On Wednesday, the family of action icon Bruce Willis announced he would be stepping away from acting following a diagnosis with aphasia, a language disorder caused by brain damage that can affect a person’s ability to express and comprehend speech. The sad news was meant with an outpouring of support, but new reporting indicates that concerns about Willis’ cognitive state had been an open secret in Hollywood for years as the actor reportedly struggled with lines, seemed confused and allegedly misfired a prop gun on set. Sources say their concerns were ignored or dismissed by Willis’ team.
The Los Angeles Times reports that Willis’ recent string of low-budget, direct-to-video appearances were fraught with difficulties, according to interviews with over two dozen people. Willis had lines fed to him through an earpiece by an assistant and sometimes seemed confused about his role. Mike Burns, the director of several of those movies, told the LA Times he was concerned following 2020’s Out of Death and, when presented with another opportunity to work with Willis, told the actor’s team he was worried about Willis’ health. Burns said he was assured that Willis was doing well and excited to work again. But on day one of shooting, Burns realized that “I didn’t think he was better; I thought he was worse. After we finished, I said: ‘I’m done. I’m not going to do any other Bruce Willis movies.’ I am relieved that he is taking time off.”
Other old friends and colleagues of Willis raised similar concerns, saying they’d told his team — which is led by his “assistant-turned-handler” Stephen J. Eads — that Willis was clearly struggling, but were told that Willis “was happy to be there, but that it would be best if we could finish shooting him by lunch and let him go early.”
“He was just being puppeted,” one anonymous crew member said. Another filmmaker named Jesse V. Johnson who directed Willis on White Elephant also said he turned down other opportunities to work with Willis out of concern for the actor’s wellbeing. “It was decided as a team that we would not do another,” Johnson told the LA Times. “We are all Bruce Willis fans, and the arrangement felt wrong and ultimately a rather sad end to an incredible career, one that none of us felt comfortable with.”
In 2020, on the set of Hard Kill, an actor and multiple crew members recall Willis firing a prop gun loaded with blanks on the wrong cue on two separate occasions. “We always made sure no one was in the line of fire when he was handling guns,” one crew member recalled.
Willis has made 22 movies over the last four years, taking in about $2 million for two days of work on each. It’s unclear how much his team leader Eads takes for each appearance, but at one point he was pulling in about $200,000 per picture. Aspiring actor Adam Huel Potter, who also works on Willis’ team and serves as his line prompter, is paid $4,150 a week and a guaranteed speaking role in each of Willis’ movies. They did not respond to the Times’ requests for comment.
Over the course of this week, multiple Hollywood celebrities have spoken out about what happened on Sunday’s Oscars, when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock for a joke at his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith’s expense. Jim Carrey, Alec Baldwin, Hailey Bieber and more condemned Smith’s slap and, in doing so, ended up serving as examples of the old reminder to judge not lest ye be judged. Social media users were quick to point out that there are plenty of skeletons in plenty of closets to go around, and most celebs would be better off minding the log in their own eye than judging the speck in Will Smith’s.
And while many details of Willis’ tragic situation have yet to be confirmed and many more questions need to be answered, it serves as another reminder of how ugly show business can get — in ways that make one actor slapping another look pretty mild in comparison. Hopefully, Willis’ retirement will afford him some rest and protection from the worst elements of the filmmaking industry.