I Was Not Prepared for the Magnetic Charisma of the Young Bruce Willis

It’s a wild statement to make about someone who would become one of the biggest film stars of all time—but also, hadn’t they seen him on Moonlighting? From the very first episode—which is not even one of the most highly regarded—every time he’s on screen it’s like getting an injection of pure, uncut movie star.

As he would later further prove, he could basically do it all. He could hang off of buildings, get into gun fights, sing, and play the fool. In a great scene in the second episode, “Gunfight at the So-So Corral,” he convinces the preppy, pristine-looking Maddie she has to look rougher to enter a tough-guy bar. When he addresses the bartender, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, he gets his ass handed to him.

Moonlighting’s tone is a deliberate throwback to the 1940s, an homage that became text in the famous second-season episode “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice,” in black and white with an introduction by Orson Welles. The title is a noir riff, but the premise—Maddie and David have competing dreams in which they are, respectively, a torch singer and a trumpet player —the general tone is more like screwball comedy. Willis gives Cary Grant without the British accent, as at home with pratfalls as he is with heroics, somewhat caddish but ultimately cute.

When I mused on X-formerly-Twitter about what it must have been like to watch a legend being born during the show’s original run, I received a bunch of wonderful responses from older peers about what that experience was actually like. The critic Bilge Ebiri replied, “He was one of the very first celebrities my friends and I referred to by their first name. He was just ‘Bruce.’ When we talked about watching MOONLIGHTING, we talked about ‘watching Bruce.'”

My pal, the critic Jordan Hoffman, told me, “True Story: The first trailer I ever saw of DIE HARD was met with laughs and ‘gimme-a-break’s from the crowd, because who could imagine the guy from MOONLIGHTING as an action hero?!!?” It’s a funny anecdote, and one that I find almost shocking. If I had only seen Moonlighting up until this point, I would have cast Bruce Willis in just about anything. Whatever “it” is, he had it, and it’s incredible.

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