Every time I see Bruce Willis on screen or hear his name talked about, I am taken back to a late evening in 1995.
In 1995. I was an overly cocky actor in Cleveland, Ohio. In my humble opinion, I was a cross between Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier. My theater friends and I took many trips to NYC to see cheap shows and walk around the streets until the wee hours of the morning. Usually, they happened like this: We would finish a rehearsal and jump into someone’s car and drive up to NYC. We’d find a parking spot and hope it was legal, and then hit the theater scene and bars. Our eyes were always on the hunt for a celebrity sighting, because we all believed we were one conversation away from stardom.
Late one fall night, my friends and I walked into a dimly lit bar that a friend of a friend of a friend knew about. My friends plopped down at a table and discussed who was going to be the driver to get us home to Cleveland, while I snuck off to the bar. During these conversations, I would do a dirty trick to get out of being the designated driver. While people were talking, I ordered a shot of whiskey for myself and downed it, eliminating myself from the discussion. A horrible move. But in defense of myself, I was and still am horrible with directions. I definitely would have gotten us lost. I returned to the table with angry looks staring back at me. Shrugging, I took a sip of the beer that I received with my whiskey.
While beers were being consumed and one Coke for the driver, I scanned the room. There weren’t many people inside the bar, and my eyes focused on a corner table. I leaned into the person next to me and said, “I think that’s Bruce Willis.” And for the next few minutes, we focused our eyes through the darkness to make sure a celebrity sighting was taking place. As the night went on, we continued to drink while monitoring Bruce’s table. After every return trip from the bar, I couldn’t resist shouting at my table, “Welcome to the party pal!”
Our conversations moved on from Bruce Willis to the plays we were doing and what our futures looked like. The whole time, I kept a watch at the actor’s table, hoping for an opportunity to speak to him. And then, late into the evening, the moment arrived.
Bruce stood up from his chair, and the legs of my chair quickly shifted away from the table. He walked towards the bar while looking back over his shoulder, chatting with the guys at his table. The bartender met him at the bar. I stood up and strolled to where he was standing. It was late, and the bar was emptying. A few people sat at the bar, but there was plenty of space for me to have gone elsewhere and ordered a drink. But there I stood, uncomfortably close to the Hollywood legend. I made eye contact with the bartender, who gave me a warning look. And then I spoke.
A hundred ways to address Bruce Willis went through my head, but this came out of my mouth. “Hey Bruce, I’m an actor too. You’re going to want to make a movie with me someday.” As soon as the last word left my lips, a level of dejection swelled inside my chest as I realized I was an idiot. Bruce slowly turned his head towards me and gave me the look that he has given hundreds of bad guys in movies. He looked into my eyes and said, “Let me know when you get there, kid.” Then he turned and walked back to his table with a slew of beer bottles. I looked straight ahead, and the bartender lifted a beer as if to ask if I wanted another one. I nodded yes and walked back to my table. Immediately upon sitting, everyone wanted to know what was said between the two of us. And I kid you not; I told them Bruce Willis told me to look him up when I’m ready. And then I suggested it was late, and we needed to get back home because some of us had work in the morning and we would not have time for a shower before work.
On the car ride home, I replayed the conversation with Bruce repeatedly. I wished one of the other 99 addresses had won. As the car made its way closer to Cleveland, I shared with my friends what I said and how Bruce looked. And then we laughed. And as our laughter subsided, I said, “Well, yippee kai-ya Bruce,” and we laughed some more.
At first, I looked back at my meeting with Bruce Willis with great disappointment. And then I realized, I got the Bruce Willis from the movies. He could’ve been rude to me or put me down. Or worse, ignored me. In that one sentence, he showed me that the Bruce Willis in life is as cool as the Bruce Willis on screen. He looked into the soul of an arrogant actor and humbled him (me). Now, that story about Bruce is shared at parties and with other actors who have moved on from the dream of entertaining the masses.
I’m sorry to hear about Bruce’s battle with aphasia. Aphasia affects the way a person communicates and has caused the actor to retire. I had always thought Bruce played the coolest Everyman. A person you could identify with, but could also do great things in the smoothest way. Thank you, Bruce, for your contribution to cinema and for being the coolest guy in every room you entered. You changed what an action hero looks like. And you helped humble a young actor in the kindest way.
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