Willis was born in Idar-Oberstein, West Germany, as the son of David Willis, an American soldier, and Marlene, a German banker mother, giving Willis dual citizenship of both Germany and the United States. After being discharged from the military in 1957, his father relocated the family to his hometown of Carneys Point, New Jersey. Willis, who spoke with a stutter, showed an early interest in acting during his time in high school, as he discovered that it reduced his stuttering, joining up with the local school drama club. His interest lasted after graduating high school in 1973, as he drifted between temporary jobs in his native New Jersey, including doing stints as a security guard and a private investigator. He eventually enrolled in the Drama Program at Montclair State University, where he was cast in a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He then moved to New York City in 1977, where he mostly worked as a bartender while appearing in bit parts in stage productions and television shows throughout the early 1980s.
Willis' breakthrough as an actor, however, came in form of the popular comedy/drama/mystery series Moonlighting. During the show's run, Willis was also hired to do wine cooler commercials.
His big break came when he played resourceful, smoking, snarky NYPD officer John McClane in the thriller Die Hard. People were at first surprised and skeptical when they heard of his casting, since he was mostly known as a funny guy, as well as that annoying guy from those wine cooler commercials. Playing McClane with a mix of humor and sympathy and performing most of his own stunts, Willis proved he had the chops as a serious action star, and Die Hard was a hit that jump-started a blockbuster franchise.
Before and following his success on Die Hard, Willis had a brief but mildly successful stint as a pop singer, most notably under the persona of Bruno.
In many of his action movies, Willis is the king of the heroic comeback, and usually has one scene where the bad guys work him over badly, only for him to come back in the final reel and win out. This was perhaps best codified in 1994's Pulp Fiction in which he plays a down-and-out boxer who bets the money he took to take a fall on himself and earns himself a very bizarre day, only to come through in the end and ride off into the future on a chopper with his girl by his side. It's also worth noting that the ending of Bruce's story arc is also technically the end of the movie itself, at least as far as the strict continuity of events is concerned.
After Die Hard, Willis had a healthy film career throughout the 1990s and going into the 2000s, alternating between action, comedy, and even straight-up drama. However, in the New 10s, his appearances were primarily in Direct-to-Video action films with few mainstream roles. By 2022, his habit of showing up for a day or two of filming on a no-budget action movie became so notorious the Razzies created a special category called 'Worst Bruce Willis Performance In A 2021 Movie' with eight nominations.note
In his more successful days, Willis co-founded the Planet Hollywood restaurant alongside fellow action movie titans Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Appropriately, all three shared the big screen for the first time in 2010's The Expendables. Although Willis ended up being an Advertised Extra and Schwarzenegger merely had an uncredited cameo in this movie, in the 2012 sequel they had much larger roles that were callbacks to their film personas.
He's often dubbed by Mario Castañeda for Latin American Spanish releases of his films. On European French releases, he was almost always dubbed by Patrick Poivey (a notable exception being The Fifth Element) until his death in 2020. Other voice actors have dubbed him after that. His signature voice in Brazilian Portuguese was Newton da Matta until his 2006 death, with the second most frequent being Leonardo Camillo, who sounds uncannily like da Matta.
On March 30, 2022, several members of Willis's family posted on social media that Willis would be stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him due to his recently-diagnosed aphasia, which impacted his cognitive abilities. The rumors of him having memory loss had been circulating in the industry for years, and the response also lead to the aforementioned Razzies to rescind the award they gave him a week prior to the announcement.
- Walter Davis in Blind Date (1987)
- John McClane in Die Hard (1988), Die Hard 2 (1990), Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), Live Free or Die Hard (2007), and A Good Day to Die Hard (2013). Willis also plays this character in a cameo in Loaded Weapon 1 (1993) and the commercial DieHard is Back (2020).
- Tom Mix in Sunset (1988)
- The voice of baby Mikey in Look Who's Talking (1989) and Look Who's Talking Too (1990)
- Peter Fallow in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
- Eddie "Hudson Hawk" Hawkins (and co-writer) in Hudson Hawk (1991)
- Bo Weinberg in Billy Bathgate (1991)
- Joe Hallenbeck in The Last Boy Scout (1991)
- Dr. Ernest Menville in Death Becomes Her (1992)
- Det. Tom Hardy in Striking Distance (1993)
- Butch Coolidge in Pulp Fiction (1994)
- North's guardian angel (Complete with... a bunny suit? Our Angels Are Very, Very Different.) in North (1994)
- Bill Capa in Color of Night (1994)
- Carl Roebuck in Nobody's Fool (1994)
- Leo in Four Rooms (1995)
- James Cole in 12 Monkeys (1995)
- John Smith in Last Man Standing (1996)
- Muddy Grimes in Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996)
- Korben Dallas in The Fifth Element (1997)
- The Jackal in The Jackal (1997)
- Harry S. Stamper in Armageddon (1998)
- Major General Devereaux in The Siege (1998)
- Art Jeffries in Mercury Rising (1998)
- Dr. Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense (1999)
- James Stefan "Jimmy the Tulip" Tudeski in The Whole Nine Yards (2000) and The Whole Ten Yards (2004)
- David Dunn in Unbreakable (2000), Split (2017), and Glass (2019)
- Russ Duritz in The Kid (2000)
- Joe Blake in Bandits (2001)
- William Rose Bailey in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (2003)
- Lt. A.K. Waters in Tears of the Sun (2003)
- Spike the Dog in Rugrats Go Wild! (2003)
- As Himself in Ocean's Twelve (2004)
- Jeff Talley in Hostage (2005)
- John Hartigan in Sin City (2005) and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)
- Sonny Truelove in Alpha Dog (2006).
- Mr. Goodkat in Lucky Number Slevin (2006)
- RJ in Over the Hedge (2006)
- Jack Mosley in 16 Blocks (2006)
- Harrison Hill in Perfect Stranger (2007)
- Lt. Muldoon in Grindhouse (segment "Planet Terror") (2007)
- Himself in What Just Happened (2008)
- Agent Greer in Surrogates (2009)
- Jimmy Monroe in Cop Out (2010)
- Frank Moses in Red (2010, 2013 sequel)
- Mr. Church in The Expendables and The Expendables 2 (2010, 2012) note
- Mike Cella in Fire with Fire (2012)
- Captain Sharp in Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
- Adult Joe in Looper (2012)
- General Joe Coulton in G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)
- Omar in The Prince (2014)
- Julian Michaels in Vice (2015)
- Paul Kersey in Death Wish (2018)
- Detective Wakes in Trauma Center (2019)
- Frank Minna in Motherless Brooklyn (2019)
- The Return Of Bruno (1987) (included one Top-10 hit with a remake of The Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself")
- If It Don't Kill You, It Just Makes You Stronger (1989)
- Apocalypse — voice and mo-cap
- Tony Amato in Miami Vice episode "No Exit" (1984)
- Peter Jay Novins in The Twilight Zone (1985) episode "Shatterday"
- David Addison, Jr. in Moonlighting (198589)
- Bruno the Kid in Bruno the Kid (199697)
- Paul Stevens in three episodes of Friends (2000)
- Bruno the Kid
- The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (2002)
Tropes associated with him include:
- Bald Head of Toughness: Starting with Unbreakable, most of his roles embraced his baldness, a look that only helped his action hero credentials.
- "Yippee-ki-yay!" in Die Hard, of course.
- He has played at least three different characters who say, "Wrong answer!"
- Comic-Book Fantasy Casting: The comic book The Ultimates redesigned Hawkeye after Willis' likeness.
- Cool Old Guy: Up until his aphasia diagnosis, he still managed to do action roles in his sixties.
- Deadpan Snarker: His characters tend to have a very dry sense of humor and always have a quip handy.
- "Do It Yourself" Theme Tune: Sang the theme song for his animated kids' show Bruno the Kid.
- Doing It for the Art: He was one of the first major stars to take a huge pay cut to do more challenging and artistically fulfilling projects, most notably in 12 Monkeys and Nobody's Fool.
- Male Frontal Nudity: He has done quite a few naked appearances in movies, although most of the time it's only visible in Freeze-Frame Bonus.
- Middle Name Basis: His real first name is Walter. It's unclear why he chose to go by his middle name but it's suggested that it comes from his childhood nickname "Bruno".
- Mister Seahorse: Bruce parodied his then-wife Demi Moore's nude pregnant-belly cover shot on Vanity Fair by also posing naked with a pregnant belly in the same fashion for the September 1991 issue cover of Spy magazine.
- Money, Dear Boy: The final stretch of his career had rare theatrical releases and many direct-to-video/streaming movies where he was an Advertised Extra. Once his illness-related retirement was announced, it was clear that those easy paychecks were Willis working while he still could to get money for a comfortable retirement and medical treatments.
- Older Than He Looks: Besides the fact that he's bald, he looks like he can still pass for being in his late 40s despite being in his early to mid-sixties.
- Production Posse: He's done four films with M. Night Shyamalan.
- Tom Hanks Syndrome: He started out as a comedy actor before being best known for action films.
- Younger and Hipper: His big break, John McClane in the Die Hard films, was a huge example of this. In Nothing Lasts Forever, the novel the film was based on, Joe Leland (the McClane equivalent) is no-nonsense, uncool, tight-assed, and around twice Willis' age at the time he did that film; in fact, the film was supposed to have the lead role played by a then-73 Frank Sinatra (though that was more the result of a contractual obligation)! The casting of Bruce Willis, fresh from Moonlighting, forced the scriptwriters to overhaul the character completely to fit Willis' acting style.