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Bruce Willis — the Hollywood A-lister and former Hell’s Kitchen resident known for box office megahits like Die Hard, Pulp Fiction, and The Sixth Sense — will step away from acting to focus on his health, according to a statement released today by his family. The actor, 67, recently received a diagnosis of aphasia, a cognitive condition that affects the brain’s ability to communicate with others and is often caused by a stroke, brain injury or tumor. 

In an Instagram post, Willis’s daughters Rumer and Scout (as well as ex-wife Demi Moore and current wife Emma Heming Willis) released a statement asking for privacy and respect as the family navigated Willis’s condition. “This is a really challenging time for our family and we are so appreciative of your continued love, compassion and support. We are moving through this as a strong family unit, and wanted to bring his fans in because we know how much he means to you, as you do to him,” the post read. 

While you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t familiar with Willis’s work, many locals remember when the actor was another aspiring artist from Penns Grove, New Jersey —  living in Hell’s Kitchen in a $170/month, roach-filled, fifth-floor railroad walkup on W49th St between 9/10th Ave. Willis, who lived in the area in the early 80s, had left Montclair University as a young performer (where he had played such roles as Snug in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and spent his formative city years acting in several Off-Broadway shows at the First Amendment Improv Theater and Force Thirteen Repertory Company. He studied at the famed Stella Adler Acting Studio and supplemented his performing gigs with bartending shifts on 10th Avenue at Robert’s Bar (now The Waylon) in the 1980s to fill the gaps in between.

Bruce Willis’s headshot from when he was looking for work! Archive Photo via Isaac Butler/Twitter

In his spare time, Willis practiced his (as per his actor resume) “proficient harmonica” skills, which he would eventually take to the recording studio (with EP The Return of Bruno) and on a cross-country concert tour. Willis told Vanity Fair in 1998, “I’ve been playing the harmonica for a long time, for my personal satisfaction. I was flattered when Motown offered me the chance to do an album. But just playing music is its own reward. It wouldn’t have mattered to me if the album had made ten cents. I’m sure it would have mattered to Motown.”

Frequently low on cash, Willis once resorted to sourcing furniture for his digs from the remnants of left-out pieces on 11th Avenue, telling Vanity Fair in a 1988 article that “I found most of my furniture on the sidewalk. I had this old desk with no knobs, so I used bent nails in order to open and close the drawers. I lived there for six years. I would add things from time to time. I was satisfied. I didn’t know any different. It met my needs.” 

Ever resourceful, the carefree Willis was even known to sunbathe atop his Hell’s Kitchen rooftop, often spotted by neighbor Nicholas Newman, who lived a stone’s throw away at 445 W49th: “Bruce Willis used to suntan with my neighbors on the roof,” he wrote of the superstar, adding that Willis lived next door and soft-rock singer Lou Christie of 1965’s Lightnin’ Strikes fame also lived on that side of the street.

Bruce Willis lived on this W49th Street block in Hell’s Kitchen. Photo: Phil O’Brien

And as for Willis’s bartending reputation? In addition to fellow actor John Goodman dubbing him “the best bartender in NYC,” bar owner Michael Younge (who took over and renamed Robert’s Bar to Druids) recounted Willis’s no-nonsense nonchalance about tending bar among a rowdy 10th Avenue crowd — “He used to roller skate around the bar. Luckily he didn’t have to stay too long. He got a short run on Broadway, and then was in Moonlighting,” said Younge. Willis came to visit him years later at The Landmark Tavern and recalled: “That was a tough crowd. One night when I was working behind the bar, someone threw a shot glass at me.” Unfazed, Willis ducked and kept bartending. 

“My friend Tom already knew Willis from when he was the bartender and my friend was the short-order cook for Robert’s, the bar/pub at the corner of W50th & 10th. Willis had a good reputation as a real bro for his buds, and for seducing lots of women,” added Newman — a story the actor slyly confirmed in a January 2021 appearance on Conan.

Bruce Willis and John Goodman on the set of Once Upon a Time in Venice. Photo: RLJ Entertainment

While Willis would soon book the hit TV show Moonlighting and shortly thereafter the legendary Die Hard series, he never forgot his Hell’s Kitchen roots. In a 1990 profile in The New York Times, Willis revealed that even six years after his career had taken off, he had kept the West Side apartment in the family. “I always hoped he would flop so he would move back in,” said once-neighbor Newman. “I read years later the story about him maintaining his 49th Street apartment for several years out of a sense of allegiance and affection for the neighborhood and his history there.”

Longtime neighborhood residents were saddened to hear of Willis’s condition and were quick to wish him well. Said West Bank Cafe owner Steve Olsen, who considers Willis a good friend and regular patron at the Midtown eatery: “The news is devastating — I am deeply saddened to hear about Bruce’s illness.” 

Bruce Willis’s resume while he was looking for work. Archive Image via Isaac Butler/Twitter

The actor’s family remained optimistic in their statement, quoting the charismatic actor himself as a way to press on. They wrote: “As Bruce always says, ‘Live it up’, and together we plan to do just that.” 

Join the Conversation

9 Comments

  1. Wow. Right behind MiDoctor clinic! Our neighborhood has so much amazing history. Great article! Let’s wish him and his family all the best during this tough time.

  2. Praying hard for him. I was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer about 10 weeks ago,and am undergoing Chemotherapy to shrink it. 4 more Chemo treatments and then surgery. Hope he does well. He’s been my hero for many years.

  3. So sad to read this devastating news. My prayers go out to him and his family and friends and medical team. My mom developed aphasia and immediately we were told it was from “a stroke” and after months doing the “medical guessing game tango” we found out from a stereostatic ct scan that she had glioblastoma multeforme. A deadly incurable brain tumor. I pray they can “cut to the chase” and get quicker answers and treatment with treatable options.

  4. So very sorry to hear of the families struggles and Bruce’s devastating diagnosis. I love his sense of humor!!! My prayers will be with your family. You have a big audience that still loves you!

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