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Bruce Willis' dementia battle: Iconic star's journey from action hero to family man
February 17 2023, 08:00

Bruce Willis cemented his Hollywood heavyweight status years ago. Between playing action hero John McClane in the billion-dollar "Die Hard" franchise to saving the world in "Armageddon" or thrilling audiences in "The Sixth Sense," Willis earned his spot as a leading actor in Tinseltown.

His decades-long career began on television when he was cast opposite Cybill Shepherd in the comedy-drama "Moonlighting." Willis earned an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe during the show's five seasons.

He dabbled in music and landed on the U.K. charts in the ‘80s, around the same time he met his first wife, Demi Moore. While Bruce and Demi married and eventually split, they’ve remained a united front for their three daughters. He married model Emma Heming in 2009, and has since had two daughters with his wife, daughters Mabel and Evelyn.

In 2022, Bruce's family announced he was retiring from his beloved world of acting due to an aphasia diagnosis which was causing communication issues. On Thursday, his family revealed Bruce's condition progressed, and they were faced with "a more specific diagnosis: frontotemporal dementia (known as FTD.)"


While Bruce was making a name for himself as David Addison on the ABC series, he was also working on a comedic film based on his first album, "The Return of Bruno." The 1987 mockumentary featured cameos from Elton John, Phil Collins, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, Jon Bon Jovi and The Bee Gees, to name a few, and was narrated by Dick Clark.

Soon after, Willis signed on to star in one of the greatest action film franchises of all time, "Die Hard." Despite having no prior experience, Willis performed many of his own stunts, including jumping from rooftops, scaling walls and falling down stairs.

"The thing about the first film you have to understand is I was doing TV," Willis told The Independent. "I’d only been in LA for a couple of years, I was still really learning how to act, so most of what went into making John McClane from a character standpoint was the South Jersey Bruce Willis – that attitude and disrespect for authority, that gallows sense of humor, the reluctant hero."


His superhero persona earned the film $140 million and a sequel two years later, which pulled in another $240 million. When "Die Hard with a Vengeance" was released in 1995, Willis was highly in-demand, and the film grossed $366 million.

Due to the success of his McClane character, Willis was able to take a step back from the adventure realm to voice the baby character in "Look Who's Talking" and "Look Who's Talking Too" opposite Kirstie Alley and John Travolta. He played a coveted plastic surgeon alongside Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep in "Death Becomes Her," and earned an Emmy for his role as Ross Geller's girlfriend's father on "Friends."

Willis portrayed aging boxer Butch Coolidge in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," protected Earth against evil invaders in "The Fifth Element" and played Detective John Hartigan in the Robert Rodriguez neo-noir film "Sin City."

Over his four-decade career, Willis amassed more than $5 billion at the box office worldwide.


During his meteoric rise to stardom, Bruce married actress Demi Moore in 1987. They welcomed their first child, daughter Rumer, the following year, and then had daughters Scout and Tallulah. The A-list couple uprooted their Hollywood lifestyle in favor of more privacy in Hailey, Idaho. 

Despite a divorce in 2000, Demi and Bruce maintained a friendship and family life for the sake of their daughters. Shortly after their divorce, Bruce admitted their love was still special, and they remained committed to each other.

"We have three children whom we will continue to raise together, and we’re probably as close now as we ever were," he told Rolling Stone at the time. "We realize we have a lifelong commitment to our kids. Our friendship continues." 

"I’m so thankful and grateful that my parents made such an effort at that time," Rumer recalled on "Larry King Now" of Bruce and Demi's divorce when she was 10. "I never had to split up vacations or split up birthdays. They always made an effort to do all of the family events still together and made such an effort to still have our family be as one unit, as opposed to two separate things, which I think really made an impact."

The proud parents will soon trade in their titles for "grandparents" after Rumer announced she's pregnant with her first child.


Demi married "That '70s Show" star Ashton Kutcher in 2005, a relationship which ended in divorce in 2013. 

Bruce went on to marry model Emma Heming in Turks and Caicos in March 2009, where Moore and Kutcher were both guests at the wedding.

When Emma and Bruce renewed their vows for their 10-year wedding anniversary, the pair "wouldn't do it" without Demi there.

"She welcomed me into her family like I welcomed her into ours," Heming told Us Weekly. "Again, I have so much respect for her. I have so much respect for how Bruce and Demi worked through their divorce to be able to put their children first. I learned so much from that and grew so much from watching that. It was important for her to be there. She was at our first wedding. I loved having her there again. I wouldn’t do it without her."

Their blended family, which now includes daughters Mabel and Evelyn, even quarantined together during the pandemic, and are regularly pictured together on social media. 

"Our family wanted to start by expressing our deepest gratitude for the incredible outpouring of love, support and wonderful stories we have all received since sharing Bruce’s original diagnosis," Moore wrote on Thursday. "In the spirit of that, we wanted to give you an update about our beloved husband, father and friend since we now have a deeper understanding of what he is experiencing."


She added, "Since we announced Bruce’s diagnosis of aphasia in spring 2022, Bruce’s condition has progressed and we now have a more specific diagnosis: frontotemporal dementia (known as FTD). Unfortunately, challenges with communication are just one symptom of the disease Bruce faces. While this is painful, it is a relief to finally have a clear diagnosis."

FTD is "the result of damage to neurons in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain," according to the National Institute on Aging. "Many possible symptoms can result, including unusual behaviors, emotional problems, trouble communicating, difficulty with work, or difficulty with walking."

The family shared more about the "cruel disease" in a statement posted on the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration (AFTD) website. "For people under 60, FTD is the most common form of dementia, and because getting the diagnosis can take years, FTD is likely much more prevalent than we know. Today there are no treatments for the disease, a reality that we hope can change in the years ahead," the release said.

"Bruce always believed in using his voice in the world to help others, and to raise awareness about important issues both publicly and privately. We know in our hearts that — if he could today — he would want to respond by bringing global attention and a connectedness with those who are also dealing with this debilitating disease and how it impacts so many individuals and their families."

The Willis family encouraged others facing FTD to "seek out the wealth of information and support available through AFTD" and encouraged others to continue advocating for research and awareness.

"Bruce has always found joy in life — and has helped everyone he knows to do the same. It has meant the world to see that sense of care echoed back to him and to all of us," the statement said. "We have been so moved by the love you have all shared for our dear husband, father, and friend during this difficult time. Your continued compassion, understanding, and respect will enable us to help Bruce live as full a life as possible."