Bruce Willis: In Appreciation – Netflix DVD Blog

By David Raether

In 2010, through a circuitous sequence of contacts and friendships, I started a ghostwriting job for a retired professor at the California Institute of Technology. CalTech is an institution that has produced more Nobel laureates than any other institution in the world. So I was pretty excited because, holy moly, that’s a lot of smart people to maybe hang out with.

The day before I started, I was told that I was hired to ghostwrite for the professor because he had aphasia — a frustrating and tragic condition in which the person loses their ability to communicate.

There are several varieties of aphasia. The professor’s particular type made it impossible for him to say more than two or three words or write more than one or two words at a time. He was in his 80s but was in outstanding physical condition, reading, exercising every day, and meeting friends for lunch at the Athenaeum Club on the campus of CalTech. It had to be brutally frustrating for him to try to communicate. He had published almost 20 books in his life, and now he could barely talk. He had suffered a stroke, which led to aphasia, which had damaged his ability to communicate. It had not impacted his memory nor his ability to do copy editing, though. (Although sometimes I had difficulty figuring out his copy editing marks.)

He had planned to write a memoir in the form of a series of vignettes from his life. The professor was an expert on Africa, having lived and traveled there for years and years, and knew most of the continent’s major figures, from Idi Amin to Nelson Mandela.

So, the way the process went we would meet at his office at CalTech, and he would take out a map or a photograph and point at either a person or place on the map. For instance, he would show me a photo of a group of African leaders and point at Nelson Mandela.

“You have a story about Nelson Mandela?” I would ask.

“Yes,” he would say.

“Is the story about before he went to prison on Robben Island?”

“Yes,” he would say. Or “No.” If I got a ‘no,’ I would continue asking him questions until we landed on a yes. It was a laborious process. And with each little bit of information, I would try to form a sentence or a short paragraph and then share it with him. He would read it and mark where there were mistakes (or typos or bad grammar!).

He was a very funny person and had a lot of amazing stories. One of my favorites was a story he told me about Richard Feynman, the legendary CalTech professor who won two Nobel Prizes and may have been the smartest person of the 20th century.

Back in the 1960s, there was a strip club in Pasadena not far from the CalTech campus. The city decided to shut it down by passing an ordinance against that kind of business. Well, it turns out that Feynman was a regular at the joint! The professor went there with him once and all the staff and regular patrons greeted him like Norm coming into Cheers.

Feynman rallied the regulars to go to the Pasadena City Council meeting to argue against this ordinance. He got local news stations to send out reporters. Turns out, however, Feynman was the only person who showed up. Apparently, none of the staff or regulars wanted to appear on camera to defend the strip club.

This story took us nearly two days to put together. At one point, he was really frustrated with my inability to figure out he was trying to tell me about a strip club. So he stood up and started swaying around and unbuttoning his shirt.

“Is this about a strip club?” I asked.

“Yes!” he said emphatically and with great relief.

I would fact check as best I could all of his stories, but there were limitations. How do you fact check a claim that he knew Idi Amin when he was a bellhop at a hotel in Kampala? (I did fact check out the Richard Feynman and the strip club story, and, yes, it was true.)

Sadly, we never finished the book. We got to a point where it was clear this wasn’t going to be a very good book. There were just too many holes in the stories and there was no way I could match his eloquent writing style from his earlier books. It wasn’t meant to be. But I think we both gained a lot out of that experience of sitting in his office trying to piece together stories from his life.

Plus, one lunch hour he invited me to join him at his regular table at the Athenaeum Club. There were eight of us sitting at the table. Four of them were Nobel laureates. And then there was me, an out-of-work comedy writer. As I recall, we got into a big discussion about the subways in Los Angeles.

Regardless of type, aphasia is a heartbreaking diagnosis. It strips a person of one of the most basic elements of human life — the ability to communicate, to talk, to express yourself.

Sadly, Bruce Willis‘s family recently announced that he has been diagnosed with aphasia and will no longer work as an actor. That’s a bit of a gut punch, to be honest. We’re at the end of a career — not a life, because he still has years to live and enjoy. But we are at the end of saying, ‘Oh, hey, you wanna go see the new Bruce Willis movie?’ Let’s look at this decades-long career.

Walter Bruce Willis was born on March 19, 1955, in Ida-Oberstein, Germany. His mother was German and his father was an American soldier. When Willis was two years old, the family relocated to his father’s hometown, Carney’s Point, New Jersey.

As a kid, Willis had a stutter and was nicknamed Buck-Buck because of it. In high school, he decided to try out for drama. He immediately found a home on the stage. His stutter disappeared while he was acting.

Willis bounced around a bit, working odd jobs, including a stint as a private investigator. At one point, he registered at Montclair State University in New Jersey and majored in drama. He left school in 1977 and moved to New York City, where he worked as a bartender and was cast in small parts in a variety of Off-Broadway productions.

In 1984, he auditioned for the role of David Addison, the wisecracking private investigator on Moonlighting. He beat out 3,000 other actors for the role. The show was an enormous hit right away, primarily because of the chemistry between Willis and his co-star Cybill Shepherd. The other big turn in his life happened a few years later when he was cast as New York City Police Detective John McLane in Die Hard (1988).

Post-Die Hard, his career went into a bit of a slump as he appeared in a series of poorly-reviewed and poorly-performing films. But he bounced back with the wildly popular Quentin tarantino film Pulp Fiction (1994).

Over the next 27 years, Willis has appeared in dozens of films. Since 2010, most of his appearances have been limited to about 15 minutes of screen time, which, at least according to The Los Angeles Times, was due to a noticeable decline in his cognitive ability. He would only work for two days on a movie (his fee: 2 million) and his speeches were trimmed to bare bones. Despite that, his screen presence has remained remarkably consistent and entertaining.

Willis has been married twice. His first marriage was to the actress Demi Moore in 1987. They had three daughters together: Rumer, Scout, and Tallulah. In 1998, Willis and Moore divorced. “I felt I had failed as a father and a husband by not being able to make it work.” He and Moore remain on good terms to this day. In fact, both attended the subsequent weddings they both had. He married again in 2009 to model Emma Henning and had two more daughters with her: Mabel and Evelyn.

No, Bruce Willis is not one of the great actors of our time. He has, however, been a witty, charming, and immensely enjoyable actor to watch at work. And, yes, many of his movies in recent years have a formulaic quality to them that doesn’t move the dial forward much on cinematic art.

And yet, I like Bruce Willis movies. I’ll always watch them. He’s very good at his job and has been since he burst onto the scene in the 1980s. Having worked with someone who has aphasia, I feel great empathy for Willis and his family. It is a frustrating and bedeviling condition from which there is still no journey back.

Here are some of my favorite Bruce Willis movies.

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