With well over 100 acting credits to his name, Bruce Willis earned the undeniable title as one of the foremost bankable stars in the world. While the actor’s bread and butter was playing troubled action heroes with chips on their shoulder (“Die Hard,” “Armageddon” and “Looper”), Willis also carved out a locale playing more sensitive leading men in titles like “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Sixth Sense.”
Aside from his notable silver screen star power, Willis has also appeared in several TV shows, earning an Outstanding Guest Actor Emmy for a turn in “Friends” in 2000 and a lead actor Emmy for the ‘80s dramedy “Moonlighting,” about the unlikely pairing of a former model (Cybill Shepherd) and wise-cracking detective (Willis) who run a private investigations agency.
On Wednesday, Willis’ family released a statement announcing that the veteran actor would be retiring, citing his diagnosis of aphasia — a cognitive disorder that affects one’s ability to communicate. The announcement was met with waves of support from collaborators, colleagues and fans, who praised Willis’ career and wished him and his family well.
Below, TheWrap takes a look at 11 of Willis’ most memorable performances.
The genre-nonconforming ABC dramedy-mystery series “Moonlighting” earned Willis his first Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 1987 — and for good reason. Considered one of the earliest successful dramedies on network TV, the series featured a dynamic duo in Willis and Shepherd, which set the standard for later light-hearted dramas featuring charismatic leads with budding romantic arcs. With a list of formidable guest stars, including Whoopi Goldberg and Pierce Brosnan, numerous fourth wall breaks and witty repartee among its cast members, “Moonlighting” graces several best series of all time lists.
“Die Hard” (1988)
Arguably the most on-brand performance for Willis, “Die Hard” and the actor’s role as the one-man-against-the-entire-world New York City cop John McClane paved the way for later blockbuster action pics following ‘80s Hollywood’s boom in the genre. Ironically and unironically referenced as the best Christmas movie of all time, Willis’ portrayal — as the lone escapee in a high-rise taken hostage by terrorists — has far surpassed expectations to cement itself as allusory gold, taking its rightful place in myriad popular culture halls of fame.
“Hudson Hawk” (1991)
Playing a casanova cat-burglar just released from prison, all Willis’ titular Hudson Hawk wants in a nice cappuccino. But before he can begin his new life — and sip on his favorite caffeinated beverage — he’s roped into a series of Leonardo da Vinci thefts by the eccentric Mayflowers (Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard). Hailing from the duo behind “Heathers” — director Michael Lehmann and writer Daniel Waters — this slapstick comedy, also co-written by Willis, has since become a cult classic despite being a box office bomb.
“Death Becomes Her” (1992)
Flexing his off-beat comedic chops in this satirical black comedy fantasy film alongside Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, Willis plays the plastic surgeon-turned-reconstructive-mortician Ernest. After Ernest breaks off his engagement with novelist Helen Sharp (Hawn) and marries the self-absorbed Madeline (Streep), things go absurdly haywire as the two women drink elixirs promising eternal youth. As they say, all’s fair in love and war — and death, apparently.
“Pulp Fiction” (1994)
Released nearly three decades ago, Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” shows no sign of losing its steam as one of the most obsessed-over movies of all time. Weaving interlocking stories of crime in Los Angeles’ underworld in the mid-’90s, Willis portrays Butch Coolidge, a southpaw boxer who double-crosses kingpin Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Humorous, violent and at times reflective, Willis’ performance often steals the show from other powerhouse actors.
“12 Monkeys” (1995)
Terry Gilliam’s time-traveling sci-fi thriller centers on convict James Cole (Willis) who is sent back in time decades after a deadly virus has wiped out most of humanity in 1996, forcing everyone underground. While he’s tasked with gathering information on the virus’ origins — presumably released by the group the Army of the Twelve Monkeys — he accidentally ends up in the wrong time period, encountering Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) at a psychiatric facility, a patient who may have some of the answers he’s looking for.
Diane Warren’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” took on a life of its own after it was covered by Aerosmith and featured in a pivotal, heart-wrenching scene led by Willis in Michael Bay’s apocalyptic disaster flick. Playing an expert driller recruited by NASA to stop an asteroid from colliding with Earth, Willis delivers a masterful balancing act combining “man on a (life-threatening) mission” with “dutiful father” sensibilities.
“The Sixth Sense” (1999)
M. Night Shyamalan’s magnum opus features one of Willis’ most iconic roles. Beloved by everyone and their mom, “The Sixth Sense” sees the actor tap into his wide range as a performer, playing the sensitive child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe, who earns the trust of a troubled child (Haley Joel Osment) plagued by visions of ghosts.
Willis’ second Shyamalan collaboration following “The Sixth Sense”, this superhero thriller follows a security guard (Willis) who recovers superhuman capabilities following a devastating train accident. Widely regarded as one of the best entries in the superhero genre pre-Marvel, Willis ended up reprising his role in subsequent sequels “Split” (2016) and “Glass” (2019).
“Sin City” (2005)
Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller and special guest director Quentin Tarantino’s neo-noir cult classic is a thrilling ride like no other, featuring Willis in one of his tried-and-true complex anti-hero action personas. He plays John Hartigan, a grizzled, disillusioned cop in the crime-ridden Basin City tracking down a ruthless serial murderer of children.
“Moonrise Kingdom” (2012)
A Wes Anderson classic, “Moonrise Kingdom” follows two pre-teens — saddled with angst and a lack of understanding from the adults around them — who decide to run away together off the coast of a New England island in 1965. As various search parties coalesce to rescue them, Willis’ heartfelt, lonely Captain Sharp stands out as one of the few grown-ups who truly cares for the children’s well-being and happiness.