Even back when the original Die Hard was being released 30 years ago, leading man Bruce Willis was certainly not lacking for confidence. And maybe for good reason. His ABC series Moonlighting, which paired this (then) newbie up with actress Cybill Shepherd in a romantic comedy-detective series, had been a massive hit, though it was cooling down at that particular moment. He’d starred in a couple of films that didn’t light up the box office (Blind Date, Sunset), and Die Hard was deemed by many to be his moment. And he knew exactly what he was bringing to the table, which is why his people had negotiated him a $5 million salary — which was pretty mind-blowing at the time for a so-called “TV Actor.”

“It’s an old strategy called ‘you get what you can get,'” he related to me shortly before Die Hard — which has spawned four sequels, with a fifth on the way — opened. “We didn’t put a gun to anybody’s head. In a town and an industry where all this can be gone next year, you take what you can get. You get what you can. I really feel that Fox is pleased with how it all turned out. They paid me what they thought I was worth for the film, and for them.” With a global gross of $148 million based on a $28 million budget, one would imagine the executives slept just fine back in ’88.

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But, he emphasized in the next breath, the box office has never concerned him beyond the fact that success there has kept him employed. “I can only do the best work that I can as an actor, and after that there’s not a whole lot that I can do. You can talk about the film, but even that…. who knows what that does? I like Sunset and what I did in it. The fact that it didn’t do well at the box office is just a fact. It’s neither here nor there.”

Learning Curve

When it was pointed out to him that the success of Moonlighting probably added to expectations for the film, he smiled a bit and launched into what had become a bit of a personal mantra for him: “Tell me if I’m wrong,” Bruce said, “but when Moonlighting first came out, so many said, ‘It’s a great show, it’s innovative, it’s so new…’ And after a while, you guys” — meaning us in the press — “said, ‘Wait a minute, let’s see what Bruce Willis is really about. Let’s find out what’s underneath all that,’ and they started looking. They wanted to see what makes Bruce Willis tick. The pressure that was involved with that is something that I was unprepared for. No one can say, ‘Here’s how you’re supposed to act, here’s how you’re supposed to behave,’ so I was kind of learning it as I was going through it. I have gotten through it, haven’t I? I learned a lot from the experience.

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“How do I deal with it?” he continued rhetorically. “I really try to stay out of situations like this one as much as I can. Again, I don’t feel the need to give out the details of my life. Some people tell you everything they ever did, but nobody really cares. I never really thought that because I became a successful actor, that what I had to say became that much more important. Nobody was asking me my opiion while I was in acting in New York. I guess people want to know that stuff now, but I don’t feel it’s my responsibillity to open up my private life. My work ends when I go home at the end of the day. Then it becomes my life. You can talk about what’s up there on the screen, or what’s down there on the television, but I always wanted it to be about the work. I think I’ve gone through a time when more focus was given to what I did when I was done working, than what I was doing during the day.”

The Original Die Hard — Yippee Ki Yay

At that time, what he was filling his days with was playing New York cop John McClane, who is attending his wife’s (Bonnie Bedelia) company Christmas party in Los Angeles in an attempt at reconcilation, but finds himself being the only hope for the people there taken prisoner by terrorists (led by Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber). What follows is the definition of a movie roller coaster that alternates between thrills, laughs and (believe it or not) humanity. Under the direction of John McTiernan, it (along with 1987’s Lethal Weapon) changed the action genre forever.

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Die Hard,” Bruce related, “is probably the closest I’ve come to showing what is in my heart on screen. David Addison is a cahracter I play on Moonlighting. In Die Hard, even though I’m acting, a lot of what is in me came through. I really wanted to play a vulnerbale guy. I didn’t want to be a superhero who’s a larger than life guy that nobody really knows. I don’t know any superheroes. I know guys who are afraid and have anxiety, and I think you know people like that, too. That’s what I wanted to play. I really wanted to be honest about the moment you go through when you think your life is about to end. I wanted to play somebody who was afraid to die.”

Part of the premise of the film is that McClane is off by himself in Nakatomi Plaza, having to take care of the terrorists one man at a time. As such, it required Bruce to spend quite a bit of time isolated from anybody else.

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“It was a very interesting experience for me,” he admits, “because most of the work I’ve done has been done with another actor where I talk, you talk, I talk. In this film, I spent so much time with my imagination, because while I was talking to the other cop on the walkie talkie, I had to imagine what was going on outside of my little environment. As a result, I found things that I don’t think I would have found had I worked scenes where the other actor was in the same room. I had to rely a lot more on the training I got when I was in New York. I also got to do a lot of my stunts, because it’s thrilling and exciting. I like taking risks. It’s a part of the acting experience I really enjoy. They were a little scared about some of them, but it was safe.”

When asked what he’d been learning from making movies, Bruce preferred to look at acting as a whole, believing that all of it — from Moonlighting to Die Hard — was an education in the process. “When I was working in New York,” he noted, “I learned from each job that I did and it kind of helped me in the next one. I continue to grow as an actor and continue to challenge myself with the characters I play. Because I was successful as David Addison, I don’t want to ever just play him, because that would bore the s— out of me. Challenging ourselves makes us grow as actors and as people.”

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In the media, especially at the time, Bruce was painted as an arrogant guy who had let fame go to his head, and he refused to speak out about it — which just fueled the rumors. “I’m not comfortable doing this,” he says of the interviewing process, reinforcing his earlier point. “About talking about myself in the third person. Maybe there are actors who are, but I’ve always wanted it to be about the work. About what’s on screen.”

Which raises the question of why he had gotten so behind the promotion of Die Hard. “I’m so excited about this film,” he smiled broadly. “To me, it represents why I wanted to be an actor. It satisfies me on so many levels… And it’s just a great movie.”