Best of Bruce Willis: The Top 10 Television and Movie Roles Ranked

Bruce Willis’ diagnosis of neurodegenerative disease, aphasia meant that he would be retiring from acting. This news brought with it a renewed appreciation of Willis’ work. Here are 10 roles that helped define Willis’ often-brilliant career:

Moonlighting (ABC, 1985-89)

MOONLIGHTING, (from left): Cybill Shepherd, Bruce Willis, 1985-89. © ABC / Courtesy: Everett Collection

MOONLIGHTING: (from left) Cybill Shepherd, Bruce Willis

ABC/Everett Collection

Are bears allowed to bare their skins? Are bees harmed? Bartenders can become overnight celebrities. Willis was essentially unknown at the time. Moonlighting Glen Gordon Caron, the creator of this film, hired him to play David Addison a quippy private investigator alongside Cybill Shepherd. As well as CheersMoonlighting It helped cement the “will they or won’t they?” model of unresolved sexual tension as a part of romantic comedies going forward, as David and Maddie’s initial disdain for one another generated spectacular chemistry onscreen. Offscreen was another story, though, as Willis and Shepherd’s difficulty working together became one of several reasons — including Caron’s perfectionism causing episodes to be finished too late to air as scheduled — that Moonlighting Within a matter of years, the movie went from being a hit to being an afterthought. It was Not David and Maddie Finally, we slept together(This is contrary to the legend that surrounds the show. Between the sparks he and Shepherd generated, his facility with the increasingly stylized and complicated banter, and the show’s various flights of fancy — most famously in a cracked retelling of The Taming and the Reaping of the Shrew So called “Atomic Shakespeare” — Willis couldn’t have asked for a better launching pad for his ascension to superstardom. —Alan Sepinwall

Die Hard series (1988-2013)

DIE HARD, Bruce Willis, 1988, TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp./courtesy Everett Collection

DIE HARD, Bruce Willis

©20thCentFox/Everett Collection

Begin the party, pal! Blake Edwards films (the romantic farce) are shown to a couple. Blind Date and the Western movie tribute SunsetThe movie () was a huge hit with audiences and critics. It looked like Willis would become the new TV star, shrinking on the big screen. Then came the hit nobody saw coming — and the most perfect action movie ever made. As John McClane, a New York cop visiting his estranged wife’s office Christmas party in an LA high-rise on the night a group of armed men take over the building, Willis was the antithesis of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the other muscle men who had dominated the action space for most of the Eighties. They were superheroes. He was a barefoot, dirty-eyed man with barely a shirt that held it all together. He had to think through each life-or-death issue and win through brute force. All the elements of John McTiernan’s explosive masterpiece are in balance — including Alan Rickman’s crackling screen debut as the clever villain, Hans Gruber — but none of it works without Willis being so funny and seeming so real in the midst of this ludicrous collection of violent set pieces. The two Nineties sequels. Die Hard 2: Die Harder  Take a vengeance on the hard stuffThey also have their charms (the last in particular), Die Harder The film attempts to reproduce the formula of “The First Movie” on a larger screen, but the final films in this series do not. Live Free or Die Hard  A Good Day to Die HardMcClane is now a ruthless killer, and they are losing their way. —AS

Look Who’s Talking (1989)

LOOK WHO'S TALKING, John Travolta, 1989. ©TriStar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

LOOK WHO’S TALKING, John Travolta, 1989.

©TriStar Pictures/Everett Collection

A memorable 1988 Moonlighting episodes saw Willis pulling double duty as David and Maddie’s unborn child. (Here he’s dancing in a diaper.) One year later, he returned to baby-dom to deliver the inner monologue for the infant offspring of Kirstie Alley. What was meant as a light-hearted vehicle for Alley and (as the friendly cab driver who helps her deliver the baby) John Travolta — the first of two times Willis would be a supporting player in an attempted Travolta comeback — was instead stolen lock, stock, and barrel by Willis’ audio-only work. As it was in that instance. Moonlighting episode, audiences went ga-ga for the contrast of Willis’ cynical voice with the innocent thoughts of the character he was playing. A surprise hit, Look Who’s Talking Multiple sequels were made, but the most successful one was ().Look Who’s Talking Now) attempted to replace Willis with Danny DeVito and Diane Keaton as the voices of Alley and Travolta’s dogs. The series ended, as expected. —AS

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

THE LAST BOY SCOUT, Damon Wayans, Bruce Willis, 1991, (c)Geffen Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

THE LAST BOY SOUT, Damon Wayans and Bruce Willis

©Geffen Pictures/Everett Collection

Willis was a common punchline for his recent practice of appearing as a villain in every straight-to-video thriller that pays him $1 million per hour, and requiring him not to exert any effort. He often acts completely while sitting, and sometimes wears an earpiece so he can hear the dialogue. Knowing his health, this may not be a case where Willis is trying to build a nest egg before becoming totally unable to work. After all, one of the things that typified a lot of Willis’ earlier career was his ability to play trash with conviction, like his turn as the roughneck who saves the world in Michael Bay’s Armageddon. The neonoir thriller The Last Boy Scout is on some level also trash  — bookended by wildly over-the-top action sequences at football stadiums — elevated not only by director Tony Scott’s self-awareness of how ridiculous it all is, but by the sheer force of Willis’ performance as a disgraced Secret Service agent turned seedy private detective. He’s a natural with the snarky Shane Black dialogue, but he also plays this role with the world-weariness and gravity of the hero of a Humphrey Bogart movie. When he tells the thug who’s torturing him, “Touch me again and I’ll kill ya,”The audience immediately knows that the thug should listen. —AS

Death is Her. (1992)

DEATH BECOMES HER, from left: Bruce Willis, Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, 1992. ph: Deana Newcomb / ©Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

DEATH BECOMES HIM, from left to right: Bruce Willis and Meryl Streep. Goldie Hawn

Deana Newcomb / ©Universal Pictures /Everett Collection

Between barstending and MoonlightingWillis was once a stage actor. Once Die Hard He was a movie star and set out to show that he had more to offer than his charisma and wisecracks. Sometimes, these attempts to play against type were disastrous, like his miscast turn as the cynical alcoholic journalist narrator of Brian DePalma’s infamous flop The Bonfire of the Vanities. At other times, though, he could be remarkable, whether as a traumatized Vietnam veteran in 1989’s In Country or in Robert Zemeckis’ farce Death is Her. as the nebbishy plastic surgeon caught between two women (Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn) determined to stay youthful forever. The cutting edge visual effects and larger-than-life performances by Streep and Hawn got most of the attention, but Willis is startlingly good, and convincing, as the movie’s panicked emotional center. Largely panned at the time, it’s one of his best movies of that era. —AS

Pulp Fiction (1994)

PULP FICTION, Bruce Willis (left), 1994

Bruce Willis (left), PULP FIICTION

©Miramax/Everett Collection

Willis was a talented actor who enjoyed lending his star power to projects that were otherwise overlooked. He’s wonderfully down-to-earth, for instance, as Paul Newman’s employer and rival in the 1994 small-town comedy Nobody’s Fool, but another film that year would be the most famous example of Willis using his credibility for the greater good: Quentin Tarantino’s industry-shaking crime drama Pulp Fiction. Willis was in a little bit of a commercially down period but still managed to make it through flops. Bonfire  Hudson Hawk He was a flop, and he was the most well-known actor in a cast that also featured actors who were either long past their prime (Travolta), or relatively unknown (Samuel L. Jackson). Tarantino, the film’s cult hero, is even included. Reservoir Dogs) wasn’t a star in his own right yet. Willis’ stoic presence as fugitive boxer Butch Coolidge helped take the multi-layered collection of short crime stories from the art houses into the multiplexes, making it not only one of the phenomenons of that year, but one of the most influential films of the last three decades. —AS

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

TWELVE MONKEYS, Bruce Willis (center), Brad Pitt (right), 1995, © Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

TWELVE MONKEYS, Bruce Willis (center), Brad Pitt (right)

Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

Only Bruce Willis could take a black and white, experimental French film and turn it into a sci-fi action adventure that’s at turns terrifying and devastating. Willis starred as a time traveler named James Cole in Terry Gilliam’s 1995 flick 12 Monkeys — an adaptation of 1962 short La Jetée — the searing tale of a virus gone wild and the man sent from the future to stop it. Willis plays the hapless Cole, who is confined to an asylum after trying to warn folks about the virus, with a tragic stoicism — especially as he comes to realize that a haunting vision from his childhood is actually glimpse of his harrowing future… er, past. Willis went on to appear in still more sci-fi movies (1997’s The Fifth Element and 2012’s LooperBut 12 Monkeys It is a great genre highlight for actors. —Brenna Ehrlich

The Sixth Sense (1999) 

THE SIXTH SENSE, Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, 1999. (c) Buena Vista Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection. (image upgraded to 16.8 x 12 in)

THE SIXTH SENSE, Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment

©Buena Vista Pictures/Everett Collection

This chilling ghost story starred Willis as a friend therapist and Haley Joel Osment, a young patient who claims she can see dead people. It was the beginning of a partnership between Willis, M. Night Shyamalan and Haley Joel Osment that would lead to the unusual superhero drama Unbreakable and its later sequel. Glass. Willis and Osment make a perfectly mismatched duo — the older man quiet and closed-off, the boy wide-eyed and emotionally raw — and the humanity Willis brings to his performance makes the movie’s iconic twist land as well as it does. —AS

Friends (NBC, 2000)

E366967 1999-2000 David Schwimmer,Bruce Willis (who plays Paul) guest starring on "Friends"(The One Where Ross Meet''s Elizabeth''s Dad). Photo  Image Credits: Paul Drinkwater NBC

FRIENDS<br />David Schwimmer, Bruce Willis (who portrays Paul) and Bruce Willis are guest stars “Friends”(The One Where Ross Meet”s Elizabeth”s Dad).

Paul Drinkwater/NBC/Getty Images

Over 40 celebrities appeared on Friends during the show’s 10-year run, including Brad Pitt, Susan Sarandon, and Jon Lovitz (twice). But none of them made our stomachs sore from laughter like Bruce Willis, as Paul Stevens, widower and father of Ross Geller’s student-turned-girlfriend Elizabeth.  Ross is constantly failing to get approval from Paul, who doesn’t like the difference in age between his daughter Rachel and the professor. After Rachel helps him, he then starts to date Rachel. Look for his keys, but they eventually split because Paul can’t stop crying. Ross eventually wins Paul over when he captures the no-nonsense lawyer giving his opinion. Pep talks in the mirror and singing the Miracles’ “Love Machine.”  Willis reportedly agreed to guest star on the show after You lose a wager Matthew Perry and I were on set for the movie. The Nine Yards. It’s a good thing he kept his end of the deal, because his three-episode appearance earned him an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.—Angie Martoccio

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

MOONRISE KINGDOM, from left: Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, 2012. ph: Niko Tavernise/©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

MOONRISE KINGDOM: From left to right: Bill Murray, Tilda Swainton, Bruce Willis and Edward Norton. Frances McDormand

Niko Tavernise/Focus Features/Everett Collection

Wes Anderson was a well-known director of this charming story about young outcasts running on a small island off the coast New England. He had a reputation for finding hidden talents in actors that other filmmakers would use. As the heartbroken local police chief who finds himself emotionally invested in the orphan at the heart of the story, Willis wasn’t exactly demonstrating things he hadn’t before on film. But it had felt like a long time since he’d been this human and vulnerable. He used his collaborations to Anderson as a springboard for a more dramatic stage of his career. Moonrise Kingdom This was Willis’ last performance in which he seemed to really be trying new things. This was Willis’s last performance where he seemed to be challenging himself. Or did he simply have cognitive problems? His work is something we may never see. Moonrise It’s achingly delicious. —AS

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