Born Walter Willis -- an Army brat to parents stationed in Idar-Oberstein, West Germany -- on March 19, 1955, Bruce Willis grew up in New Jersey from the age of two. As a youngster, he developed a stutter that posed the threat of social alienation, but he discovered an odd quirk: while performing in front of large numbers of people, the handicap inexplicably vanished. This led Willis into a certified niche as a comedian and budding actor. After high-school graduation, 18-year-old Willis decided to land a blue-collar job in the vein of his father, and accepted a position at the DuPont Chambers Works factory in Deep Water, NJ, but withdrew, shaken, after a co-worker was killed on the job. He performed regularly on the harmonica in a blues ensemble called the Loose Goose and worked temporarily as a security guard before enrolling in the drama program at Montclair State University in New Jersey. A collegiate role in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof brought Willis back in touch with his love of acting, and he instantly decided to devote his life to the profession.
Willis made his first professional appearances on film with minor roles in projects like The First Deadly Sin, starring Frank Sinatra, and Sidney Lumet's The Verdict. But his big break came when he attended a casting call (along with 3000 other hopefuls) for the leading role on Moonlighting, an ABC detective comedy series. Sensing Willis' innate appeal, producers cast him opposite the luminous Cybill Shepherd. The series, which debuted in 1985, followed the story of two private investigators working for a struggling detective agency, with Willis playing the fast-talking ne'er-do-well David Addison, and Shepherd playing the prim former fashion model Maddie Hayes. The show's heavy use of clever dialogue, romantic tension, and screwball comedy proved a massive hit with audiences, and Willis became a major star. The show ultimately lasted four years and wrapped on May 14, 1989. During the first year or two of the series, Willis and Shepherd enjoyed a brief offscreen romantic involvement as well, but Willis soon met and fell in love with actress Demi Moore, who became his wife in 1987.
In the interim, Willis segued into features, playing geeky Walter Davis in the madcap 1987 comedy Blind Date. That same year, Motown Records -- perhaps made aware of Willis' experiences as a musician -- invited the star to record an LP of blue-eyed soul tracks. The Return of Bruno emerged and became a moderate hit among baby boomers, although as the years passed it became better remembered as an excuse for Willis to wear sunglasses indoors and sing into pool cues.
Then in 1988, Willis broke major barriers when he convinced studios to cast him in the leading role of John McClane in John McTiernan's explosive action movie Die Hard. Though up until this point, action stars had been massive tough guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, execs took a chance on Willis' every-guy approach to the genre - and the gamble paid off. Playing a working-class cop who confronts an entire skyscraper full of terrorists when his estranged wife is taken hostage on Christmas Eve, Willis' used his wiseacre television persona to constantly undercut the film's somber underpinnings, without ever once damaging the suspenseful core of the material. This, coupled with a smart script and wall-to-wall sequences of spectacular action, propelled Die Hard to number one at the box office during the summer of 1988, and made Willis a full-fledged movie star.
Willis subsequent projects would include two successful Die Hard sequels, as well as other roles the 1989 Norman Jewison drama In Country, and the 1989 hit comedy Look Who's Talking, in which Willis voiced baby Mikey. Though he'd engage in a few stinkers, like the unsuccessful Hudson Hawk and North, he would also continue to strike told with hugely popular movies like The Last Boyscout , Pulp Fiction, and Armageddon.
Willis landed one of his biggest hits, however, when he signed on to work with writer/director M. Night Shyamalan in the supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense. In that film, Willis played Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist assigned to treat a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) plagued by visions of ghosts. The picture packs a wallop in its final minutes, with a now-infamous surprise that even purportedly caught Hollywood insiders off guard when it hit U.S. cinemas in the summer of 1999. Around the same time, tabloids began to swarm with gossip of a breakup between Willis and Demi Moore, who indeed filed for divorce and finalized it in the fall of 2000.
Willis and M. Night Shyamalan teamed up again in 2000 for Unbreakable, another dark fantasy about a man who suddenly discovers that he has been imbued with superhero powers and meets his polar opposite, a psychotic, fragile-bodied black man (Samuel L. Jackson). The movie divided critics but drew hefty grosses when it premiered on November 22, 2000. That same year, Willis delighted audiences with a neat comic turn as hitman Jimmy the Tulip in The Whole Nine Yards, which light heartedly parodied his own tough-guy image. Willis followed it up four years later with a sequel, The Whole Ten Yards.
In 2005, Willis was ideally cast as beaten-down cop Hartigan in Robert Rodriguez's graphic-novel adaptation Sin City. The movie was a massive success, and Willis was happy to reteam with Rodriguez again the next year for a role in the zombie action flick Planet Terror, Rodriguez's contribution to the double feature Grindhouse. Additionally, Willis would keep busy over the next few years with roles in films like Richard Donner's 16 Blocks, Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation, and Nick Cassavetes' crime drama Alpha Dog. The next year, Willis reprised his role as everyman superhero John McClane for a fourth installment of the Die Hard series, Live Free or Die Hard, directed by Len Wiseman. Though hardcore fans of the franchise were not overly impressed, the film did expectedly well at the box office.
In the latter part of the decade, Willis would keep up his action star status, starring in the sci-fi thriller Surrogates in 2009, but also enjoyed poking fun at his own persona, with tongue-in-cheek roles in action fare like The Expendables, Cop Out, and Red. He appeared as part of the ensemble in Wes Anderson's quirky Moonrise Kingdom and in the time-travel action thriller Looper in 2012, before appearing in a string of sequels -- The Expendables 2 (2012), A Good Day to Die Hard, G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Red 2 (all 2013) and Sin City: A Dame to Die For (2014).