Bruce Willis
Bruce Willis is well known for playing wisecracking or hard-edged characters, often in spectacular action Image Credit: Ador Bustamante/Gulf News

In the 1980s and 1990s, if I was ever to be taken hostage, I harboured a sneaking suspicion that everything would work out in the end. Bruce Willis would burst through a plate-glass window, shoot every baddie in sight, and save the day.

If an airport I was travelling through was taken over by a terrorist gang intent on making billions in some nefarious and dastardly scene, it would all be wrapped up in 90 minutes as Willis worked single-handedly to make things right.

And when there was a corrupt cop or criminally-minded mayor who was making a mess of things, Bruce would fix it.

Yep, he was the guy who would Die Hard and then Die Harder. And always made up with his on-screen wife in the process. Sure, he may be a flawed Dad who spent too much time consumed with his policing, but when there was a shoot-out or a blowing up that needed to be done, Bruce was there to dispatch those who deserved it.

But sadly, there is now word that Willis is to retire from acting, suffering from aphasia — a condition that robs you of the ability to communicate. According to the Mayo Clinic, the condition affects your ability to speak, write and understand language, both verbal and written.

For an action hero who has made a very handsome living indeed from being the ultimate tough guy, the diagnosis seems particularly cruel — and one which can’t be defeated by Willis or any of his tougher-than-tough guy personas.

If there is a consolation, it is that his work will last for a long time. He might ultimately be silenced, his lines will go on.

In a heartfelt Instagram post, Rumer Willis, the eldest daughter of Demi Moore and Willis, shared that her father’s diagnosis “is impacting his cognitive abilities.”

I wonder if all of those stunts, where he was blowing up things and being shot at, are partially to blame. As it was, he wasn’t a man of many words in the movies. Just enough. After all, his actions spoke louder, and the bad guys always regretted it.

A premature end

Aphasia most commonly arises after a stroke or brain injury, though can also come on more gradually due to the growth of a brain tumour or a degenerative disease. Whatever the cause, there’s little joy in seeing his career come to a premature — and sad — end.

The news comes just weeks after Bruce Willis celebrated his 67th birthday. Moore shared a photo wishing Bruce Willis a happy birthday on March 19, writing she is: “Thankful for our blended family.”

Professionally known as Bruce, Walter Bruce Willis was born in Idar-Oberstein, Birkenfeld, Rhineland-Palatinate, in then West Germany to to an American father named David Willis and a German mother named Marlene Willis.

David was a soldier, a welder, a master mechanic and factory worker while Marlene worked in a bank. After his father was discharged from the military in 1957, the Willis family relocated from West Germany back to New Jersey where he attended Penns Grove High School, joining the school’s drama club in a hope that learning to act would reduce his stutter. It did indeed — but breaking into acting is easier said than done. And it’s hard to catch a break.

After graduating from high school in 1973, he worked as a security guard at the Salem Nuclear Power Plant in Salem County. He also worked as a private investigator — perhaps that’s where some of the macho guy persona that would do him good stead in later film roles stems from. He enrolled in the drama programme of Montclair State University in New Jersey.

By 1977, he had moved from New Jersey to New York and was living in Hell’s Kitchen, a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood of the city that was in the nascent stages of gentrification — a district that attracted artists, actors and musicians all hoping for the next big thing.

A brilliant career

Like most struggling actors, he was working in a bar in Manhattan, slinging drinks for others who had hopes of Hollywood. But the roles were starting to come, playing bit roles in the television show A Guru Comes and the films The First Deadly Sins in 1980 and The Verdict in 1982.

The big break came with an offer to play Tony Amato in Miami Vice in 1984 — rolled up suit sleeves and big shoulder pads to boot.

But there was also a softer side, playing David Addison in Moonlighting from 1985 to 1989, then Bruno Radolini in The Return of Bruno in 1987.

But his star was nevertheless rising with producers looking for someone who could combine flexed muscles, a twinkle in the eye and a sense of humour. Blind Date in 1987, Sunset in 1988 and In Country and Look Who’s Talking in 1989 solidified his reputation as a proven earner.

And he was also making an impression on Hollywood’s female stars too. On Nov. 21, 1987, he and Demi Moore got married, with daughter Rumer coming along in August 1988, Scout in July 1991 and Tallulah Willis in February 1994.

But the Die Hard (1988) franchise made him. Detective John McClane epitomised the 1990s. He played John McClane again in Die Hard 2, Loaded Weapon 1 in 1993, Die Hard with a Vengeance in 1995 and Live Free or Die Hard in 2007 — plus A Good Day to Die Hard in 2013.

Among his titles are Look Who’s Talking Too; The Bonfire of the Vanities; Mortal Thoughts; Hudson Hawk; Billy Bathgate; The Last Boy Scout; The Player; Death Becomes Her; Striking Distance; Pulp Fiction; North; Color of Night; Nobody’s Fool; Four Rooms and 12 Monkeys.

The list is long indeed, Armageddon, The Jackal, The Fifth Element; Last Man Standing …

And then there’s The Sixth Sense.

Wow. He did a lot. He will indeed be missed. Missed, but not silenced.