Bruce Willis Almost Ruined His Best Franchise

Bruce Willis wanted to play John McClane perfectly straight, leaving out most of the best one-liners and moments from Die Hard.

By Danyell Marshall | Published

ukraine die hard

Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin opened up to Empire about his Bruce Willis Die Hard experience. While the character of John McClane may be a beloved action icon, and some would argue holiday hero, the actor that brought him to life almost crushed his spirit. According to Harlin, Willis wanted to play the character wholly straight and nix the classic one-liners that made the Bruce Willis/Alan Rickman action pic so great.

Fans of the Die Hard franchise appreciate the campy, sometimes cheesy humor that great action films of the 1990s served up. The hero hadn’t done his job if he didn’t brutally roast the lousy guy with zingers so raw they made audiences wince with empathy. Without that signature tongue-in-cheek personality, over-the-top action movies would take themselves too seriously, a trap the genre would eventually fall into.

“He said, ‘Those one-liners and jokey comments — that’s bullsh*t. With lives on the line, you can’t say that kind of thing.’ I said, ‘Yeah, not in real life, but this is a movie. This is Die Hard.”

Renny Harlin on convincing Bruce Willis to be funny in Die Hard 2

In the 1990s, the genre was still good for a few laughs along with the heart-pounding action. Movies like Lethal Weapon captured the same Bruce Willis Die Hard magic that defined a genre for a generation. If John Wayne was the face and template for action heroes of the 1990s, boyish grinning looks like Mel Gibson were for the 1990s.

Bruce Willis was introduced to movie audiences in this iconic role, and it’s likely that his meteoric rise to fame after the release of Die Hard may have been behind his reluctance to reprise the character with his signature sass. Because of Die Hard, Willis became a household name in action overnight. A television actor in his position, trying to break into movies, was probably afraid of being typecast for the rest of his career.

For Bruce Willis, Die Hard 2 was a chance to show audiences that he was more than a one-trick pony, but the problem is audiences liked the trick. So the director sat with producers to explain the situation with their star. Without the same character audiences ate up in the first movie, there was no way a sequel could be a success.

Bruce Willis in Die Hard

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and the production team found a way to work around Willis’ insistence on playing the character as severely and deadpan as possible. The filmmakers told Willis they would shoot as many takes as he liked playing the character straight as long as he gave the director one shot at a humorous variation. In addition, camera operators were instructed to capture every laugh, smile, grin, and smirk, even if Willis didn’t know the camera was rolling.

When the humorous takes were cut together into the final film, out-of-character moments were used to sprinkle in as many laughs as possible. When the studio saw the first cut of Die Hard 2, they asked Harlin if he had any jokes on the cutting room floor forcing the director to tell them he’d used everything he had. Thankfully the iconic Bruce Willis Die Hard magic was resurrected for a second film.

Fortunately for Bruce Willis, Die Hard wasn’t the last professional success he’d experience. Audiences have seen various performances from the actor, from comedic to dramatic. He even released an album as a recording artist.