By Jon Blistein
In late March 2022, Bruce Willis’ family announced that the actor would be “stepping away” from acting after being diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease aphasia.
“To Bruce’s amazing supporters, as a family we wanted to share that our beloved Bruce has been experiencing some health issues and has recently been diagnosed with aphasia, which is impacting his cognitive abilities,” the family’s statement read. “As a result of this and with much consideration Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him.”
The letter was signed by Willis’ wife, Emma Heming Willis, and ex-wife, Demi Moore; his three kids with Moore, Rumer, Scout, and Tallulah; and two kids with Heming Willis, Mabel, and Evelyn.
The announcement signaled the end of the career of one of contemporary Hollywood’s most beloved movie stars. Over four decades, Willis was a near-constant presence in the film industry, notching memorable roles in hits like Die Hard, Pulp Fiction, The Fifth Element, Armageddon, and The Sixth Sense. In the final years of his career, however, Willis took numerous small roles in direct-to-video action flicks, reportedly making about 22 movies in four years of his career as his mental state deteriorated.
(A Los Angeles Times report from last year suggested Willis’ cognitive decline had long been apparent. According to the story, Willis often struggled to remember lines, sometimes exhibited confusion about his whereabouts, and allegedly, while making one movie, fired a prop gun on the wrong cue.)
In the year since, Willis’ family and friends — as well as some members of his professional team — have offered updates about the actor’s life and health. The most recent came Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, when Willis’ family announced that he’d been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD), which likely caused his aphasia.
March 30 and 31, 2022
Willis received a massive outpouring of support after his family announced his retirement and revealed his aphasia diagnosis. In the immediate aftermath, his daughter Scout Willis shared a thank you note in a now-deleted Instagram post, writing, “Yesterday was so surreal, sharing something so personal. I didn’t know how it would be received, there is always an unknown when sharing out so vulnerably into the world. I’d hoped for some love and compassion, I truly NEVER could have anticipated the depth and breadth of the love we received as a family yesterday. It kept hitting me yesterday how much love, energy, and prayers were now being sent to my daddio and just humbling me in a way that’s brings tears as I write this. I am so grateful for your love, I’m so grateful to hear about what my papa means to you.”
Heming Willis shared a note of her own on her Instagram Story, writing, “Your love, support, compassion, prayers really help. I’m grateful.” The model concluded, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Among others to share messages of support were Willis’ various Hollywood peers (and even the Razzie Awards decided to rescind a Worst Actor trophy they gave to the actor in 2021). Two of the most touching notes, however, came from Willis’ Sixth Sense family: Director M. Night Shyamalan and co-star Hayley Joel Osment.
“All my love and respect to my big brother Bruce Willis,” Shyamalan tweeted. “I know his wonderful family is surrounding him with support and strength. He will always be that hero on that poster on my wall as kid.
Meanwhile, on Instagram, Osment shared an old photo of Willis and wrote, “It’s been difficult to find the right words for someone I’ve always looked up to — first on the big screen, and then by some wild stroke of luck, in person. He’s a true legend who has enriched all of our lives with a singular career that spans nearly half a century. I am so grateful for what I got to witness firsthand, and for the enormous body of work he built for us to enjoy for years and years to come. I just wanted to express the respect and deep admiration I have for Bruce and his family as they move forward with the courage and high spirits that have always defined them.”
April 1, 2022
A few days after the Willis family’s announcement, Willis’ daughter, Rumer, shared an old photo of her and her father making faces, alongside a note that was perfect for April Fool’s Day: “I love you Daddio, to the 🌙 and Back. Thank you for teaching me to be so silly. I love laughing with you.”
A post shared by Rumer Glenn Willis (@rumerwillis)
June 30, 2022
Many of Willis’ final films were direct-to-video action movies, and he frequently worked with the producer/director Randall Emmett. In late June 2022, the Los Angeles Times published an extensive report about Emmett’s crumbling direct-to-video empire, detailing a growing pile of lawsuits from financiers as well as allegations of abuse and inappropriate behavior (Emmett has denied any wrongdoing). The piece also offered some additional insight into Willis’ cognitive struggles as he worked on some of the last films of his career. Additionally, there was a quote from Willis’ lawyer, Martin Singer, who spoke about why the actor continued to act even after he was diagnosed with aphasia.
“My client continued working after his medical diagnosis because he wanted to work and was able to do so, just like many others diagnosed with aphasia who are capable of continuing to work,” Singer said. “Because Mr. Willis appeared in those films, they could get financed. That resulted in literally thousands of people having jobs, many during the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
June 13, 2022
In the months after revealing Willis’ diagnosis, Heming Willis shared a few photos and videos on social media that offered a glimpse into this new phase of their life: Walks in the woods, even a little pick-up basketball. She offered a more substantial update in June, sharing an old video of Willis performing with the Temptations.
In the caption, she wrote: “My motto is don’t let the fear stop you. Why? Because fear constantly stops me. Which is another reason I fell for my husband, fear has never stopped him. I mean what kind of next level confidence does it take to sing lead with The Temptations? You can say what you want (and boy have they) but this guy has always been led by his passion and has never let naysayers stop him from, well, anything. And I have so much respect, love and admiration for that man because of it. Enjoy this little ditty that warms my heart.”
June 19, 2022
Last year on Father’s Day, Rumer Willis marked the occasion with some throwback photos of her and her father, writing, “Daddio. What a privilege it is every day to be your daughter. I love you so much. You are the coolest cat in town.”
Rumer’s sister, Tallulah Willis, also shared a Father’s Day post, writing, “You showed me how to love people from a smile, that strength resides in the self possessed goofball, taught me this neat way to make your arms grow and lengthen to hold as many people as possible close and cozy. You are by far my coolest friend.”
July 17, 2022
Even though Die Hard is absolutely a Christmas movie, it was released as a summer blockbuster in July 1988. Thirty-four years after the film’s release, Heming Willis shared a video of Willis returning to the roof of Nakatomi Plaza (which is actually just the Fox Plaza in Los Angeles), pairing the footage with clips from the original film and aptly syncing it to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
Aug. 16, 2022
One of the more unique paths Willis pursued at the height of his powers was music, releasing a pair of blues rock albums in the late Eighties (The Return of Bruno in 1987 and If It Don’t Kill You, It Just Makes You Stronger in 1989). Though he didn’t release any more albums after that, music has remained a big part of his life, even amidst his diagnosis (music has been shown to have a positive impact on people battling dementia). Late last summer, Willis showed off his harmonica chops as he jammed with musician Derek Richard Thomas (whom, it later turned out, was dating Rumer Willis), in an Instagram video shared by Heming Willis. “Their talent is speaking for itself. I’ll just leave this here,” Heming Willis wrote in the caption.
A post shared by Emma Heming Willis (@emmahemingwillis)
Aug. 30 and 31, 2022
Six months after Willis’ family announced his aphasia diagnosis, Heming Willis opened up about learning to “live alongside” grief on Instagram. “This was the summer of self discovery — finding new hobbies, going out of my comfort zone and staying active,” she wrote. “My grief can be paralyzing but I’m learning how to live along side it. As my step-daughter @scoutlaruewillis told me, grief is the deepest and purest form of love. I hope you find some comfort in that too.”
While Heming Willis got plenty of support in return, being that the internet is generally a terrible place, there were a few obnoxious critics in her comments. In a follow-up post on Instagram Stories, Heming Willis responded to the hate, writing, “When you’re not allowed to talk grief, self-care or being human in the world on grief awareness day… My gawd.” She then added, “But in the words of the great, philosophical, insightful Bruce Willis … ‘Ah, fuck em.’”
Nov. 10, 2022
Sylvester Stallone and Willis first linked up in the Eighties when they, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger connected to help promote the new restaurant chain Planet Hollywood. A few decades later, they reunited for The Expendables franchise. When asked if he’d been in touch with Willis at all in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter last year, Stallone admitted they hadn’t spoken lately, but expressed his empathy and support: “Bruce is going through some really, really difficult times. So he’s been sort of incommunicado. That kills me. It’s so sad.”
Dec. 13, 2022
Just before Christmas last year, the extended, blended Willis-Heming-More family gathered to celebrate the holidays. Moore documented the occasion on Instagram with a handful of photos, writing, “We are FAMILY!! Getting into the holiday spirit!”
A post shared by Demi Moore (@demimoore)
Feb. 16, 2023
Just under a year after Willis’ family first announced his aphasia diagnosis, they shared an update on the ailing actor, saying he is suffering from frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Willis’ family shared the note on their social media pages, and the website for the Association for Frontotemporal Dementia, saying it was likely FTD That was causing Willis’ aphasia.
“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,” Willis’ family wrote. “FTD is a cruel disease that many of us have never heard of and can strike anyone. 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.”
The family went on to note that there are “no treatments for” FTD, though they hoped that would change in the years ahead. They added that they hope any media attention Willis receives in the coming years “can be focused on shining a light on this disease that needs far more awareness and research.”
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“Bruce always believed in using his voice in the world to help others and to raise awareness about important issues both publicly and privately,” Willis’ family said. “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.”
After the statement was shared, Scout Willis thanked fans again for the support on her Instagram Story, writing: “Feeling emotionally tired and a bit overwhelmed, yet also very in awe of the love so many people have for my papa. Both Rumer and Tellulah re-posted the note with messages of their own.
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