The year was 1988. I was an Oklahoma high school junior, plopped down in front of the family’s trusty Sony Trinitron. That’s when I heard it the first time: the iconic voiceover from the legendary Don LaFontaine saying, “It’s Christmas Eve in L.A…and New York cop John McLain has got to see his wife…” I froze, wondering if I just heard what I thought I heard. As the trailer for the forthcoming action film Die Hard concluded, I still couldn’t believe my ears. Not only was a feature film using my name, but also it was a super cool character! An “action hero!” And best of all…the role of, well, me – was being played by an actor I had recently discovered and really liked. Bruce Willis, who just turned 68 on March 19.
Now – I know that Willis’ soon-to-be-legendary character’s last name is spelled “McClane,” but naturally, I heard it as “McLain.” (And in fact, if you listen carefully to LaFontaine’s read (which you can do here) he really pronounces it more like mine. But I digress…
A bit of background regarding my Willis fandom. I was aware of him from his performance in the TV series Moonlighting, where he starred opposite Cybill Shepard. He was charming and quite funny, but my folks preferred a different network on that night of the week, and since we had one TV, I seldom saw the show. But in 1987, the year before I heard my name on the tube, Bruce Willis starred in a wonderful Blake Edwards comedy called Blind Date. The picture had an awesome cast, including Kim Basinger, William Daniels, Mark Blum, William Coe, and two others who both delivered lights-out laughs: John Larroquette, and the late Phil Hartman. I howled through the whole thing, and loved it so much that I rented it repeatedly on Betamax. Eventually I bought a VHS copy and then wore it out. To this day, it is one of my all time favorite movies. Bruce Willis was at once cool, tender, smart, snakebit, charming, and, well, a hero.
I, like a lot of folks as I recall, was dubious about Die Hard. Bruce Willis? You mean the young funny guy? An action hero?! I really don’t know about…WHAMMO. And – yippee-ky-yay – the rest is history. Willis went on to enjoy an enormously successful film career as not just an action hero, but also in moving dramatic roles. Who could forget his performance in The Sixth Sense? And, strangely I suppose, I’ve always felt a funny connection to him, though we’ve never met. Even today, 35 years after John McClane burst into pop culture – whenever I tell someone my name, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll make a good-natured reference to Die Hard. Happens all the time. I usually reply with something like, “Yeah – I’m still waiting for my check from 20th Century Fox,” or, “Yeah, it’s me! Amazing what they can do with make-up, huh?” I’ve really, really enjoyed that connection. It’s obvious when you hear certain elements of The Audiobook Trail.
And then, like you, I heard the news.
Bruce Willis’ diagnosis of aphasia, and then frontotemporal dementia (FTD) hit me kinda hard. He faces one of the cruelest futures I can imagine, and I’m sad for him. He isn’t really John McClane, of course. He’s a dad, a husband, a friend – a fella. I’m thankful that he’s surrounded by a loving family and close friends to hold his hand through the valley ahead. I’m not ashamed to say that I pray for Bruce.
Because even though we’ve never met – I still feel that funny little connection. God bless you, Bruce. I’m very sorry this is happening to you.