Movie fans around the world were saddened this week to learn of Bruce Willis' worsening dementia diagnosis. For more than four decades Bruce thrilled audiences as a macho yet sensitive action hero with the perfect one-line zinger delivered just before the bad guy is punched, shot or thrown off a tower. If this truly is the end of Bruce's career, it is sad news.
Bruce Willis is easily one of the best action stars in film history. He's also one of the most successful.
Thanks largely to action-packed crowd-pleasers like the "Die Hard" franchise, "Armageddon," "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," "The Expendables," "Pulp Fiction" and "The Fifth Element" (a personal favorite, btw), Bruce Willis' films have generated roughly $5 billion at the worldwide box office. That makes him one of the highest-grossing actors of all time.
As you might expect, Bruce's box office success allowed him to command some of Hollywood's biggest salaries, especially in the mid-to-late 90s and 2000s. During this period Bruce regularly commanded $14 million in minimum base salary for a single movie.
He was paid $14 million for "The Last Boy Scout" in 1991, $15 million for 1995's "Die Hard: With a Vengeance", $16.5 million for 1996's "Last Man Standing" and $14.8 million for 1998's "Armageddon".
Surprise Twist Ending
Not only has Bruce Willis consistently been one of the highest-paid actors in the world for most of his career, he actually is the highest-paid actor of all time.
For over two decades, Bruce has held the record for the largest acting payday earned from a single film. And amazingly, the record wasn't set from an action movie. In a surprise twist that the audience didn't see coming, Bruce Willis earned Hollywood's highest single payday back in 1999 thanks to…
The Sixth Sense
As the legend goes, in late 1997 an executive at Disney named David Vogel read a script from an little-known screenwriter named M. Night Shyamalan.
The movie was called "The Sixth Sense" and David was blown away. So much so that immediately bought the film rights, offering an unprecedented $3 million fee AND agreeing to Shyamalan's demand that he direct. The only major movie Shyamalan had directed previously was a Rosie O'Donnell movie called "Wide Awake" that earned $250,000 at the box office on a budget of $6 million. Shyamalan was also the writer.
When Disney executives, namely former CEO Michael Eisner, found out about Vogel's rash decision to spend $3 million on this one script from an unknown writer without getting approval, they were livid. Vogel was removed from his position and banished him from the film division. Frantically, Disney offloaded the rights to "The Sixth Sense" to a production company called Spyglass, while maintaining 12.5% of the film's gross as a distribution fee.
M. Night Shyamalan and Spyglass needed a star to carry their picture. They circled in on Bruce Willis.
To secure Bruce's services, Spyglass ponied up two major prizes:
As a base salary… AND…
17.5% of the films profits
Plus a similar percentage of DVD and licensing proceeds!
In the meantime, David Vogel had been banished from the upper echelons of Disney where he had been a top dog for over a decade. He spent nearly a year floundering in another division before Disney finally fired him in June 1999.
"The Sixth Sense" debuted in theaters less than two months later, on August 6, 1999. As you know, it was a smash.
After grossing $26.5 million in its opening weekend, the movie spent the next five weeks dominating the box office. The Sixth Sense eventually earned $670 million at the global box office on a production budget of $40 million + $20 million for marketing. It was the most-rented movie of 2000.
Believe it or not, even to this day "The Sixth Sense" is Bruce Willis' biggest box office result, topping "Armageddon" by around $120 million.
Largest Single-Film Payday
When all the receipts were counted, Bruce's gamble on this unknown director paid off in a major way.
After his $14 million fee, Bruce earned an additional $100 million in backend revenue for a total payday of…
The only other actor in history (even to this day) to earn over $100 million from a single movie is Tom Cruise. Tom has earned $100 million THREE TIMES, once from 2000's "Mission Impossible 2," once from 2005's "War of the Worlds" and once again from 2022's "Top Gun: Maverick."
But the numbers for Bruce's record get even more impressive after you take into account inflation. After adjusting for inflation, $114 million in 1999 is the same as earning…
… in today's dollars.
When you adjust Tom Cruise's $100 million payday from "Mission Impossible 2" from 2000, it comes to $164 million.
And one more anecdote:
Disney never righted their wrong with David Vogel. After leaving Disney, Vogel started a consulting business that never really took off. Frustrated at feeling frozen out of the entertainment industry he literally had to escape to a Buddhist monastery where he studied meditation. He eventually moved to Palm Springs where he founded a film festival and education company called Digicom.