The 25th Anniversary of 'Die Hard' - How John McClane Changed Action Movies (and Us) Forever

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20th Century Fox

The story goes that, in 1975, author Roderick Thorp took a night off from writing to catch a movie. His flick of choice, ‘The Towering Inferno’, is the fictional account of a hulking 138-story structure named The Glass Tower and an electrical fire that traps a gathering of revelers celebrating the building’s opening.

Thorp was enthralled with the storyline involving the tower architect, portrayed by Paul Newman, and his attempt to shuttle a cast of the A-list stars like Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire and OJ Simpson off the 81st floor and down to safety while San Francisco Fire Department Chief Michael O'Hallorhan (played by movie icon Steve McQueen) battles the blaze on the floors below.

The film had a profound effect on Thorp’s subconscious. That night, an iteration of the movie appeared to him in his sleep. In the dream, Thorp envisioned a man chased through a massive structure, chased not by engulfing flames, but by heavily armed men. This dream prompted Thorp to write Nothing Lasts Forever, a follow-up to his successful novel The Detective. The Detective also enjoyed the big screen treatment in 1968, with Frank Sinatra playing the lead.

Reviews for Nothing Last Forever were astounding -- The Los Angeles Times called the novel "a ferocious, bloody, raging book so single-mindedly brilliant in concept and execution it should be read at a single sitting” – and it didn’t take long for Hollywood execs to snatch up Thorp’s work for a big screen adaptation.

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Bruce Willis quickly established himself as a bankable comedic TV star in the late 1980s. His television show ‘Moonlighting’, a hit with TV audiences and critics, was nominated for 16 Emmy awards in its sophomore season and tied for 20th place in the Nielsen Ratings in 1986. Willis’ portrayal of the affable and smooth David Addison, and his playful “will they/won’t they?” on-screen sexual storyline with co-star Cybil Shepard, drew a devoted female viewership. Willis soon made the jump to the big screen -- in a role similar to his ‘Moonlighting’ gig – starring opposite Kim Basinger in the 1987 rom-com ‘Blind Date.’

Willis could have easily made a career of the good-looking, bumbling but charming one-liner delivery machine who eventually scores the girl (think Hugh Grant without the Brit accent or Hollywood hooker mishap) and carved out a nice career in movies.

Willis wanted more.

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Movie executives shared Thorp’s vision of a continuation where The Detective left off and naturally offered Frank Sinatra a role in the proposed follow-up. Sinatra turned the part down. The script was reworked and pitched as a sequel to the successful Arnold Schwarzenegger film ‘Commando.’ Arnold turned the role down. The Nothing Lasts Forever script bounced around Hollywood for years with names like Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Richard Gere, Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford attached to the lead at one point or another. All eventually passed on the role.

Desperate for a marquee name to attract audiences, Fox executives offered an astounding $5 million dollars to an unproven action star who many considered strictly a romantic lead. Fox execs, with the blessing of Rupert Murdoch, threw the wad of cash at Bruce Willis because they felt he’d bring “a level of warmth and humor to the character.”

The script was retooled and renamed ‘Die Hard.’

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The movie selection process at the local video rental store was a highlight of my childhood. After a carb-loaded Saturday night dinner of pizza, pasta, or pasta on top of pizza, my family would lethargically drift from aisle-to-aisle to select a feature for the weekend. To kill time while my parents argued over the fact my father wanted to rent the same movie for the third time in a calendar year, I shuffled back and forth scanning titles in the New Release aisle.

Bruce Willis, half his mug covered by a burning skyscraper, stared back.

“Can we rent this?” I muttered meekly, and handed my mother a copy of ‘Die Hard’, knowing full well she wasn’t much of a fan of action movies.

No answer.

Plan B.

“It’s got that guy from that show you like about the private eyes.”

“Hey, yeah, ‘Die Hard’” bellowed the old man, abandoning his Chuck Norris selection in the adjacent Foreign Film aisle. Norris does fight the Vietnamese in ‘Missing in Action 2: The Beginning’ so technically it’s a foreign film.

I reran ‘Die Hard’ three times that weekend, the rest of my hours spent barefoot, in a white tank top, running around the backyard yelling “Yippie-Ki-Yay Muther Fudger!”

John McClane was an American hero and a modern-day cowboy with the most recognizable, but worst catchphrase, in cinematic history. Let’s be honest, it’s a terrible movie catchphrase, one that Willis made up just to make the crew laugh.

In an era dominated by matinee idols with physiques the size of movie screens, John McClane couldn’t appear more average – from stature and demeanor to his receding hairline and choice of undershirt. McClane was the new vision of the action hero.
This is McClane’s, and really Willis’ appeal -- he was real.

If the police arrived at my house, or pulled my mother over for speeding, the responding officer would look much more John McClane than John Rambo. McClane was less an action figure and more like a father figure. The audience learns more about McClane’s personal life and demons than in the typical action hero flick. His marriage on the brink, his wife and kid on a different coast, McClane is a man desperate to be with family on Christmas.

In those backyard fantasies I was John McClane because it felt like I could be John McClane. I still feel the same. The world bears witness to modern day McClanes daily – the average person thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Go back to the footage of the Boston Marathon bombing and take notice of the people who ran towards the explosion instead of away. Sure, Cleveland kidnapping savior Charles Ramsey gave us all a chuckle with his post rescue interview, but think about how many people see domestic altercations happen daily and don’t get involved.

If the circumstance necessitates, let’s hope there’s a little McClane in all of us. Hopefully we all think of better catchphrases.

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‘Die Hard’ opened in limited release, 21 theaters to be exact, twenty-five years ago this week. It grossed $601K in its first three days and opened to wide release the following weekend. It pulled in $7 million dollars and came in third behind ‘Coming to America’ and ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit.’ ‘Die Hard’ remained in theaters for sixteen weeks, and when all was said and done, McClane and company raked in $83 million domestically and $57 million overseas. The ‘Die Hard’ franchise has grossed over $500 million dollars.

The movie launched Bruce Willis. He’s considered one of the biggest action stars of all time. The t-shirt Willis wore in the original ‘Die Hard’ is now in the Smithsonian. 'Die Hard', and a part of John McClane, are preserved in history for future generations.

My mom still refers to him as “the guy from ‘Moonlighting.’”

Filed Under: Bruce Willis, Die Hard
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