Bruce Willis built a career on playing stoic, stand-up guys.
He seems to be ending his career the same way.
On March 30, his family announced the star was “stepping away” from acting. He had received a diagnosis of aphasia, they revealed — a cognitive impairment that robs a person of the ability to properly process language. It is a cruel disease, and one that Terry Jones, the Monty Python wit who died in 2020, battled in his last years.
On the morning of March 31, the Los Angeles Times published a heavily reported piece detailing years of problems on Willis’ sets. His roles had to be whittled down so they could be shot in two days, and he rarely worked more than four hours straight. He could not remember lines, and once fired a prop gun at the wrong cue.
Because Willis was still a recognizable commodity, though, he had been able to get work, chiefly on the sort of straight-to-VOD movies that other fading actors have turned to. Surf the offerings on any streamer and you’ll see dozens of these generic action flicks, many starring people like John Cusack, Eric Roberts or Luke Wilson. (Before streaming, when these sorts of movies went straight to DVD, many of them starred David Carradine).
They have been a lifeline for actors who were finding it hard to get major roles anymore, or who — like Nic Cage — suddenly found they needed to crawl out of debt. But what was the motivation in Willis’ case?
The darker, sadder supposition is that he was being exploited by people around him, people who knew his condition but just wanted to squeeze out a few more dollars. Only they know if that is true and, if so, how they will live with it.
The more inspiring theory is that Willis knew his health was failing, and realized he would not be able to work much longer. And so, like some old boxer still climbing into the ring, he pushed himself to rake in as much as he could as long as he could, to provide for his family.
I know the second scenario is the one I’d like to believe.
Raised in Carneys Point and educated at Montclair State, Willis, 67, was always a Jersey guy, with all the attitude that went with that. He could be down-to-earth or prickly, wryly sarcastic or brutally frank. It gave him a fresh kind of appeal. Granted, it wore thin over time, particularly in his action films, where characterizations were often pared down to a squint and a smirk. But he could be solid, too, and surprising, in films as different as “The Sixth Sense” and “In Country,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Motherless Brooklyn.”
To think of the hero of “Die Hard,” sick and confused but bullied into picking up one more paycheck, is a hard thing. It’s certainly happier to imagine him just gritting his teeth and going to work, the way one of his characters would.
Whatever the real reason, though, the only simple truth here is, we’ll probably never know the real truth.
But what we should remember about acting is, it’s a job. Actors are sometimes idealized, sometimes vilified, but above all it’s work, and people like to work. Sometimes it’s for the pure joy of it, sometimes it’s just to pay the bills. Both motivations are equally valid, and really should only concern the person involved.
Sure, sometimes you’ll look at someone’s filmography and see a bad picture and think, “Ah, that’s the year they wanted a swimming pool.” Some actors are even quite upfront about it. I remember querying Malcolm McDowell about some of the rather dubious projects he’d been involved in. “I have very expensive tastes,” he replied. Bad films allowed him to live well.
Then again, sometimes the needs are more immediate. When I interviewed Liev Schreiber, he had just had a busy year, directing a fine movie, “Everything Is Illuminated,” and appearing in a stage revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” But neither gig had paid much, and he had just bought his mother an apartment and fixed up his own house. He told me he had recently looked at his bank accounts and afterward made a tense, terse call to his agent.
“I need to work,” he told him.
The next year, an unnecessary, big-studio remake of “The Omen” came out. People wondered why Schreiber starred in it. I didn’t.
Willis came in for a lot of ridicule over his recent movie choices; I know I’ve certainly joked about actors’ paycheck parts over the years. But really, why should it matter to anyone why an actor chooses a part? Sometimes it’s to work with a director or a co-star, and sometimes it’s to try something new. Sometimes it’s because they just want a free trip to Rome, and sometimes they just want the money. But there have been plenty of bad movies made for good reasons — and plenty of good movies made for bad ones.
The bottom line, though, is grownups have responsibilities, and sometimes to meet them we do things that we don’t particularly like. I have written things for a paycheck, and I have written things for pleasure. It’s lovely when the two go together. But even when they don’t, the ideal is that you work equally hard on both. The only thing a performer owes us is a performance, and the only time they betray us is when they don’t deliver that.
And however hard it got, Willis still tried.
“He just looked so lost,” the production supervisor on one of Willis’ last films told the L.A. Times. Still, he added, when it came time for a take, “He would say, ‘I’ll do my best.’ He always tried his best.”
There are worse ways to sum up a career.
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