With a career spanning decades and starring roles in some of the most iconic films released in the past half-century, Bruce Willis is arguably among the most recognizable actors in Hollywood. That’s why his fans and co-stars within the entertainment industry were shocked when his daughter, Rumer Willis, announced in an Instagram post on March 30 that the star had been diagnosed with a serious cognitive condition and would be stepping away from acting. Now, Willis’s coworkers are describing some of the earliest signs that the beloved action hero was struggling with aphasia. Read on to see what the first symptoms were and why they affected his decision to retire.
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Despite only recently being diagnosed, Willis’s difficult decision to step away from his career appears to have come after the condition became more apparent while working over the past few years. One of the first reported instances came from the set of the M. Night Shylaman film Glass in 2017 and 2018, during which two production sources said the actor appeared “slightly off,” according to Page Six.
“Bruce seemed a little confused at times and needed a little more help with his lines. This was the first time that I had heard anything about his health,” one source said. “At that point it seemed that he was a little off. We thought it could be anything from aging to maybe even being a little drunk—common mistakes that people make when seeing the first signs of anything like dementia—to just not wanting to be there.”
In light of his recent announcement, some of Willis’s behavior on set five years ago now makes more sense. “In reflection, Bruce may have been struggling with all of this back then,” the source told Page Six.
Years later, other coworkers reported the action star struggling to handle lines and performances on set. While filming a tense scene for the film Hard Kill in January 2020, actor Lala Kent described a moment when Willis—who was playing the role of her father—was scripted to come up from behind and rescue her from danger.
“I’m supposed to think my life is about to end, and then my dad steps in to save the day,” Kent said, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, Willis missed a line meant to act as a cue for Kent to duck before firing a prop weapon at a villain and instead fired the gun early before she could get out of the way.
“Because my back was to him, I wasn’t aware of what was happening behind me. But the first time, it was like, ‘No big deal, let’s reset,'” Kent explained. But even after she asked director Matt Eskandari to go over lines and the course of the scene with Willis before the next take, the actor again fired the weapon without delivering the line.
While Randall Emmett, one of the film’s producers and Kent’s former fiance, and the film’s armorer both denied the incident, one crew member told the L.A. Times that he remembered seeing Kent visibly shaken that day. Another crew member also said they recalled the incident but added: “We always made sure no one was in the line of fire when he was handling guns.”
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Recently, others in the film industry who have known Willis for years said they noticed changes in the actor they couldn’t ignore. In a pre-production meeting for the film White Elephant in April of 2021, director Jesse V. Johnson said that something about the action star was different since the first time he had worked with him as a stuntman decades earlier. “It was clear that he was not the Bruce I remembered,” Johnson told the L.A. Times.
During filming, Johnson said that he was so concerned over the actor’s condition that he brought it up with Willis’s team. “They stated that he was happy to be there, but that it would be best if we could finish shooting him by lunch and let him go early,” the director explained. However, even after rearranging filming to accommodate Willis and his condition, two crew members reported hearing the actor ask aloud while on set: “I know why you’re here, and I know why you’re here, but why am I here?”
“It was less of an annoyance and more like: ‘How do we not make Bruce look bad?'” one of the crew members told the L.A. Times. “Someone would give him a line and he didn’t understand what it meant. He was just being puppeted.”
While Willis’s announcement of his diagnosis has brought in waves of support from friends, family, coworkers, and fans, it also left many with questions about what the cognitive condition is and how someone can spot it. According to the Cleveland Clinic, aphasia is a disorder that inhibits the brain’s ability to process language, meaning the person suffering from the condition often has trouble speaking and understanding other people’s speech. Typically, it can be brought on by a stroke or head injury and can sometimes result from cognitive decline from a brain tumor, brain surgery, or a neurological disorder like dementia. That being said, aphasia can manifest in several different ways, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe.
Per the Cleveland Clinic, “Some people with aphasia have difficulty in only one area of communication, such as trouble putting words together into meaningful sentences, trouble reading, or difficulty understanding what others are saying. More commonly, people with aphasia are limited in more than one communication area. Nearly all patients with aphasia have word-finding difficulties—that is, coming up with the correct name of persons, places, things, or events.”
The Mayo Clinic provides a list of the signs of aphasia to look out for on its website. A person with aphasia might “speak in short or incomplete sentences, speak in sentences that don’t make sense, substitute one word for another or one sound for another, speak unrecognizable words, not understand other people’s conversation, [and] write sentences that don’t make sense.”
More specifically, the Cleveland Clinic notes there are subtler symptoms to look out for, such as mixing up sounds for words (they use the example of “wog dalker” instead of “dog walker”) and leaving out small articles and prepositions (like “the” and “and”) when speaking.
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