Alexandra Holden was more than a little nervous. A newcomer to Hollywood from Northfield, Minn., the 23-year-old actress had only a month earlier landed the role of David Schwimmer’s girlfriend on NBC’s megahit Friends. She was strolling the Warner Bros. Burbank lot in March when a strange man in a golf cart pulled up beside her and began chattering away. “He was wearing a workman’s jumpsuit and he had white hair sticking out of this old hat,” recalls Holden. “Everyone was like, ‘Call security! There’s a weird old man around.’ Then he put his hand out to me and said, ‘Alex!’ And I thought, ‘This is a crazy old man.’ ” But just as she began to pick up her pace, she took a last glance at the wizened face. “And then I saw it: the smirk. The little smirk was still there underneath all that makeup,” says Holden with a chuckle. “It was Bruce.”
Security, for the time being, could rest easy. After all, at 45, Bruce Willis qualifies merely as a crazy middle-aged man. Still, even without the stage makeup — applied for his role in this summer’s The Kid, filming at the same studio — much has happened in the 16 years since his wry grin morphed into the Smirk while he bantered with Cybill Shepherd on ABC’s hugely popular Moonlighting. There have been the lows: 1990’s Bonfire of the Vanities, 1991’s Hudson Hawk, even last year’s lackluster Breakfast of Champions. There have been highs, like the three Die Hard movies, which turned Willis’s character, New York City cop John McClane, into a one-man box office demolition team. And there have been lows that spawned extraordinary highs: Disney’s $17 million bailout of Willis’s never-finished 1997 genre comedy Broadway Brawler forced him to star in 1998’s Armageddon, the year’s top box office draw at $520 million worldwide. It also landed him in a little picture called The Sixth Sense, one of the 10 top-grossing films of all time at $643 million and counting, in which a melancholy Willis stood a hoary Hollywood rule (Never star opposite a child) on its head and earned an estimated $60 million while doing so.
It doesn’t take a sixth sense to know that Willis is now a very big Hollywood shot. A few months back a Hollywood insider overheard the actor make a phone call to Matthew Perry, who became a bud while filming the surprise hit comedy The Whole Nine Yards last year. “Hey, this is the Big Star,” said the typically self-deprecating Willis. “Come on over to eat dinner with me.” Still, tempered by time, fatherhood and the struggles of marriage — he and Demi Moore, 37, announced their separation in 1998 after 10 years of marriage — Willis seems today a mellower man. On what he calls a “gun moratorium,” he took the role of a wealthy image consultant in midlife crisis in The Kid (with yet another pint-size costar),in large part because he did not have to shoot anyone or even swear. And he agreed to a guest stint on Friends simply because he and Perry thought it would be fun. Clearly, he doesn’t need the money: Willis is donating his paycheck to several charities (including a rape crisis center and AIDS research). The fun comes with his casting: As the widowed father of a woman too young to have watched the wisecracking P.I. David Addison on Moonlighting (“It was past my bedtime,” says Holden), he ends up smooching on a couch with Jennifer Aniston. Says director Michael Lembeck: “I don’t think there was anyone — including the men — who didn’t think he was a hunk.”
Says he doesn’t believe monogamy works
And so it goes for the New Jersey-bred bartender turned action hero still known to close pals as Bruno: Happy endings come his way, even in the hardest circumstances. Less than two years after Willis and Moore called their 10-year marriage quits, he has shifted from licking his wounds to living with new lessons. “My feelings (about love) are different now that I’m 44, and I’m sure they’ll be different when I’m 50,” Willis told London’s Daily Telegraph last month, explaining that “I don’t believe in the general success of long-term fidelity or monogamy.” Indeed, though Willis and Moore have yet to divorce or dissolve their estimated $20 million in joint real estate holdings — including their 18-acre Flying Heart Ranch in Hailey, Idaho, and a 14-room apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — their life as a couple is long over. For more than a year since her last project (the yet-to-be-released Passion of Mind), Moore has devoted herself to carting their three girls — Rumer, 11; Scout, 8; and Tallulah, 6 — to basketball games and monitoring homework in Hailey, while slipping in quality time with her martial-arts-instructor beau Oliver Whitcomb, 30. Willis, meanwhile, bought a sprawling $1.1 million stone-and-wood home about five miles north of Hailey last September. Though busy with back-to-back projects (he started work on the supernatural Unbreakable in Philadelphia last week), he returns at least once a month to be with his children — mountain biking along the creek that runs through his property, grabbing a burger in town or just letting the kids practice Spanish with his girlfriend of 13 months, Madrid-based model-turned-marketing-exec Maria Bravo.
"Bruce’s children are so precious, they’re like angels,” says Bravo, 32, whose last visit to Hailey was a three-month stay that included the Christmas holidays. “The children would spend three days a week with Bruce and four days a week with Demi. We spent some time together (with Moore),” Bravo adds. “She’s a sweet lady, very sweet. Because she has a relationship with someone else, that helps.” Bravo’s romance with Willis, she admits, has triggered a torrent of stories in European tabloids, which last week had them broken up after he flew solo from Marbella to Hailey to spend Easter with his kids. But Bravo dismisses speculation, saying, “People make things up out of envy or for money. Our relationship is better than ever.”
As evidenced by the sight of a giddy Willis swinging like a kid from a light fixture in a Munich nightclub last month. But on the L.A. set of The Kid earlier this year, Bravo was witness to a very different side of Willis. In his role as a 40-year-old jerk given a George Bailey-like chance to see himself as a young boy, the star displayed off-camera antics that were less Eddie Haskell than Ward Cleaver. Armed with Tootsie Rolls, Willis also handed out plenty of advice to his 7-year-old costar, Spencer Breslin: Jump up and down to get energized for a high-action scene, slap yourself in the face to work up an on-cue cry, and never, ever, cough into your palm. “Bruce told me I might spread germs if I touch someone else’s hand,” says Breslin. “He taught me how to cough on my elbow instead.” Breslin was charmed by Willis’s “very nice” daughters, who came to visit once during the three-month shoot-and especially with Scout: “She’s great at making herself burp.” But he was most taken by Willis, whose relentless chant “TATS” (Think About the Scene) helped the young star focus before each take. “You know he’s a dad by the way he acted with Spencer,” says Breslin’s mother, Kim, 42. “He was kind, patient and gentle. He’s a megastar, but he acts just the opposite — cool and calm.”
As far as some folks are concerned, a little too cool and calm these days. When Willis and Moore set up home in the mountain hamlet of Hailey in the late ’80s, they quickly ingratiated themselves with the locals. Willis bought the Liberty cinema and refurbished it with Bolivian rosewood panels and love seats in the balconies. He bought Shorty’s Diner and turned the ’50s-style cafe into a hugely popular lunch spot. A block away, he bought The Mint nightclub for $200,000 and put $1.5 million into renovations — including a hi-tech sound system and top-of-the-line pool tables. Crowds came from nearby Ketchum and Sun Valley, often hobnobbing with Willis himself. “He loved to smoke cigars and party there,” says one local restaurant owner. “He was perfectly content playing deejay and hanging out in his office.” No longer. After separating from Moore, Willis closed Shorty’s and The Mint. In the year it took him to sell the diner, complains Wayne Adair, news editor of the local Wood River Journal, “there was nowhere to eat breakfast in Hailey.” Willis’s theater is still running, but The Mint, open now only for an occasional private party, is most often dark, its sidewalk choked with weeds. “I think Bruce just kind of slammed the door on everything here after he and Demi hit the skids,” says a manager at a local Mexican restaurant. “The consensus is that people wish he’d just sell The Mint to somebody who’d run it like a business rather than a hobby,” says Adair. “Since the big publicity flare-up around the separation,” he adds, “Bruce has just kind of disappeared into the woodwork.”
Make that into a whirlwind, worldwide romance. Born on a U.S. military base in West Germany to David Willis, a retired welder who lives in New Jersey, and Marlene, who lives in California (they divorced in 1971), Bruce moved to Carneys Point, N.J., when he was 2. But he has never lost his feeling for far-off lands. An original investor in Planet Hollywood (which filed for bankruptcy last October but continues to operate while reorganizing), Willis has for years taken his band, the Accelerators, to play in the movie-themed clubs in Europe. But these days it is less his passion for performing that draws him abroad than his growing romance with Bravo. Whether hunting for real estate in Madrid (they were checking out million-dollar villas in the tony La Moraleja area last month) or deejaying ’60s songs at a Planet Hollywood in Munich, says a close friend of Bravo’s, “I get the impression he can’t live without her.”
Willis is not the first to be taken by Bravo’s striking beauty and what her friend calls her “huge heart.” But for the longtime fixture in Marbella’s high-society scene, life has not always been so glamorous. Her father, Alfonso Gonzalez Aranda, reportedly has three convictions in Spain for dealing drugs. And though her mother, Angeles Bravo Jorba, is now a self-described “housewife” who lives in Marbella, she once ran a seedy strip bar called La Reina in the nearby resort town of Estepona. Bravo was 24 when she married Canadian helicopter pilot John Pierre Gonyou. They lived together in Miami Beach and later in California. But by 1998 the couple had split, and Bravo returned to Marbella, a seaside playground for wealthy Europeans. There, she began modeling and worked for an agency that stocked VIP parties throughout Spain with beautiful women.
It was at the opening of Planet Hollywood in Madrid in November of 1998 that Bravo met Willis, and the two began dating a few months later. By all accounts, Willis is unabashed in his affection for her. While in Munich for the German premiere of The Whole Nine Yards last month, Willis and Bravo — along with a group of about 20, including Willis’s brother David, 36, who coproduced Yards — spent a lively evening at the chic Primo restaurant. According to owner Cesareto Adriano, they feasted on veal in black truffle sauce (Willis’s favorite), fresh gnocchi (potato dumplings) with veal ragout, and “nonstop red wine — Bruce loves red wine,” says Adriano. “He and Maria were really sweet together, cuddly and warm.” The story was much the same in Marbella a couple of days later. A few rounds at the Golf Club de las Brisas (“Maria is better than Bruce,” says a pal with a laugh), dinner with friends, dancing till dawn. “She’s a very simpatica girl, not overly impressed with the fact that he’s Bruce Willis,” says her friend Pedro Eyzaguirre Carlson, a golf-course developer. “When they’re together she just acts normally. It’s not ‘Bruce! Bruce! Bruce!'”
Which is more than Bravo can say for the paparazzi who hound them in Europe. “It makes me uncomfortable that people stare at me like I’m a monkey,” she says. But if anyone can teach her to roll with the punches — and probably to throw them now and then — it’s the man behind the infamous Smirk. “It’s difficult weaving my way through this path of being referred to as a ‘superstar,’ ” Willis said last month. “So I try to make fun of it.” A harder task might be weaving his way through a still unsettled personal life. Neither meaningfully married nor officially divorced, he is, as Moore’s publicist Allen Eichhorn says, “separated. That’s where it sits. There is no more insight.” Nor has he truly unpacked his bags since he moved out of the log-style cabin he and his family shared until two years ago. But for the moment, it seems, in the moment is where Willis wants to stay. As Bravo puts it, “Wherever we are, we make our home.”
— KAREN S. SCHNEIDER — PAMELA WARRICK, KEN BAKER and LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles, KEITH RAETHER in Hailey, KAREN NICKEL ANHALT in Munich, JANE WALKER in Madrid and NINA BIDDLE in Marbella