By People Staff
December 31, 1999 12:00 PM

Straight-shooting smart aleck Bruce Willis, 44, as an earnest, sensitive child psychologist? Sixth Sense writer-director M. Night Shyamalan never had any doubt. “Bruce is one of the few actors who can play a rugged guy who is also dealing with emotions,” he says. Willis’s unexpectedly nuanced performance helped turn Sense into more than just the sleeper hit of the year. As of last month it had taken in almost $300 million, surpassing Jaws on the all-time box office hit list and earning nearly as much as Willis’s three megabudget Die Hard installments combined. “Although a lot of people lumped him in with Stallone and Schwarzenegger,” says Shyamalan, who will direct the star in Unbreakable, another supernatural thriller, next spring, “I never did.” But the actor’s new depth and breadth may also reflect changes in his personal life, including his split in ’98 from wife Demi Moore. Willis has, says his friend and agent Arnold Rifkin, “become a seasoned human being. He’s matured as a dad to his three kids and has practiced putting himself second to them.” In a reflection of those circumstances, Willis, who reportedly commands up to $20 million per picture, followed up his Sense performance by playing a fearful father and husband on the verge of divorce in The Story of Us, with Michelle Pfeiffer. He also costarred in and helped bankroll the quirky independent Breakfast of Champions. Wherever he is headed next, it won’t be back to Action Land. Sense, says Shyamalan, “has broadened the possibilities of Bruce Willis.”