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Today, Bruce Willis is largely recognized for his leading role as John McClane in the Die Hard franchise. From 1988’s Die Hard to Die Hard With a Vengeance and 2013’s  A Good Day to Die Hard, the franchise has been selling out movie theaters for nearly three decades. 

Bruce Willis
American actor Bruce Willis | VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Following Die Hard, Willis became a bona fide action star, going on to lead many crime, adventure, and high-octane films, such as Unbreakable, Looper, The Fifth Element, Death Wish, and more. Yet, Willis is rather lucky that he found his way into the Die Hard franchise, as he was by no means the studio’s first choice for the stubborn and outwardly cocksure protagonist. 

Why Bruce Willis was not on the studio’s radar for John McClane…at first 

At MentalFloss explains, the studio wanted an established star to portray the leading male — assuming such would be necessary to carry a film of its kind. These major blockbuster-type action movies usually include A-listers with reputations for playing such hypermasculine guys, yet Bruce Willis was hardly known at the time. 

Before Die Hard, Willis starred in the TV movie The Return of Bruno, appeared in an episode of Miami Vice, picked up a couple of video shorts, and starred in 1987’s Blind Date. In short, he was not an established leading man, nor was he known for his work within the action realm. 

Who did the studio want for ‘Die Hard?’

History suggests that the studio went on quite the hunt for a leading male, offering the role to every major name at the time. From Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro to Charles Bronson, Nick Nolte, Richard Gere, and Burt Reynolds, the studio kept its options open. They merely wanted a recognizable name and face on the promotional materials. They all declined the role. 

According to legend, Frank Sinatra first got dibs on the role, as he had starred in the major motion picture adaptation of The Detective. Yet, he turned it down knowing he was a bit too long in the tooth to play an action hero punching bad guys and jumping around set. 


Bruce Willis Made a $3M Mistake Turning Down 4 Days of Work on Fan-Favorite Franchise

Die Hard is based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever, and Clint Eastwood first optioned the rights to a film version that he was supposed to star in. Yet, the movie, slated to premiere sometime in the early 1980s, never came to fruition. 

After many an A-lister lost the opportunity and/or turned down the role, Bruce Willis wound up snagging the slot, leading to a career-catalyzing role for the now established action hero.