Bruce Willis: A chilling anecdote lays bare the illness that ended his long and successful career

The actor’s increasingly patchy career has been cut short by the disorder aphasia

As Bruce Willis retires from acting, the filmgoing world wishes the best to an avatar, depending on generation, of their childhood, youth or middle-age.

Willis is now often written about as part of a high-profile gang that dominated action cinema from the late 1980s through to the early millennial years. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone famously joined him in the promotion of the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain during the 1990s.

But that reductive assessment underestimates the odd charm of his rugged persona. Perhaps only Clint Eastwood made the jump from series TV to film stardom with such aplomb. He never shook off his working-class roots. He worked an angular grin that suggested he always knew more than you, me or the European maniac with the chain gun.

And he is bald. I remember sitting behind two young female fans in a theatre audience during the late 1980s. As they worked through his “unconventional” sexiness, one ventured that she had read it was something to do with his “high hairline”. The hairline kept getting higher. Not since Yul Brynner had a movie star done so much for the smooth of head.

The story of his professional career ends on an uncomfortable note. In recent times he had taken to appearing in a barely credible number of low-budget, often risible productions. He shot 22 films in the last four years.

Following the announcement of his retirement due to aphasia, a neurological complaint that makes it difficult to communicate, upsetting stories have emerged concerning his disconnected behaviour on those sets. More questions will be asked.

Bruce Willis was one of the many actors from that generation – “army brats” was the phrase – born in Germany to military parents during the early years of the Cold War. Following discharge, his dad moved the family back to the working-class locale of Carney’s Point, New Jersey.

His route into showbusiness was an unconventional one. Following graduation from high school, where he was active in the drama club, he worked as a driver, a security guard and a private investigator.

His lead role in the defining 1980s TV series Moonlighting looks to have come out of nowhere. He had played the lead in an off-Broadway play. But he had no credited film roles. Blink and you’d miss him in an episode of Miami Vice.

The producers took a creditable and as it transpired smart punt when, plucked from 3,000 auditionees, they cast him alongside Cybill Shepherd in the suave detective series. Clearly drawing inspiration from screwball comedies of Hollywood's golden age, the show depended as much on sharp interchanges between the stars as it did on traditional mystery plots.

To this point, it had proved difficult for TV actors to make it in the (as it then seemed) more exalted world of movies. Tom Selleck, whose Magnum PI debuted five years before Moonlighting, never quite made the transition. Willis stumbled in his first high-profile outing, Blake Edwards's Blind Date from 1987, but hit the motherlode with Die Hard a year later.

John McTiernan's classic action film helped complete the key Willis persona: irreverent, sly, unpretentious and a little annoying. "That man looks really pissed," someone says to John McClane's wife, played by Bonnie Bedelia, as the ex-cop again frustrates the terrorists. "Only John can drive somebody that crazy," she replies. The bloodied undershirt became as iconic a piece of clothing as Dorothy's red slippers in The Wizard of Oz. McClane continued to drive people crazy in two more fine Die Hard sequels (and another two that weren't so great).

A year before the first film's release, Willis married Demi Moore and, together for 13 years, they still stand out as a signature power couple of the 1980s. His 1987 album The Return of Bruno was genuine hit.

For the next two decades he struck a convincing balance between hard-boiled sincerity and ironic self-effacement. For many, those contrasts were most effectively blended in his role as a befuddled boxer in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction from 1994. That was probably his best shot at an Oscar nomination, but sadly the call never came.

Like many action stars who emerged from the 1980s – and unlike so many of their colleagues in less martial entertainments – Willis inclined to the right, but, despite supporting both Bush campaigns, always claimed to be apolitical. “I’m sick of answering this f**king question. I’m a Republican only as far as I want a smaller government, I want less government intrusion,” he said in 2006.

In later years, like his old pal Stallone, he relaxed comfortably into the “I’m too old for this” school of geezer action film. He was also excellent in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom from 2012. Cineastes such as that eccentric director continued to appreciate his delightful, off-beam charisma.

The revelations concerning his recent, bizarrely prolific run of appearances in straight-to-stream thrillers cast a pall over the apparent last act of his career. The Los Angeles Times reports that those who worked with him wondered “whether the actor was fully aware of his surroundings on set, where he was often paid $2 million for two days of work”.

A chilling anecdote stands out. “In one alleged incident two years ago on a Cincinnati set of the movie Hard Kill, Willis unexpectedly fired a gun loaded with a blank on the wrong cue,” the paper reported. A former crew member commented: “We always made sure no one was in the line of fire when he was handling guns.” This is hardly reassuring.

On Wednesday, his family confirmed he was moving towards retirement. “With much consideration Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him,” a statement read. The Internet Movie Database lists no fewer than six Willis titles in “post-production”. It will be interesting to see what becomes of them.

This article was edited at 6.29pm on the day of publication.