Bruce Willis’ most iconic acting roles: from era-defining movies Pulp Fiction and Die Hard, to his breakout comedy role in Moonlighting and even guest-starring in Friends

At 67-years-old Bruce Willis has retired from acting after being diagnosed with an illness that is affecting his cognitive abilities. Photo: EPA-EFE

Hollywood fans recently learned the unfortunate news that legendary star Bruce Willis, 67, has announced that he will quit acting after being diagnosed with aphasia – a language disorder that affects his ability to communicate and impacts his cognitive abilities. His oldest daughter Rumer made the announcement on March 30.

Bruce Willis is one of the most iconic action stars in Hollywood. Photo: Taka Shiseida

We thought it would be a good moment to look back on his career, one that has spanned over four decades and covered a vast body of work – and earned him a best actor nomination at the Oscars no fewer than four times.


In the last two years alone, Willis starred in over 15 films, and has eight more films listed as completed or in post-production according to his IMDB page, including a sequel to Fortress with co-star Chad Michael Murray.

Here we pick out five career-defining highlights that paved the way for one of the biggest pop culture stars of recent times.

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1. Those comedy roles

Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting (1985). Photo: IMDb

While the German-born actor is popular for his action and drama films, Willis got a lot of early exposure in various comedy roles. We got the first glimpse of his raw talent during his TV debut playing David Addison Jr in the drama-comedy Moonlighting (1985-1989) opposite Cybill Shepherd. TV critic Lewes for Sydney Morning Herald perhaps said it best when she complimented Willis for his comedic timing: “The real star of the series is Bruce Willis, who plays Addison. The character is a real motormouth who is very, very funny. Willis plays him to perfection.”

He won a Golden Globe award for Moonlighting and two Emmys (one for Moonlighting, one for Friends).

Bruce Willis starred in Friends alongside Jennifer Aniston in 2000. Photo: Warner Bros. Television

Post Moonlighting, Willis became a huge movie star, but returned to TV to act opposite Jennifer Aniston in 2000 for season six of Friends, playing Paul Stevens, the eccentric father of Ross’ love interest Elizabeth. He won another Emmys in 2000 for Outstanding Guest Actor.

On the funny film front, Willis has played Dr Ernest Menville in the satirical black comedy Death Becomes Her (1992) opposite Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, that many fans still consider as one of his best roles. In 2000, he starred in The Kid and achieved great success as a comedy actor with sequels: The Whole Nine Yards and The Whole Ten Yards opposite Matthew Perry.

Bruce Willis and Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her (1992). Photo: IMDb

Willis had a guest role on That 70s Show (2005) as well as in TV special Comedy Central Roast (2018), where he played (and mocked) himself being self-aware of his recent least favourable films.

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2. Becoming Hollywood’s biggest action star

Bruce Willis in A Good Day to Die Hard directed by John Moore, alongside Jai Courtney. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film

But, of course, Willis’ legacy remains his status as one of Hollywood’s biggest action stars. He catapulted to worldwide fame after the first Die Hard film in 1988 which has been followed with four sequels.

The Die Hard film series have grossed over US$1.4 billion worldwide combined, according to reports, and Willis’ John McClane will be forever remembered as one of the greatest action heroes of our lifetimes.

Bruce Willis with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in The Expendables 2 (2012). Photo: Lionsgate

In recent years, Willis may have appeared in a slew of on-demand films, but it’s hard to dismiss his other popcorn action flicks. There is the 2010s action-comedy Red with Morgan Freeman and Dame Helen Mirren, which made US$200 million, was nominated for a Golden Globe and spawned another sequel.

And 1997’s The Jackal with Richard Gere, The Expendables 2 (2012) and G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013) were all box-office smash hits, too.

3. Willis’ diverse portfolio of film genres

Bruce Willis and Maria de Medeiros in Pulp Fiction (1994). Photo: Miramax Films

Willis’ works in sci-fi hits like The Fifth Element, 12 Monkeys and Armageddon have all endured the test of time, while his cult hit projects like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012), Rodriguez’s Sin City and Sin City 2, and Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012) showcased Willis’ acting versatility as he zigzagged in and out of diverse genres.

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Milla Jovovich and Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element (1997). Photo: Gaumont Buena Vista International

“Bruce Willis often finds himself in fantasies and science fiction films. Perhaps he fits easily into them because he is so down to earth. He rarely seems ridiculous, even when everything else in the screen is absurd,” wrote the late film critic Roger Ebert in the late 90s.

He demonstrated a multi-layered performance as child psychologist Dr Malcolm Crowe in M. Night Shyamalan’s Oscar-nominated The Sixth Sense (1999). The duo collaborated again in another mind-bending thriller film Unbreakable (2000).

Following the news of his retirement Shyamalan wrote a heartfelt tweet that resonated with many fans:

4. The singing and Broadway roles

Bruce Willis performs with members of his rhythm and blues band The Accelerators at Planet Hollywood in Zurich. Photo: AFP

A lifelong music lover, Willis released three rocking albums throughout his career, including debut record “The Return of Bruno”, released in 1987. He even lent his voice for his TV debut Moonlighting’s soundtrack for the song Good Lovin’.

Willis returned to host Saturday Night Live for the second time in 2013 – he played knowing characters such as a heroic astronaut and a member of the Black Ops.

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The Look Who’s Talking star also made his Broadway debut in a stage version of Stephen King’s novel Misery in 2015.

5. That Japanese TV commercial

Last but not least, Willis’ 2014 Super Bowl commercial for Honda and his quirky Daihatsu advert (only aired in Japan) showed how much his sense of humour ran through his work. Being able to have a whimsical look at himself while carrying the mantle of being Hollywood’s box office tough guy not only gave him a mainstream appeal, it also showcased his often overlooked charm.

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  • He might be retiring due to aphasia, but Willis will forever be a household name thanks to his action hero turns in classics like Armageddon, Red, Sin City and The Expendables 2
  • But there’s more to Willis’ legacy than brute and brawn, as his unforgettable work in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and M. Night Shyamalan’s Oscar-nominated The Sixth Sense prove