A relaxed, raffish performer whose ironic style and working-class persona have long made him an indelible favorite, actor Bruce Willis used both his cocky charm and insatiable will to become one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Willis was born on March 19, 1955 the eldest of four children in Idar-Oberstein, West Germany where his father was a welder serving in the U.S. military….
A relaxed, raffish performer whose ironic style and working-class persona have long made him an indelible favorite, actor Bruce Willis used both his cocky charm and insatiable will to become one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Willis was born on March 19, 1955 the eldest of four children in Idar-Oberstein, West Germany where his father was a welder serving in the U.S. military.The family later moved to Penns Grove, NJ, where Willis spent the remainder of his childhood. Nicknaming himself Bruno while attending Penns Grove High School to gain confidence, Willis eventually became student council president, though was suspended for three months for allegedly smoking pot. After toiling around New Jersey working menial jobs following graduation—namely at a nearby DuPont chemical factory and as a security guard at a nuclear power plant—Willis decided to give acting a try and took a class at Montclair State College while playing harmonica in the local blues band, Loose Goose. He broke through both professionally and personally with the school’s production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” catching the acting bug while ditching his life-long battle with stuttering. With the determination of someone who knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, Willis dropped out of college at 19 and moved to New York City to find acting work. In 1977, he landed his first stage gig with a role in an off-Broadway production of “Heaven and Earth,” but for the most part struggled throughout the years, paying the rent with bartending gigs at Chelsea Central and Kamikaze. He next landed other off-Broadway roles while appearing briefly films like “The First Deadly Sin” (1980) and “The Verdict” (1982), and occasionally showing up for guest spots on episodes of “Hart to Hart” (ABC, 1979-1984) and “Miami Vice” (NBC, 1984-89). The 1980s were wild, awash in booze and drugs, and while the devil-may-care bartender was right in the middle of their surreal after-hours swirl, he was also developing legitimate acting chops. His big break came in 1984 when he replaced Ed Harris in Sam Shepard’s off-Broadway hit “Fool for Love,” which earned him an audition for “Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985). Though he didn’t get the part, Willis stuck around an extra day in Hollywood to audition for what became a career-launching role, playing wise-cracking private investigator David Addison on ABC’s wildly successful “Moonlighting” (1985-89). Arriving to the audition in combat fatigues and sporting a punk haircut, he eventually beat out 3000 other hopefuls because of his unconventional look and cocky attitude. Starring opposite a demure Cybill Shepherd, Willis displayed the same charm that James Cagney exhibited early in his career, and the hip, dialogue-driven romantic comedy became one of the most inventive shows of the decade. Widely publicized battles involving its two stars and creator Glenn Gordon Caron resulted in production delays and numerous repeat episodes, but the on-set tensions also helped simulate sexual energy between Willis and Shepherd, adding an edge to their rocky relationship that was finally consummated at the end of the 1986-87 season. After appearing in guest spots on several TV shows, including “The Twilight Zone” CBS, 1985-87) and in his own music special, “The Return of Bruno” (HBO, 1987), a mockumentary highlighting fictional blues singer Bruno Radolini (Willis) and his band, The Heaters, he landed starring roles in two uneven Blake Edwards comedies, “Blind Date” (1987) and “Sunset” (1988). His charming “Moonlighting” smirk notwithstanding, Willis seemed just another fading television personality unable to translate his appeal onto the large screen when agent Arnold Rifkin landed the actor in “Die Hard” (1988) which earned him an unprecedented $5 million payday, raising a cry throughout Hollywood that an actor with no film pedigree should not command such a substantial amount of money. In hindsight, his salary was a veritable bargain—the action thriller about a New York cop (Willis) trapped in a corporate high-rise when a gang of terrorists hold employees hostage while robbing the safe of bearer bonds spawned a franchise and launched Willis as an action-hero on par with the likes of Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Willis’ wise-guy machismo worked perfectly for the film’s hero, John McClane, leading him to reprise the role in the sequels “Die Hard II: Die Harder” (1990) and “Die Hard with a Vengeance” (1995). He also supplied the voice of Mikey in the hit comedy “Look Who’s Talking” (1989) and its limp follow-up “Look Who’s Talking Too” (1990), as well as showing ambition to stretch his talents with a surprisingly good performance as the cynical, shell-shocked Vietnam veteran of “In Country” (also 1989). He went on to flex his acting muscles as the low-life murder victim in “Mortal Thoughts” (1991, opposite then-wife Demi Moore) and the hapless plastic surgeon in the horror comedy “Death Becomes Her” (1992), high points in the midst of some extraordinary disasters. In fact, the ill-conceived “Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990), the self-indulgent action flop “Hudson Hawk”—for which he co-wrote the story and theme song—and the box-office disappointments “Billy Bathgate” and “The Last Boy Scout” (all 1991) conspired to put his career on shaky footing. Though he enjoyed spoofing himself in Robert Altman’s “The Player” (1992), it was well-received supporting turns as a prizefighter who refuses to take a dive in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” and as Paul Newman’s employer in “Nobody’s Fool” (both 1994) that finally restored his credibility as a bankable star. In Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” (1995), Willis was used to good effect as a time-traveling scientist whose self-sacrifice alters the course of the future for the good, but his collaboration with writer-director Walter Hill on “Last Man Standing” (1996), a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai epic “Yojimbo”, was a torturously slow affair. As the 1990s wore on, Willis comfortably wore the mantle of action hero—despite chafing at the garment’s limitations—in such big-budgeted effects-laden efforts as Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element” (1997), which enjoyed a tremendous worldwide box office against meager US returns, and the blockbuster “Armageddon” (1998), playing an ace oil driller who sacrifices his life to save the world. He attempted a change of pace with his first large-scale, villainous role, that of the titular mercenary killer in the watchable, but ultimately disappointing thriller “The Jackal” (1997). It was back to the same old, same old for “Mercury Rising” (1998), an action thriller about an FBI agent (Willis) helping an autistic child (Miko Hughes) find safety after accidentally discovering a secret code, though the movie did show the actor’s softer side in protecting the boy from a villainous NSA chief (Alec Baldwin). His power hungry general also single-handedly altered the tone of that year’s “The Siege” from a serious-minded thriller to a one-dimensional, cartoon shoot-em-up. In 1999, Willis finally made a life-long pet project, playing Dwayne Hoover, the suicidal car salesman from author Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.” He wisely chose to act in that year’s paranormal surprise “The Sixth Sense,” which, under the direction of M. Night Shyamalan, presented him as his most subdued as he was endearing and effective opposite 12-year-old Haley Joel Osment who played a boy who can see dead people. He also undertook a role which paralleled his own life in Rob Reiner’s comedy-drama “The Story of Us” (also 1999), drawing on his own difficulties with Demi Moore for its sad-sack story of a marriage in trouble. In 2000, Willis continued to resist the call of the action hero in “Disney’s The Kid,” portraying a 40-year-old who gets to spend time with his eight-year-old self, the reuniting with Shyamalan on the supernatural thriller “Unbreakable” and scoring a surprise hit with the mob comedy “The Whole Ten Yards” as the ex-mobster Jimmy “The Tuilp” Tudeski. Returning to the small screen for a three-episode arc on NBC’s hit sitcom “Friends” (1994-2004), Willis picked up a second Emmy Award playing the disapproving father of a college co-ed dating the character of Ross (David Schwimmer) who romances Rachel (Jennifer Aniston). Back on the big screen, he was once again in laconic mode as a prison escapee who serves as the brains in a series of bank robberies muddied by the fact that he and his partner (Billy Bob Thornton) both have fallen in love with a runaway housewife (Cate Blanchett) in “Bandits” (2001). Willis was shown to better effect as an American P.O.W. presiding over a murder trial in the WWII drama “Hart’s War” (2002) and as the leader of a special operations force on a search and rescue mission in the jungles of Africa in “Tears of the Sun” (2003). That year he also voiced the animated canine Spike in “Rugrats Go Wild” and had an uncredited, nearly unrecognizable cameo in “Charlie’s Angels 2: Full Throttle,” the comeback vehicle for his friendly ex-wife Demi Moore before reprising Jimmy the Tulip for the dreadful sequel “The Whole Ten Yards.” He popped up with another cameo appearance, this time as himself in “Ocean’s 12” (2004), the sequel to the 2001 caper comedy hit. Willis returned to the thriller genre with the Miramax-produced “Hostage” (2005), with a screenplay written by bestselling novelist Robert Crais—in the film the actor plays a failed LAPD hostage negotiator who, in his new job as a suburban police chief, finds himself forced to rely on his old skills to save his estranged family. The film had its merits but sunk at the box office. Willis was better served in the highly stylized “Sin City” (2005), Robert Rodriguez’s visually arresting adaptation of Frank Miller’s crime noir comic book series in which Willis had the plumb role of Hartigan, a noble but world-weary and heart-troubled cop who goes to jail rather than lead the corrupt family of a pedophile to the victim he saved, only to become embroiled again with all of the players in his past, in the film’s best segment, “That Yellow Bastard.” Returning to animation, Willis voiced the manipulative and opportunistic raccoon, RJ, in DreamWorks’ “Over the Hedge” (2005), an amusing, though standard comedy about a group of forest critters trying to reclaim a neighboring backyard after waking from their long winter’s nap. In “Lucky Number Slevin” (2006), he was a notorious hit man who helps a man (Josh Hartnett) trapped between two crime bosses (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley)—thanks to a case of mistaken identity—to get them before they get him. After a small part as a bigwig cattle supplier in “Fast Food Nation” (2006), Willis made a cameo as a retired astronaut who tries to convince a determined farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) not to build his own rocket ship in “The Astronaut Farmer” (2006). Willis returned to leading man status in the well-made popcorn thriller “16 Blocks” (2006), playing a hard-drinking, hard-living New York City cop tasked with transporting a petty criminal (Mos Def) to his grand jury testimony against a corrupt cop (David Morse), only to learn the hard way that the cop wants the witness dead. Willis made another off-kilter cameo, this time as a macho military fanatic in the “Planet Terror” segment of “Grindhouse” (2007), a compilation of two 90-minute horror flicks from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez that was a throwback to the days of bloody, sex-fueled, low-rent double features that played in seedy 42nd Street theaters in New York City. Willis then reverted to playing the heavy in “Perfect Stranger” (2007), a dull and lifeless thriller about an investigative reporter (Halle Berry) who poses as a temp at an advertising agency in order to unravel the murder of a friend connected to a powerful ad executive (Willis). Meanwhile, action fans eagerly awaited the return of hero-cop John McClane in “Live Free or Die Hard” (2007).
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