Bruce Willis’ Top 10 Most Memorable Roles
Bruce Willis appeared in over 100 films throughout a career spanning more than 40 years — from his first uncredited appearances in 1980 to his retirement in 2022 — and was billed as the lead in 76 of them. Although he was sometimes viewed as a limited performer who relied everyman charisma and a wry sense of humor, Willis was, in truth, capable of carrying a wide range of films, including comedies, action flicks, science fiction and straight dramas.
He could play it gruff or humane, over-the-top or subtle, a fumbling dork or an ultra-competent badass who seemed bemused about having to fight his way out of whatever situation fate had thrown at him. And for several decades, he seemed to be everywhere on the screen.
Willis played the wisecracking detective in the TV series Moonlighting and wielded a katana against his kidnappers in Pulp Fiction. He played a doomed psychiatrist in The Sixth Sense and brought a gentle wisdom to the role of a small island police captain in Moonrise Kingdom. The actor popped up again and again in remarkable and surprising films, etching himself permanently into viewers' consciousness.
In honor of the man who taught us never to take off our shoes if we think we might have to battle some villains, and to always be wary of anyone who claims to see dead people, UCR presents the 10 most memorable roles from Bruce Willis' storied career.
Moonlighting (TV series, 1985–89)
Willis burst onto the scene in 1985 by starring in one of the decade's most beloved TV series. Moonlighting saw him playing David Addison, a private eye who convinces a down-on-her-luck model (Cybill Shepherd) to support his borderline insolvent detective agency, leading to the two of them becoming crime-solving partners. The show was a hit largely because of the comedic love-hate chemistry between the two actors, but its real secret was Willis' lackadaisical charm. Sure, he was unscrupulous and morally ambiguous, but he was just so damn likeable. He could never hide the fact that under his cynical exterior, he was actually a softie. Moonlighting set the template that many of Willis' most famous roles would follow.
Die Hard (1988)
Not many actors get to star in a movie widely considered the greatest of its genre; Willis got to do it in his second big-screen leading role. As John McClane, a New York cop who finds himself in Los Angeles trying to prevent ruthless thieves from stealing a fortune and blowing up a building to cover their tracks, Willis set the gold standard against which all other action films would be measured. He's a world-weary badass (having done almost all his own stunts in the film) who's got the perfect quip for every occasion, and he does it all in bare feet. Willis' genre-defining performance is made even more remarkable by the fact that much of Hollywood considered him too much of a comedic lightweight to carry a big-budget action movie. But Willis channeled his South Jersey origins to create a blue-collar underdog who's impossible not to root for.
In Country (1989)
Almost immediately upon establishing himself as a big-budget star, Willis began to move in surprising directions. In director Norman Jewison's In Country, he plays a Vietnam War veteran suffering from PTSD, whose niece – the protagonist of the film, played by Emily Lloyd – is on a journey to try to connect with the memory of her father, who was killed in the war. It's a quiet drama that revolves around deeply submerged emotion, both an anti-war film and a coming-of-age story, with a nuanced performance from Willis. The unassailable cockiness of his character in Die Hard is gone, replaced by a man who might have once possessed that strength but has since been eroded by the things that have happened to him. It's arguably the least bombastic of the numerous '80s films that tried to reckon with the Vietnam War, but it's also one of the more interesting ones.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Willis' career was in a slump by 1994, thanks to a series of quirky and notable flops such as The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Hudson Hawk (1991) and Striking Distance (1993). He needed a box-office rejuvenation, and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction provided it in spades. Willis plays boxer Butch Coolidge, who reneges on a deal to throw a fight and then has to rescue the gang boss he betrayed from a pair of sexually predatory hillbillies. He masterfully navigates Tarantino's idiosyncratic dialogue and reminds viewers why he's a star. From the Hitchcock homage that precedes the samurai sword scene to his bone-dry delivery of some of the film's best lines ("Zed's dead, baby. Zed's dead"), Willis embodies the film's nod to the yellowing dime-store novels of the past.
Nobody's Fool (1994)
Willis' other great 1994 role couldn't have been further removed from Pulp Fiction. In the downbeat and eminently loveable Paul Newman vehicle Nobody's Fool, he plays Carl Roebuck, the philandering construction company owner whose effortless success and deep moral corruption are the foils for Newman's noble, aging and luckless lead. The film is a forgotten comedic gem, and Willis showcases his ability to play characters that run counter to his innate qualities as an actor. Roebuck is a blue-collar man who has risen because of his charm, like Willis himself, but Willis expertly uses that workaday appeal to create an ignoble, disreputable man. It's one of the few times in Newman's career that he starred alongside an antagonist who could match his naked charisma, and the pairing elevates both actors.
12 Monkeys (1995)
In 1995, Willis moved into science fiction for the first time with Terry Gilliam's cult classic 12 Monkeys. Willis plays James Cole, a prisoner from the year 2035 who is sent back to the '90s in an attempt to stop a plague that has devastated the world. He's immediately thrown into a mental hospital for claiming to be from the future, where he meets a manic character played by Brad Pitt, who might hold the key to the plague but is also definitely crazy. More time travel ensues, along with a good deal of mind-bending and reality questioning. Willis plays his part subtly, contrasting with Pitt's (and the movie's) high-energy antics, and reminding viewers that he can ditch his charming ruffian persona and embody a desperate character on the edge of personal destruction. The film was a surprise hit and paved the way for a number of similar ventures in Willis' career.
The Fifth Element (1997)
For his second foray into the sci-fi realm, Willis chose The Fifth Element, French director Luc Besson's gaudy, trippy space odyssey about a desperate attempt to stop an evil industrialist (played by a characteristically bonkers Gary Oldman) from taking over the universe using an ancient super-weapon. The only thing that can stop this weapon is an innocent young woman (Milla Jovovich), and Willis plays the cab driver and ex-Special Forces soldier who falls into helping her. The whole thing is an over-the-top, candy-colored spectacle, full of big performances and ridiculous humor, and Willis plays his exhausted-but-still-ready-to-kick-ass tough guy to the hilt.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
The Sixth Sense was a monumental hit, earning almost $700 million against a budget of $40 million, and one of the most commercially important movies of its time. It jump-started the career of M. Night Shyamalan (whose films have grossed over $3.4 billion despite often being savaged by viewers and critics) and signaled a major shift in scary movies, away from the erotic thrillers and post-slasher flicks of the '90s toward the darker psychological fare that would dominate the '00s. Willis gives a quiet, nuanced performance as Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist trying his best to help a young boy who "sees dead people." There's a twist that virtually no one saw coming, made especially effective thanks to the gravitas Willis lends the film.
By the second decade of the '00s, Willis' career had begun to slow down — if not in the quantity of his roles, then certainly in quality. But he was still capable of improving virtually any movie and found his way into several minor gems. One of the best of these is Rian Johnson's Looper, a time-bending noir detective story. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe Simmons, a time-traveling hitman who realizes he's been given the job of killing his older self (Willis). It's a finely plotted adventure, and there's a lot of fun to be had in watching Levitt play a younger version of Willis, but Willis himself provides much of the film's emotional thrust. His ability to play an world-weary man who knows and has seen more than anyone around him is put to perfect use here, keying us in to exactly where Levitt's character is going.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Of all the actors one might have expected to shine in a Wes Anderson film, Willis was probably low on the list. Yet when he got his chance, he folded himself effortlessly into the director's offbeat aesthetic. The film is about an orphan named Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), who runs away from summer camp after meeting and falling in love with a girl (Kara Hayward). The young romantics are then hounded by the powers that be, who want to push them back into conformity. Willis plays Captain Duffy Sharp, head of police on the island where the story takes place, who first leads the search for Sam and eventually ends up adopting him. The film is steeped in Anderson's quirkiness, and Willis brings a tenderness that he rarely got to exhibit elsewhere. It's the antithesis of the bare-knuckle tough guys he was famous for portraying, and it's completely convincing.