the years, his star continues to shine. He's well past the days when the one-two punch of flops "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and "Hudson Hawk" led the press to begin writing his professional obituary.

While Willis is often lumped in with '80s he-men Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone (especially since all three were co-investors in the Planet Hollywood theme restaurant chain), it may be more accurate to compare his career with an actor such as Michael Caine. The British actor has appeared in well more than 100 films, in both starring roles and bit parts, action flicks, dramas and comedies, seeming at home in all of them.

Willis is over 20 years Caine's junior and has already appeared in more than 60 films. And based on his current pace, he's got a good shot to surpass him.

The six films Willis appeared in during 2012 were based largely on just eight months of work in 2011. "That had to do with the directors I wanted to work with — Wes Anderson, Rian Johnson, Stephen Frears," Willis explained. "I did them all from January to August. They were all very compressed schedules."

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