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"Bruce Willis Kicks Asteroid"

"Bruce Willis Kicks Asteroid"

George magazine July 1998

“C’mon, come to papa....you little bucktoothed bastards.”

Bruce Willis - heavyweight action hero, the astro-hunk entrusted with saving the world in Disney’s new $140-million space epic, Armageddon - is patrolling his Idaho ranch, .357 Magnum in hand. Willis’ property is nestled in the cleavage of two buxom mountain ranges, and a river runs through it like a bead of sweat trickling from neck to navel. Too bad all that cool, rushing water attracts so many pain-in-the-butt beavers.

“Anybody home?,” Willis coos as he tiptoes along the river’s edge, gun cocked.

He makes frequent sweeps like this, blasting beavers and shipping the pelts to a Beverly Hills furrier, who fashions them into clothes for his three daughters’ Barbie dolls. Rumor has it that the tails are dried, shellacked, and then used - whoa! - for paddling the bottom of actress-wife Demi Moore.

“Demi loves being spanked with beaver tails,” says a former girlfriend of the couple’s former gardener. “My ex-boyfriend was trimming azaleas under their window one night and heard her yelling at Bruce, ‘Harder! Harder! Whack me like Arnold would!’ ”

The bowling partner of a mechanic who services the truck of a UPS driver who has made numerous deliveries to the ranch claims that Willis once...

“CUT!,” as they say in Hollywood.

I had every intention of writing a juicy, truth-bending Bruce Willis article; one that could stand proudly alongside the tabloid tales of his leading police on a 100-mile-per-hour chase through the streets of Las Vegas or his saving an actress on a runaway horse or any of the umpteen reports that his marriage has exploded. But shame on me. I’m the love slave of dull facts. Yes, there is a new Disney movie and an Idaho ranch. But there’s no .357 Magnum, no former girlfriend of a former gardener - and, sorry, no beaver-tail bedroom shenanigans. Let’s just start over.

Willis’ property is nestled in the cleavage of two buxom mountain ranges, and a river runs through it like a bead of sweat trickling from neck to navel. Some trees near the river have two-foot-high cylinders of wire fence encircling their trunks. An odd sight: birches with hoop skirts. “To keep the beavers from chewin’ the trees down,” Willis explains.

Can’t busy beavers munch through metal?

“Nah,” he says. “They walk away from it. Why? Because beavers must chew. Or else their teeth will just keep growing and growing.”

Willis knows a bit about beavers and this river and these rolling mountains. Idaho has been his primary home for nearly ten years. Miners used to pan for gold in them thar hills. Bruce and Demi came searching for something more valuable: privacy. “Where I live now I get left alone the most,” Willis says. “I bought this place and got married four months later and had a kid nine months later. So God had some plan for me.”

The plan wasn’t perfect. Beavers are the least of Willis’ worries. Other, more dangerous creatures - sleazy reporters, pushy paparazzi, Hollywood hustlers, assorted wannabes and weirdoes - nibble at the edges of his life. They, too, must chew. Willis has a high wall in front of his ranch and four security monitors in the kitchen that keep watchful electronic eyes on the property. One of Willis’ great fears is that the whole world will find out exactly where he lives. Suffice it to say “Bruceville” is a small town where the living is easy and the cell phones are scare. He will spend most of the next six months here, resting and regrouping. Peter Bart, editor of Variety, observes that Willis “has had some clinkers lately”: Last Man Standing, The Fifth Element, The Jackal, most recently, the critically unacclaimed Mercury Rising.

Over the years, though, Willis has shown a remarkable ability to absorb box-office punches. Theoretically, Disney has more riding on Armageddon than Willis does. It is the most expensive movie the Mouse House has ever made and will bat cleanup in the studio’s summer-release lineup. Still, the stakes are high for everyone. “There’s a lot of money lying on the table,” notes Armageddon executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who has hit the jackpot before on Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, and Top Gun.

Stars who draw $20-million-plus paychecks are expected to help hawk their films. Willis knows the game. That doesn’t mean he likes playing. Director Quentin Tarantino, who coaxed a splendid performance out of Willis as the battered boxer in Pulp Fiction, once remarked that “aside from Sean Penn in his Shanghai Express days, there is no one who has gotten worse press than Bruce Willis.” Well, maybe Saddam Hussein in his Gulf War days.

“He’s just a notoriously hostile individual,” says a knowledgeable observer of the Hollywood scene. “I respect the fact that he’s more honest than most [celebrities], but it has definitely cost him.”

Willis has volunteered to punch Maury Povich’s lights out for pedaling talk-show trash. He hopes the reporter who painted what Willis considers an unflattering portrait of him in a book about the making of Bonfire of the Vanities will someday grow despondent enough to reach for a gun and “blow her fucking brains out”.

Imagine my surprise when he handed me a small, neatly-wrapped present upon my arrival at rancho Willis. “Everybody who comes out to the house for the first time,” he said, “gets a gift.”

A small pocketknife. Hmm. An interesting gift, considering his track records with reporters. Was I supposed to stab him in the back? Or use the knife to slit my throat?

Willis had on white homeboy shorts, a black T-shirt, and Reeboks. He looked ready for a game of pickup basketball instead of one-on-one conversation. The curious thing about Bruce Willis is that for all his fear and loathing of the media, he’s a gregarious soul at heart. We walk to the river. Willis sits on a bench, takes a few slugs of bottled spring water, but is quickly on his feet. He skims stones across the water. He tosses sticks for his black Lab, Jimmy, to fetch. Willis is always in motion, always talking. “Pure heroism is not tied to money. It’s tied to doing the right thing,” he says. “In the world, a lot of people make the choice to do the wrong thing - and by ‘wrong’ I mean unrighteous - somehow tied to money.”

* * *

His new movie, Armageddon, is about doing the right thing under extreme conditions; assuming, of course, that most people believe it is wrong to stand idly by while life as we know it teeters on the brink of extinction. Armageddon plows familiar Willis ground: The government is in a fix and turns to an iconoclastic, out-of-the-loop operative for help. The plot turns on the fortunes of a ragtag group of bold men shot into the heavens in hopes of intercepting a giant asteroid that is on a 22,000-mile-per-hour, eight-ball-in-the-side-pocket collision course with planet Earth. This isn’t a matter of preventing plates from tumbling off shelves in millions of china closets. Doomsday looms in the guise of a nuclear-winter climate change that could freeze the pipes of hell itself. It’s a special-effects-saturated, heartstring-plucking movie about Everyday Joe heroes, and it happens to be hitting theaters at a time when real-life counterparts are in short supply.

“When you have kids, you have to kind of relearn what you think is right and wrong because you have to teach your children,” says Willis, whose daughters are nine, seven, and four years old and worship the Spice Girls. “It’s interesting because sometimes what I thought was right or wrong 20 years ago has changed.”

Case in point, Willis used to have a habit of “getting over on people”, scammin’ them to his own advantage. The New Bruce wants no part of that. “Even if it’s to my detriment I won’t do it anymore. ‘Cause I want to set an example for my kids.”

The media, he says, haven’t quite learned that do-the-right-thing lessons. Sensationalism sells. The prurient sells. Small fortunes change hands in efforts to dig up celebrity dirt or an unauthorized photo of Madonna’s newborn baby. “I’m not sure we’ve reached the low point,” says Willis. “You can draw a straight line from the TV shows where people beat each other over the head with chairs to paid public executions. Jerry Springer now sells Too Hot for TV for $19.95. There are no breaks. There’s nothing holding it back.”

Check your local listings. Willis thinks capital punishment could make its television debut within the next five years. Not that he is against capital punishment. The world is a violent, blood-soaked place, every bit as shocking in its way as the grisliest moments of Diehard 1,2, or 3. Willis would gladly trade a few B1 bombers for more maximum-security prisons. If somebody gets convicted of murder or kidnaping, don’t come looking for sympathy in his corner.

“Don’t even waste my taxpayer’s money. Take ‘em out behind the courthouse and put a bullet in their head,” he growls Willis. He talks about the loon who gunned down multiple passengers on a Long Island commuter train: “That this guy was allowed to conduct his own [defense] and further humiliate people who lost loved ones and were shot themselves - I mean, if you’re looking for fucking justice in this country, it’s over.”

Willis, 43, came of age in the ‘60s, and although he was never politically active he soaked up the liberal sensibilities of the day. In a 1988 Playboy interview, he griped that “major corporations...are setting up Bush to be the next President, who will continue Reagan’s money-making plans.” He has since shifted some gears. He is now convinced that most Hollywood folk “because they make a lot of dough, feel guilty and feel like they have to be Democrats.” Willis, on the other hand, has become a Republican convert to the cause of smaller government and smaller taxes. He “loved it” when the federal government shut down in the heat of the 1996 budget crisis.

Four years earlier, he had gotten directly involved in politics for the first time. Clinton made him do it. His presidential campaign struck Willis as divisive, too much “class warfare” babble pitting the rich against the poor. “What I saw him doing was pissing on the American Dream,” Willis says.

One night, he telephoned the White House cold and offered his services to George Bush, who responded favorably. Why not? Republicans have squeezed about all the endorsement mileage they can out of Charlton Heston. Willis made a handful of stump appearances during the 1992 campaign. He and his wife were VIP guests at the convention.

Willis remains a loyal Republican but a stubbornly independent one. He sat out the ‘96 campaign. Why? Bob Dole is “a nitwit”, just another career pol. Willis favors more spending on education and more curbs on lobbyists. As for that fuss about whether to issue an apology for slavery, “The only correct response is to apologize,” he says. “You can’t undo the past...but you can certainly not repeat it.”

Wait, he’s not done.

“I still hold Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King up as heroes. These are guys who knew they were bucking the system and still raised their hands. Martin Luther King raising his voice got him capped for sure. He stood for civil rights, for fairness, equality of men. In this country today, 1998, down South black men and women are still being discriminated against. I’ll tell you somethin’: If I were black, I’d be with Farrakhan too....A lot of people feel Louis Farrakhan stands for a lot of negative things. But he is raising his voice against inequality. Anybody who stands up against injustice is a hero of mine.”

Blowing kisses to Lewis Farrakhan won’t get you a VIP pass to the 2000 Republican National Convention. Nor will alienating the Christian Coalition. Willis is bemused by the undercurrent of the Clinton sex scandal. Americans wallow in sex, but profess shock that funny business could occur in the White House.

“The bastions of Catholicism and Christianity have a very strong hold on this country,” he says. “Organized religions in general, in my opinion, are dying forms. They were all very important when we didn’t know why the sun moved, why weather changed, why hurricanes occur or volcanoes happened. Modern religion is the end trail of modern mythology. But there are people who interpret the Bible literally. Literally! I choose not to believe that’s the way. And that’s what makes America cool, you know?"

There goes the 2004 Republican convention.

More sticks get thrown. The river flows. The words keep coming. Willis considers himself an amateur “revisionist historian” and from what he has read, some reputations need downgrading. Franklin Roosevelt “knew Pearl Harbor was going to be attacked and let it happen anyway”. John Kennedy was a flawed man with “a media team that made him out to be a demigod”.

One person about whom his opinion hasn’t changed is Bill Clinton. Didn’t like him then; doesn’t like him now that he’s stuck in the Monica Lewinsky tarpit. “If he weren’t the president of the United States and representing the cause of righteousness in the world, I would say, ‘Man, go for it. Live it up. Do what you want’,” says Willis, who has done his share of living it up. “But he represents something larger than just one human being. There are a lot of people who feel he has pissed on the office and denigrated it.”

There goes the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

* * *

‘The problem with Bruce Willis - and same thing with Arnold,” says a former Bush campaign worker, “is he talks conservatively. But, of course, everybody gives him shit in terms of ‘Well, you talk about being a family man, but, jeez, look at your movies. Look how violent they are.’ ”

Hush up. Willis has answers for those critics. One, it’s all make believe. Nobody ever held up a bank by sticking a video of Die Hard in a teller’s face. Two, most of his films can be distilled to the time-honored theme that “good triumphs over evil”. Alright: maybe good kicks evil’s ass.

Robert Benton, who directed Willis in the bomb Billy Bathgate and the low-key Paul Newman charmer Nobody’s Fool, has called him “an immensely gifted actor who happens to have made a huge success doing adventure movies.”

He may not be Robert DeNiro, but he’s capable of doing a lot more than dodging bullets. Does the violent Mercury Rising truly mark a career turning point? “It could,” says Willis, hedging a bit.

“I’d rather not see blood,” says Willis. “It’s time for me to make other movies. So I’m on a quest now.” Willis is negotiating to do Die Hard 4. It’s hard to turn your nose Up at $24 million. But there are signs his “quest” is underway. Willis recently produced and starred in another low-budget feature, based on Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions.

Armageddon qualifies as a departure from his norm too. For one thing, asteroids don’t bleed. Also, Willis has done ensemble work before but never in a major production. On the surface Armageddon’s premise seems absurd: a “global killer” asteroid hurtles toward Earth. Estimated time of arrival, 18 days down the road. What to do? Obviously, have NASA give the world’s best oil driller (Willis) and some colorful sidekicks a crash course in Space Travel 101, then send them aloft to plant a nuclear bomb in the belly of the beastly asteroid. Sounds preposterous. Why oil drillers? Why not dispatch a Riverdance road company into deep space to stomp that rouge asteroid off course?

Turns out, however, that the scenario is strange but largely true. Last March, scientists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center predicted that a big-kahuna asteroid would hit Earth around 2028. The next day, they realized they’d made a small error and announced that a one-mile wide asteroid is due to brush within 600,000 miles of the planet within the next 30 years.

“Almost a hit by cosmic standards,” says Ivan Bekey, a futurist who retired last year as NASA’s director of advanced concepts. NASA and the Department of Energy held joint conferences about four years ago on “The Interception of Earth Colliding Asteroids.” The consensus was that strategically placed nuclear bombs are indeed one of the surest ways to alter a deadly object’s path.

The threat is so plausible that three asteroid scripts were in development simultaneously. Titanic director James Cameron moved on to other commitments, but Bekey served as technical advisor not only to Armageddon but this summer’s other global-killer asteroid film, Paramount’s Deep Impact. What do Hollywood honchos know about space? They think “zero gravity” is a hip way of describing the dramatic content of the new Jim Carrey flick.

The Armageddon script originally had Willis et alia waltzing around the asteroid in basic space suits. No good. The gravitational pull, noted Bekey, would be one-thousandth as strong as Earth’s. Willis would float away like a helium balloon. Bekey suggested equipping the space drillers with backpack thrusters that would exert enough downward pressure to keep their feet on the ground. But no real-life asteroid SWAT team could spring into action in a matter of weeks. Director Michael Bay had no problem with fudging a few details for the purposes of narrative tension. Apparently, NASA and the U.S. Air Force also had no qualms either. In fact, Bay says they behaved like a pair of backward boys out to impress the same girl. Competitive courting. NASA would, for instance, ask Bay if he wanted to shoot at the Orbiter Processing Facility in Florida. “I’m like ‘Okay!,’ ” he says, chuckling. “Then the air force goes, ‘Hey, do you want to fly by a sunburst tomorrow?’ It was hysterical.”

Bay is an MTV-generation rising star who has a reputation for being a vocal director. (“He does bark a lot,” concedes co-star Ben Affleck.) Willis is no shrinking violet either. The first few weeks of shooting, Bay says, were like “two dogs sniffing each other, you know?”

The dogs got along fine. The same can’t be said of the two competing production camps. A few Deep Impact producers tried to persuade Disney execs to fold their tent since they would be last coming out of the box. Bay read an early Deep Impact script and says it had about “four pages” of outer space action. Once the Armageddon script was complete, Bay took the precaution of printing it on red paper to discourage unauthorized photocopying. Nonetheless, he insists that a pirated copy found its way into enemy hands. Next thing Bay knew, the Deep Impact script featured 20-some pages of space scenes, terminology, and background details that, he alleges, had to have been lifted from Armageddon. Paramount Pictures declined to comment.

“I was really pissed,” says Bay. “I called [Disney president] Joe Roth and I said, ‘These guys have just stolen from me!’ Joe goes, ‘We’re just gonna just make a better movie.’ ”
Willis claims the film delivers on several levels. It has romance, drama, the comrades-in-arms angle, high-tech effects, and - this being a Bruce Willis movie - “great shots of things blowing up.”

“I’ve always been drawn to stories where little guys face overwhelming odds and accomplish their goals,” he says. “That to me is a pretty good definition of heroism.”

But what explains the attraction? Willis isn’t sure. Could be the pull of Greek-theater tradition or dumb-luck casting. “Because it’s fun to do? It’s interesting? Who knows? Maybe it’s because of my blue-collar roots. I just find characters that have dilemmas interesting.”

* * *

Willis was born blue-collar in Penns Grove, which is on the tip of New Jersey’s tongue, hard by the shadow of the Delaware Memorial Bridge. His father was a welder. His parents divorced while he was in his teens. Despite a severe speech impediment, Willis was the life of the high school party: He was elected president of his class and was a regular Casanova. After graduation, he got a job at the Dupont plant in nearby Wilmington, Delaware but quit when a worker he knew died in a chemical explosion. His father told him he was crazy. Why, a man could take home $30,000 a year someday if he stuck with Dupont! Willis now probably makes that much whenever he goes to the bathroom on the set.

His nickname back then was Bruno, perfect for a guy blessed with natural swagger and a now famous smirk. Bruno enrolled at Montclair State College in northern New Jersey (where, years later, he and Yogi Berra would receive honorary degrees on the same day) and discovered acting. He quit school after two years and bolted to New York. A string of bartending jobs and dues-paying acting stints followed, then a major break. He landed the lead in an off-Broadway production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, which opened the door to Moonlighting in 1985. Three years later, Willis segued from TV into films. If nothing else, he is prolific: 29 features and counting. He and Demi Moore met at a 1987 party that she attended with her then-steady Emilio Estevez. Willis and Moore were a match made in Hollywood heaven. A quickie ceremony in Las Vegas was followed by a formal exchange of vows before 450 guests on a studio soundstage, with the honorable Reverend Little Richard presiding.

The Willises enjoy the typical trappings of celebritydom - private jets, limos, nannies and shrinks; Bruno has his vanity garage band, the Accelerators, to blow of steam - but he and Moore have largely abandoned their Malibu beach house for Idaho since starting a family. Thanks to has his acting career and his Planet Hollywood investment, Willis has, as they say on the street, “money in all fo’ pockets.” He bought the Penns Grove National Bank building and some $10 million worth of Bruceville. He has renovated the Mint bar-restaurant, given a face lift to the local movie theater, constructed an office building on Main Street that he named after his grandfather (E. G. Willis), bought a ski resort outside town, picked up a choice $575,000 Victorian home as a thirtieth birthday present for his wife, and opened a late-night diner called Shorty’s to satisfy his craving for greasy-spoon food.

Idaho is a popular playground. Clint Eastwood, casino mogul Steve Wynn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jamie Lee Curtis are among the semi-regular residents. But Willis didn’t come to play. He came to live. He has picked up the tab for Bruceville’s July Fourth fireworks the past several years. He has given money to a domestic-violence group and the Little League and has donated snow blowers to the town.

“He genuinely cares about the community,” says county sheriff J. Walt Femling. “You don’t get that from the majority of the other celebrities and corporate-type people.”

Willis feels so at home that he’s feuding with the local paper. It ran an article about the U.S. Forest Service’s policy of selling long-term leases to cabins on federal land, at what the paper’s editors felt are sweetheart prices. Willis is one of the leasees. An unidentified photo of his cabin accompanied the story.

“A couple of weeks later he called up and said something strange,” recalls C. J. Karamargin, the reporter who did the piece. “He said, ‘The word on the street is that you have a vendetta against me’, like we’re a bunch of Corsican terrorists....We’re just a podunk weekly newspaper. ...He puts us in the same category as the as The National Enquirer and The Star. It’s not like we’re renting helicopters and flying above his ranch taking pictures of Demi’s fake boobs.”

The vast majority of Bruceville residents - including the editor of Karamargin’s paper - consider Willis something of a local hero. But Bruceville isn’t Disneyland. Reality happens here. Willis is learning it’s not easy to run a business with one hand. He has closed the Mint temporarily. Shorty’s is for sale. (Easy access to hash browns is nice, but not when it drains your wallet $20,000 a month.) The woman who supervises his local real estate holdings recently pleaded guilty to growing marijuana behind her house. A heating contractor has taken Willis’ company to court for failure to pay a $110,000 bill.

Some Brucevillians are worried that their famous neighbor may be pulling up stakes. But one indication that he intends to stick around awhile is that his political heart lies here. On a national level, he says he has “regressed” to his old, apathetic ways. Locally, however, nuclear waste has him fired up. He’s turning Green. Shortly after taking office in 1994, Republican governor Phill Batt consummated a deal with the Department of Energy. Idaho agreed to substantially increase the amount of high-level nuclear waste deposited at a storage site near Idaho Falls. In return, the feds committed to removing, over the next 40 years, Idaho’s nuclear waste to a new underground storage facility in New Mexico.

The waste site happens to be on top of the state’s largest freshwater aquifer, which, in turn, sits near an earthquake fault line. Environmentalists got the agreement put to a public referendum. It failed by a wide margin in November 1996. Willis dumped more than $100,000 into the losing effort and held a press conference at the state capital to denounce the governor. “I dare the governor and any state politician to tell me why, in their heart, it’s okay to bring nuclear waste into Idaho and store it over an aquifer that supplies water to two-thirds of the state,” Willis says. The battle isn’t over. He’s now considering doing a documentary about nuclear waste disposal.

“Bruce, to his credit, has informed himself more than most people do,” says Anita McCann, a board member of the Snake River Alliance, one of Idaho’s foremost environmental groups. “He reads things. He’s talked to people. God bless him, because a lot of high-profile people don’t give a damn about any environmental issue.”

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Willis is sitting at the kitchen table with a bad taste in his mouth. In part, that’s because he’s eating sourdough bread. (He hates the stuff, but the odds of finding a good Italian bakery in Bruceville are about the same as the odds of H.G. Willis’s building being leveled by an asteroid.) He’s also still riled up about that nuclear-waste: “It’s just one of the thousand of really, really fucked up things that happen every day in the United States, but it happened to happen where I live.”

“Money and power usually win,” says his pal Carmine Zozzora, a film producer and Republican activist who’s visiting from California. “Look at Jesus.”

“Look at America,” Willis counters. “What about the 18 million Indians that were exterminated? Buy our people! A $5 bounty on their scalps. When they say the land of the free and the home of the brave, that’s all just talk.”

“They don’t mean Indian braves,” Zozzora says.

Willis pauses. “Let’s go take a ride in my 1970 Dodge Charger,” he suddenly announces. “Politically incorrect? Absolutely.”

Out buy the garage is a mint-condition olive green Dodge. White vinyl roof, racing tires, and 327-cc engine. A classic muscle car. “The keys are inside. Fire her up,” Bruno chirps.

He slips into the passenger seat. Carmine ducks in the back. That leaves me at the wheel. I’m a journalism weenie, not a car guy. In fact, I’m afraid to look under a hood for fear of being sucked into the manifold or filleted by the radiator fan.

The Rolling Stones are blaring on the stereo. “I love old cars,” says Willis, grinning. He has cranked the Dodge up to 100 miles per hour a couple of times. I feel like I’m steering an oil tanker. It seemingly takes me two hours to drive two miles.

“Sounds great,” Carmine says, as I pull up to my hotel.

“I put glass packs on it,” Bruno explains.

Glass packs, I think, do for macho muffler men what padded bras do for women: They make a big, bold public statement. I shake hands with Bruno and he slides into the driver’s seat. The pony becomes a bucking bronco.

There’s a squeal of rubber, a plume of dust - and Bruno’s gone. He’s only going to play golf, the most Republican of sports. But if you didn’t know that, if you just saw Bruce Willis roaring through Bruceville, you’d swear he was rushing off to save the world.