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'Die Hard' Makes Bruce Willis a Megastar: Summer of '88 Revisited

Joal Ryan
Movie Talk
July 13, 2013

"Has Bruce Willis Gone Flat?" the headline asked more than 25 years ago.

It was early 1988. Willis, then 32, was in the midst of what the Hollywood press considered a career crisis: After bursting on the pop-culture scene via "Moonlighting" in 1985, the actor had hawked wine coolers (to great disdain), released a Motown album (to great disdain), and starred in No. 1 movie "Blind Date" (to great disdain).

Things got worse that spring when "Sunset," a 1920s-set mystery-comedy costarring James Garner, tanked at the box office. The knives weren't out for Willis; they were being buried right in his solar plexus.

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And then he donned a wife-beater, ran over broken glass with his bare feet, and yelled, "Yippee-ki-yay [you-know-the-rest]."

That did it. That was it. Bruce Willis was a movie star.

"Die Hard," about a divorced off-duty cop (Willis) who single-handedly defeats a dastardly heist, was released in just 21 theaters on July 15, 1988. From the modest launch, the film went on a blockbuster run, spawning four sequels and producing a franchise that has grossed nearly $1.5 billion worldwide.

For action-movie fans of the '80s, "Die Hard," clever, funny, and with a refreshingly mortal hero, was deliverance from the death grips of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For Willis, the movie was a definitive answer: No, he hadn't gone flat; he was just getting started. As a tough guy ("Pulp Fiction"). As a hero ("Armageddon"). As an Everyman ("The Sixth Sense"). As a you-never-know-what-you're-going-to-get star (from the popular "The Whole Nine Yards" to the little-seen "Breakfast of Champions").

[Related: Five Film Facts: One for each ‘Die Hard’]

Here's a look back at the game-changing summer that got Willis in the game for good:

The Brat Pack: Even with the success of the Emilio Estevez-led "Young Guns," the media-created gang was breaking up. Rob Lowe's "Illegally Yours" barely qualified for a release; Tom Cruise, who scored big with "Cocktail," continued to deny having ever been a member. ("I haven't even seen a lot of those movies since 'Risky Business,'" Cruise told the press at the time.)

It's Official: Audiences Have No Taste: The song "Kokomo," from "Cocktail" and, come the fall of '88, an episode of "Full House," hit No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts, becoming a bigger-selling Beach Boys single than "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "California Girls," "Good Vibrations," and every other actually good Beach Boys single.

Totally Not "E.T. 2": The family film "Mac and Me," a totally original story about a boy who's befriended by a space alien on the run from the government, got killed by critics, died at the box office, and somehow found itself accused of being "a shameless ripoff." Happily, decades later, the Website Den of Geek! rounded up the "10 critically acclaimed movies ... worse than 'Mac and Me.'"

The Hot Controversy: Religious activists, some of whom would one day help propel Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" to blockbuster status, protested Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" for what they charged was blasphemy. Of particular concern: a scene where Jesus (Willem Dafoe) and Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) get to know each other in the biblical sense, as it were. In the beginning, the furor spurred attendance; in the long run, "Last Temptation" didn't have legs outside of the art house. Scorsese, however, was the ultimate winner. He got the film made. He got the film released. He got an Oscar nomination for best director. And he got the respect of modern-day critics, with Turner Classic Movies calling it a "towering achievement."

The Big Question: Was Stallone's "Rambo III" too violent or too expensive? Audiences were undecided — they bought enough tickets to make the flick a top-10 summer hit but not enough to get it over its then-mountainous $63 million budget domestically. The sequel did prove more popular overseas — where the 30-something Osama bin Laden was, like John Rambo, fighting to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan (how's that for an unwanted historical comparison?) — but it didn't halt Stallone's perceived career slide.

The Big Whiff: "The Empire Strikes Out," sniped the headline of Richard Corliss's review of "Willow" for Time magazine. While the buzz was ugly for the Ron Howard-directed and George Lucas-produced fantasy, the box-office returns were pretty good — a $57 million gross off a $35 million budget. Still, Lucas was hurt. ("When someone says you're 'The Great Regurgitator,' it's painful,'' he told the New York Times.) Unfortunately for the filmmaker, history hasn't been kinder to either "Willow" or the post-"Star Wars" Lucas.

The Two Coreys: The John Hughes-aspiring "License to Drive," which reteamed "Lost Boys" co-stars Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, was a success, outgrossing the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer's "Married to the Mob" and Sean Connery's "The Presidio," introducing audiences to Heather Graham, and inspiring nearly a dozen more Haim-Feldman productions, mostly of the direct-to-video variety. Said Haim to People that summer, about 22 years before his death at the age of 38, "I think I'm doing really good."

Cursed: Beginning with the murder of actress Dominique Dunne, the "Poltergeist" movies had a macabre reputation. Then, on Feb. 1, 1988, Heather O'Rourke, the child actress who was the face of the franchise, died at age 13 from an undiagnosed intestinal condition. Four months later, "Poltergest III" arrived in theaters, featuring a reshot ending (with a double for O'Rourke) and an ad campaign that appeared to show the late star from the back only. The movie disappeared; the franchise has not been revived for the big screen.

Sequels That Probably Shouldn't Have Been Sequels : The Tim Burton-less "Big Top Pee-Wee," the Bill Murray-lacking "Caddyshack II," and the Steve Guttenberg- and Ally Sheedy-lacking "Short Circuit 2" all bombed. Proving that there's no such thing as a foolproof plan, "Arthur 2: On the Rocks," in which Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli reprised their roles from "Arthur," a 1981 smash, also flopped.

One Sequel That Paid Off (Aside From "Crocodile Dundee II"): "A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master" made Freddy Krueger bigger than ever.

Play Ball! It was a very good summer for very good baseball movies, with Kevin Costner starring in the sexy "Bull Durham" and John Cusack and Charlie Sheen playing credible ball in the Black Sox docudrama "Eight Men Out." Costner and Sheen would be back the following spring with "Field of Dreams" and "Major League," respectively.

[Related: Baseball Movies All-Time All-Star Roster]

Sleeper Hit, Sleeper Miss: The offbeat "A Fish Called Wanda" won Kevin Kline an Oscar and emerged as one of the summer's biggest moneymakers; Francis Ford Coppola's impassioned "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" was a money loser.

No Small Footnote: In July, Michael Keaton, one month away from the release of the rehab drama "Clean and Sober," was confirmed to have been cast opposite Jack Nicholson in a planned Batman movie.

First Impression: Two years away from his "Home Alone" breakthrough, 8-year-old Macaulay Culkin made his big-screen debut in the character drama "Rocket Gibraltar."

Postscript: Just as the breakout success of Willis and also Hanks, who earned his first career Oscar nomination for "Big," helped set the stage for the 1990s, the innovations of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" signaled a new beginning for the once-neglected animated-film genre.

For all that, perhaps the most important summer story of all occurred well under the radar at a graphics conference in Atlanta, where a short film called "Tin Toy" was screened. The film would go on to to win an Oscar for its director, John Lasseter; its studio, Pixar; and its format, CGI. It would also go on to inspire a little genre- and Pixar-defining feature film called "Toy Story."

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