Best of Bruce Willis: Top 10 Television and Movie Roles Ranked - Rolling Stone
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The Best of Bruce Willis: 10 Memorable TV and Movie Performances

The news that Bruce Willis will be stepping away from his acting career due to a diagnosis of the neurodegenerative disease aphasia brought with it a renewed appreciation for the work of one of the biggest pop culture stars of our lifetimes.

Bruce Willis in Moonlighting, Die Hard 2, Sixth Sense and Pulp FictionBruce Willis in Moonlighting, Die Hard 2, Sixth Sense and Pulp Fiction

Bruce Willis in Moonlighting, Die Hard 2, Sixth Sense and Pulp Fiction

Everett Collection, 4

The news that Bruce Willis will be stepping away from his acting career due to a diagnosis of the neurodegenerative disease aphasia brought with it a renewed appreciation for the work of one of the biggest pop culture stars of our lifetimes. Here are 10 roles that helped define Willis’ often-brilliant career:

Moonlighting (ABC, 1985-89)

MOONLIGHTING, (from left): Cybill Shepherd, Bruce Willis, 1985-89. © ABC / Courtesy: Everett Collection

MOONLIGHTING, (from left): Cybill Shepherd, Bruce Willis

ABC/Everett Collection

Do bears bare? Do bees be? Do bartenders become overnight sensations? Willis was basically unknown when Moonlighting creator Glen Gordon Caron hired him to play quippy private detective David Addison opposite Cybill Shepherd as uptight former fashion model Maddie Hayes. Along with CheersMoonlighting helped cement the “will they or won’t they?” model of unresolved sexual tension as a part of romantic comedies going forward, as David and Maddie’s initial disdain for one another generated spectacular chemistry onscreen. Offscreen was another story, though, as Willis and Shepherd’s difficulty working together became one of several reasons — including Caron’s perfectionism causing episodes to be finished too late to air as scheduled — that Moonlighting went from smash hit to afterthought within the space of a few years. (It was not because David and Maddie finally slept together, contrary to the myth that has built up around the show.) Between the sparks he and Shepherd generated, his facility with the increasingly stylized and complicated banter, and the show’s various flights of fancy — most famously in a cracked retelling of The Taming of the Shrew called “Atomic Shakespeare” — Willis couldn’t have asked for a better launching pad for his ascension to superstardom. —Alan Sepinwall

Die Hard series (1988-2013)

DIE HARD, Bruce Willis, 1988, TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp./courtesy Everett Collection

DIE HARD, Bruce Willis

©20thCentFox/Everett Collection

Welcome to the party, pal! When a pair of Blake Edwards movies (the romantic farce Blind Date and the Western movie tribute Sunset) bombed with critics and audiences, it seemed like Willis would be the latest TV star destined to shrink on the big screen. Then came the hit nobody saw coming — and the most perfect action movie ever made. As John McClane, a New York cop visiting his estranged wife’s office Christmas party in an LA high-rise on the night a group of armed men take over the building, Willis was the antithesis of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the other muscle men who had dominated the action space for most of the Eighties. They were superheroes; he was a barefoot guy in a filthy undershirt barely keeping it together. They won through brute force; he had to think his way through one life-or-death problem after another. All the elements of John McTiernan’s explosive masterpiece are in balance — including Alan Rickman’s crackling screen debut as the clever villain, Hans Gruber — but none of it works without Willis being so funny and seeming so real in the midst of this ludicrous collection of violent set pieces. The two Nineties sequels, Die Hard 2: Die Harder and Die Hard with a Vengeance, also have their charms (the latter in particular, whereas Die Harder largely attempts to duplicate the formula of the first movie on a larger scale), but the final films in the series, Live Free or Die Hard and A Good Day to Die Hard, lose their way by turning McClane into every bit the unflappable killing machine as the kinds of heroes he was created to rebel against. —AS

Look Who’s Talking (1989)

LOOK WHO'S TALKING, John Travolta, 1989. ©TriStar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

LOOK WHO’S TALKING, John Travolta, 1989.

©TriStar Pictures/Everett Collection

A memorable 1988 Moonlighting episodes saw Willis pulling double duty as David and Maddie’s unborn child. (Here he is dancing in a diaper.) A year later, he went back to baby-dom to deliver the inner monologue of the newborn offspring of single mom Kirstie Alley. What was meant as a light-hearted vehicle for Alley and (as the friendly cab driver who helps her deliver the baby) John Travolta — the first of two times Willis would be a supporting player in an attempted Travolta comeback — was instead stolen lock, stock, and barrel by Willis’ audio-only work. As was the case in that Moonlighting episode, audiences went ga-ga for the contrast of Willis’ cynical voice with the innocent thoughts of the character he was playing. A surprise hit, Look Who’s Talking spawned multiple sequels, though the last one (Look Who’s Talking Now) attempted to replace Willis with Danny DeVito and Diane Keaton as the voices of Alley and Travolta’s dogs. Unsurprisingly, the series ended there. —AS

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

THE LAST BOY SCOUT, Damon Wayans, Bruce Willis, 1991, (c)Geffen Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

THE LAST BOY SCOUT, Damon Wayans, Bruce Willis,

©Geffen Pictures/Everett Collection

In more recent years, Willis became a cheap punchline for his practice of appearing in any terrible straight-to-video thriller willing to pay him $1 million per day, while requiring him to exert as little effort as possible. In many of them, he acts entirely while seated, sometimes blatantly wearing an earpiece to be fed dialogue; given what we now know of his health, this seems less a case of laziness than Willis simply trying to hang on and build as much of a nest egg as possible before becoming wholly unable to work. After all, one of the things that typified a lot of Willis’ earlier career was his ability to play trash with conviction, like his turn as the roughneck who saves the world in Michael Bay’s Armageddon. The neo-noir thriller The Last Boy Scout is on some level also trash  — bookended by wildly over-the-top action sequences at football stadiums — elevated not only by director Tony Scott’s self-awareness of how ridiculous it all is, but by the sheer force of Willis’ performance as a disgraced Secret Service agent turned seedy private detective. He’s a natural with the snarky Shane Black dialogue, but he also plays this role with the world-weariness and gravity of the hero of a Humphrey Bogart movie. When he tells a thug who’s torturing him, “Touch me again and I’ll kill ya,” the audience knows instantly that the thug should just listen. —AS

Death Becomes Her (1992)

DEATH BECOMES HER, from left: Bruce Willis, Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, 1992. ph: Deana Newcomb / ©Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

DEATH BECOMES HER, from left: Bruce Willis, Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn

Deana Newcomb / ©Universal Pictures /Everett Collection

In between bartending and Moonlighting, Willis was a stage actor. Once Die Hard made him a movie star, he set out trying to prove he brought more than just charisma and wisecracks to the screen. Sometimes, these attempts to play against type were disastrous, like his miscast turn as the cynical alcoholic journalist narrator of Brian DePalma’s infamous flop The Bonfire of the Vanities. At other times, though, he could be remarkable, whether as a traumatized Vietnam veteran in 1989’s In Country or in Robert Zemeckis’ farce Death Becomes Her as the nebbishy plastic surgeon caught between two women (Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn) determined to stay youthful forever. The cutting edge visual effects and larger-than-life performances by Streep and Hawn got most of the attention, but Willis is startlingly good, and convincing, as the movie’s panicked emotional center. Largely panned at the time, it’s one of his best movies of that era. —AS

Pulp Fiction (1994)

PULP FICTION, Bruce Willis (left), 1994

PULP FICTION, Bruce Willis (left)

©Miramax/Everett Collection

Besides stretching himself as an actor back then, Willis often enjoyed lending his celebrity to projects that might have been ignored without his presence. He’s wonderfully down-to-earth, for instance, as Paul Newman’s employer and rival in the 1994 small-town comedy Nobody’s Fool, but another film that year would be the most famous example of Willis using his credibility for the greater good: Quentin Tarantino’s industry-shaking crime drama Pulp Fiction. Willis was in a bit of a commercially fallow period, but even flops like Bonfire and Hudson Hawk tended to be famous flops, making him by far the biggest name in a cast that otherwise featured actors who either seemed long past their prime (Travolta again, though this time the comeback stuck) or were relatively unknown at the time (Samuel L. Jackson). Even Tarantino (coming off the cult classic Reservoir Dogs) wasn’t a star in his own right yet. Willis’ stoic presence as fugitive boxer Butch Coolidge helped take the multi-layered collection of short crime stories from the art houses into the multiplexes, making it not only one of the phenomenons of that year, but one of the most influential films of the last three decades. —AS

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

TWELVE MONKEYS, Bruce Willis (center), Brad Pitt (right), 1995, © Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

TWELVE MONKEYS, Bruce Willis (center), Brad Pitt (right)

Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

Only Bruce Willis could take a black and white, experimental French film and turn it into a sci-fi action adventure that’s at turns terrifying and devastating. Willis starred as a time traveler named James Cole in Terry Gilliam’s 1995 flick 12 Monkeys — an adaptation of 1962 short La Jetée — the searing tale of a virus gone wild and the man sent from the future to stop it. Willis plays the hapless Cole, who is confined to an asylum after trying to warn folks about the virus, with a tragic stoicism — especially as he comes to realize that a haunting vision from his childhood is actually glimpse of his harrowing future… er, past. Willis went on to appear in still more sci-fi movies (1997’s The Fifth Element and 2012’s Looper), but 12 Monkeys is a genre highlight for the actor. —Brenna Ehrlich

The Sixth Sense (1999) 

THE SIXTH SENSE, Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, 1999. (c) Buena Vista Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection. (image upgraded to 16.8 x 12 in)

THE SIXTH SENSE, Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment

©Buena Vista Pictures/Everett Collection

Casting Willis as a friendly therapist and Haley Joel Osment as a young patient who claims to see dead people, this chilling ghost story was the beginning of a fruitful partnership between Willis and writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, that would include the unconventional superhero drama Unbreakable and its belated sequel, Glass. Willis and Osment make a perfectly mismatched duo — the older man quiet and closed-off, the boy wide-eyed and emotionally raw — and the humanity Willis brings to his performance makes the movie’s iconic twist land as well as it does. —AS

Friends (NBC, 2000)

E366967 1999-2000 David Schwimmer,Bruce Willis (who plays Paul) guest starring on "Friends"(The One Where Ross Meet''s Elizabeth''s Dad). Photo Credit: Paul Drinkwater NBC

FRIENDS<br />David Schwimmer,Bruce Willis (who plays Paul) guest starring on “Friends”(The One Where Ross Meet”s Elizabeth”s Dad).

Paul Drinkwater/NBC/Getty Images

Over 40 celebrities appeared on Friends during the show’s 10-year run, including Brad Pitt, Susan Sarandon, and Jon Lovitz (twice). But none of them made our stomachs sore from laughter like Bruce Willis, as Paul Stevens, widower and father of Ross Geller’s student-turned-girlfriend Elizabeth.  Ross keeps hilariously failing at getting approval of Paul, who disapproves of the age difference between his daughter and the professor. He then dates Rachel for a bit after she helps him look for his keys, but they eventually split because Paul can’t stop crying. Ross ultimately wins Paul over after he catches the no-nonsense lawyer giving himself a pep talk in the mirror and singing the Miracles’ “Love Machine.”  Willis reportedly agreed to guest star on the show after losing a bet with Matthew Perry on the set of the movie, The Whole Nine Yards. It’s a good thing he kept his end of the deal, because his three-episode appearance earned him an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.—Angie Martoccio

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

MOONRISE KINGDOM, from left: Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, 2012. ph: Niko Tavernise/©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

MOONRISE KINGDOM, from left: Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand

Niko Tavernise/Focus Features/Everett Collection

By the time he directed this whimsical story of young outcasts on the run in a quaint island off the coast of New England, Wes Anderson had developed a reputation for unearthing hidden traits in actors that other filmmakers would go on to use. As the heartbroken local police chief who finds himself emotionally invested in the orphan at the heart of the story, Willis wasn’t exactly demonstrating things he hadn’t before on film. But it had felt like a long time since he’d been this human and vulnerable. But where, say, Bill Murray used his collaborations with Anderson as a springboard to a more dramatic phase of his career, Moonrise Kingdom is the last performance Willis gave where he really seemed to be challenging himself. Was this the result of his cognitive difficulties, or simply the choice made by an older man who no longer felt he had anything to prove? We may never know, but his work in Moonrise is achingly good. —AS

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