In 2022, Bruce Willis’ family made his illness public. But Tallulah Willis recalled that there were early warning signs long before that.
If you look at the Bruce Willis films that the action star shot between 2018 and 2022, with today’s knowledge they sometimes seem like a document about the slow but unstoppable progression of his illness. One sees less and less the character that the 68-year-old tries to embody, and more and more the private Bruce Willis, who struggles to remember his few and short sentences and to follow the stage directions despite help. According to a review by the Chicago Suntimes, in his latest film “Assassin – Every Body is a Weapon”, which was filmed in June 2021 and released in the United States on March 31, 2023, he is said to appear completely beside himself, as if he were nothing more he himself.
It’s been an open secret on the many film sets of his recent B and C movies that Willis has been churning out like crazy that he’s struggling with something. During the shooting of “Hard Kill” he is said to have suddenly fired a gun loaded with blank cartridges – a dangerous situation (via Los Angeles Times). When it could no longer be veiled and hidden, his family must have decided to take the burden off him and make his aphasia public in March 2022. Worse still: Aphasia, which severely impairs the ability of those affected to speak, turned out to be the harbinger and sub-form of frontotemporal dementia.
According to the German Alzheimer Society, this is a form of dementia that is often recognized too late, as its clinical picture is not uniform and the symptoms can be confused with other psychiatric diseases. Bruce Willis’ family wasn’t able to spot the first early warning signs of his creeping dementia either, as his daughter Tallulah Belle Willis recalled in an interview with Vogue:
“I knew for a long time that something was wrong. It started with a kind of vague inattention that our family traced back to Hollywood deafness: ‘Say something! ‘Die Hard’ damaged father’s hearing.’ Later that unresponsiveness spread and I took it personally. He had two children with my stepmother, Emma Heming Willis – and I thought he’d lost interest in me.”
In fact, behavioral and character changes, such as a decreased ability to perceive and express emotions and a disinterest in family and friends, are said to be among the first signs of frontotemporal dementia. Coupled with the inability to understand and formulate words caused by aphasia, sufferers become increasingly isolated from the outside world.
Because she was struggling with anorexia and attention deficit disorder herself at the time, she partly ignored her father’s mental decline, partly related to herself: she was “the ugly duckling of the family”, not beautiful enough for the mother, not interesting enough for the father, says the 29-year-old.
Tallulah on Her Father Bruce Willis: ‘He Still Knows Who I Am’
All that matters to Bruce Willis’ extended family is to spend as much time as possible with him and savor the time that is left. In the case of frontotemporal dementia, an average life expectancy of around eight years is assumed after the onset of the first symptoms. In particularly severe cases, those affected die after a short time, others live for around 16 years (via care). Tallulah also wishes she had more time with her father:
“He still knows who I am and is happy when I walk into the room. […] I keep switching between present and past when I talk about Bruce [Willis]: he is, he was, he is, he was. That’s because I have hopes in my father that I’m reluctant to give up. I have always recognized elements of his personality in me. And I just know that if we only had more time, we would be such good friends.”