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Joe Mulligan lived in Hell’s Kitchen from the late 70s to the 00s. During that time, he tended bar at BJ’s — later Robert’s and now The Waylon on 10th Avenue and W50th Street. During the early 80s, he played guitar while Bruce Willis tended bar, and spent “many a night with him” and saw him occasionally after his rise to fame. Joe wrote to W42ST and described the news about Bruce’s illness as “tough to process”. He’s written this reminiscence about “Bruno” and their times together.

Joe Mulligan stepped into The Waylon this week for the first time. Here he reminisces about Bruce Willis. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Halfway through my first set the bar door opened. He came in with his best friend Vito and two gorgeous women, and settled into a table. He walked over to where I was playing my guitar, leaned in and said, “Start a blues boogie in C.” Those were the first words Bruce Willis ever spoke to me, back when he still had hair. He took out his ever present harmonica, and we locked in and played all the songs we could. At one point he said “If you can play Black Headed Buzzard I’ll give you 5 bucks.” I played it. He never paid, but took a great chorus if memory serves..

Hell’s Kitchen in 1981 was gloriously ungentrified, unchanged as of yet from the nascent influx of artists and performers that transformed the neighborhood. The bar was BJ’s on 10th and 50th. As it turned out Bruno tended bar there, and lived around the corner on 49th Street. My first night playing there became many nights of me playing while he tended and passed the basket on my behalf, “Dig deep folks! Joey’s putting his grandmother through college! Dig deep!” 

Joe Mulligan behind the bar at Robert’s. Photo: James Munford

Anyone who’s ever worked a bar knows that the best time to be there is after it’s closed — the place to ourselves, a cold beer and shot in front of you, a joint being passed, talking music, movies, comedy, the best Honeymooners episode (Blabbermouth! He knew that speech line for line). One night someone had mushrooms, and we tripped through the 3am dark valleys of Hell’s Kitchen, stopping from time to time, “Look at that fire escape!” “Yeaahh…” At some point, looking through the empty parking lot and 9th and 49th toward the skyscrapers of Rockefeller Center, he told me “The trick is that you have to remember how this looks like this when you’re straight.” I nodded in solemn agreement.

He got a better job uptown on Columbus at Cafe Central and I took over his shifts at BJ’s, which a year later changed hands and became Robert’s Restaurant. It wasn’t unusual for him to stop by for a nightcap, or even the next morning for one before bed. One particular morning he got a little out of control, heckling the piano player, playing his harmonica off key, and chasing my customers out of the bar. I cut him off. He got up from his stool and in my face, “What, you’re telling me I’m too drunk to drink in your bar?” “Yes, that’s what I’m telling you”, I quietly told him. “Go home! Got to bed.” He left soon after. A week later he gave me a mix tape of old Stax and Motown hits, an acknowledgement if not an apology.

Then he got Moonlighting. He was moving out to LA. All the showcases and auditions had paid off in a major uptick. He came in for breakfast soon before leaving and I asked how he was doing. “I wake up laughing.” How much were they paying you for this? “More money than they should be. Even for a man of my talent!”

It was incredible how much of himself he brought to that show, and his star ascended accordingly. One night at the kiosk on the 42nd Street downtown R train platform, I happened to look down and see him on the cover of the latest Rolling Stone magazine. He came back once or twice, for his friend Vito’s untimely death and funeral, and once with an LA friend. Bruno let me bust his chops in front of his friend, “Joey, I bought a ‘57 Corvette!” “What, you can’t afford a new car?!”, and tipped me more money than he should’ve. 

I saw him two more times, at the Central Park 63rd Street ballfields where I was playing for the Improv softball team. Someone pointed him out in the next field, playing for the China Club. I went over and stood in front of him, saying nothing. He stared at me for a beat or two, then relaxed and asked, “How many kids ya got?” We rode around the park on our bikes and I told him how much I liked him in his latest release, Nobody’s Fool. He told me that as soon as he heard Paul Newman was to be in it, he said yes without even reading the script. As we rode we could see the San Remo Apartment Building through the trees. “The South Tower’s mine!” He brought me upstairs to see the movie star residence previously owned by Robert Evans, with his neighbor Steve Jobs in the North Tower, and a terrace where he could sit and look south to Hell’s Kitchen.

Joe Mulligan photographed by Kat Caverly in his days at Robert’s around 1985.

The last time we spoke was in 2009 at the Beacon Theater. He was onstage playing One Way Out with the Allman Brothers Band, taking a great harmonica break. Afterward, he walked up the aisle past the seat I happened to be in, and I asked if he could play Black Headed Buzzard. He nodded in recognition, told me I looked good, then headed out. 

Such sad news, such a loss, Bruno and his big Hell’s Kitchen by way of South Jersey beautiful Three Stooges heart. Such a loss, especially for a man of his talent.

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7 Comments

  1. Man. That’s a good story. Time…friends…the present becomes the past in, seemingly, a blink. Thank you for sharing, Joe.

  2. Thank you for sharing. Brings me back to those years in Hell’s Kitchen. Loved your story ! ❤️

  3. Great stories, Joe. I watched him tend bar at Cafe Central, giving shit to Kevin Kline and Raul Julia and William Hurt and on and on. I was there the night he said he was going to go on in FOOL FOR LOVE where he was understudying the lead. The story goes that a casting person from ABC was in the house that day and snapped him up. The rest is history. I’ll never forget seeing ‘Bruno’ being hilarious behind the bar. Your terrific piece brought it all back. Thanks. And Cheers to Bruce,

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