Bruce Willis had a no-nonsense approach to tackling a role that would make him a Hollywood icon.
“Die Hard,” which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary on July 20, tells the story of NYPD officer John McClane (Willis) who becomes trapped inside a tower overtaken by terrorists.
The action film, released in 1988, became an instant sensation.
Willis’ “Die Hard” co-star Reginald VelJohnson, who played LAPD officer Al Powell, told People Magazine Friday the actor was very committed to making the beloved classic a success.
“Whenever he was on set he was very into the character so I didn’t really bother him,” explained VelJohnson.
“Every once in a while, we’d stop to talk but he was very into the character," he said. "I think it was his first big film and he wanted to make it right, he wanted to make it work. He was more concerned with how to do the role rather than anything else.”
Bonnie Bedelia, who played Willis’ wife Holly Gennaro McClane, felt the same way.
“You bet it was [his first big film],” she told the magazine. “It was kind of like a big thing when he got this because he was just on ‘Moonlighting.’ This was his first movie, and he was the star of a huge blockbuster and it was very well advertised that he was making $5 million, which at the time was unbelievable. And everybody was like, ‘Why would you pay $5 million to an untried movie star?’ But boy, someone was really smart.”
The Hollywood gamble was worth it. “Die Hard” earned about $140.8 million at the box office, outshining its $28 million budget.
Willis transformed from comedic TV actor to blockbuster superstar.
“I think he was still doing the TV series as he was making the movie,” recalled VelJohnson. “And I remember coming by one day, he was in the car filming a scene with Cybill Shepherd and he just looked tired. He looked like he was doing two things at one time.”
Bedelia added Willis was eager to move on from television and pursue films instead.
“He didn’t want to go back [to ‘Moonlighting’],” she claimed. “… It’s hard to go back. It’s like you get promoted and you have to go back and finish what you had before.”
“He didn’t look happy,” said VelJohnson.
“[But] he was great,” chimed Bedelia. “He had a great sense of humor. He was very funny about having to go back. He knows he owes a lot to ‘Moonlighting.’ He was wonderful in that.”
“Moonlighting,” which explored the quirky cases of a former model [Shepherd] and a smart aleck detective [Willis], aired from 1985 until 1989.
At the time, Willis was also busy tackling a new romance with movie star Demi Moore, who was a frequent visitor on the set. Willis’ castmates claimed Moore made him “kind of distracted” from making deeper connections with the other actors.
“She was there,” said Bedelia. “You know when romance is new and everything.”
Willis and Moore married in 1987. They divorced in 2000.
Willis recently announced at the end of his Comedy Central roast this year that “Die Hard” is not a Christmas movie — but Bedelia disagrees.
“Yes [it is],” she said. “It’s not your typical, sweet family Christmas movie but I think it’s entered the Christmas classic category.”
“Everybody has their own opinions about what the reason was,” said Armstrong. “After a while, they were barely even trying to hide it… It was a fairly well-known fact that they did not get along… I think there was a briefcase thrown at one point.
“But mainly, it was stuff that would sort of bubble up and then the rest of us would be sent to our trailers while they worked out whatever the issues were. And sometimes we would never come back at all. They would come knocking on the door and say, ‘Go home because we’re not going to get anything done today.’”
Despite the tension, Armstrong was impressed by Willis’ eagerness to learn everything about camera angles and lighting to capture the perfect shot for any scene.
“He was still pretty seriously partying at that point in his life,” said Armstrong. “… But he just soaked up that technical stuff like a sponge… He used to do a game where he could figure out which lens [the cameramen] were using without them telling him. He did it every time we would shoot a scene.”
When Armstrong finally approached Willis about his seemingly strange behavior, the actor, who would go on to become an action star, didn’t hesitate to respond.
“He said, ‘Let me tell you something’,” recalled Armstrong. “'On this show, it’s like a college education’. He just listened and learned. It always amazed me he never directed because I thought he would have made a really good director.”