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Come Out to the Coast and Enjoy These Secrets About Die Hard

For Die Hard's 35th anniversary, star Reginald VelJohnson talked to E! News about his breakout role as Bruce Willis' lifeline and whether or not the action classic is really a Christmas movie.

By Natalie Finn Jul 15, 2023 2:00 PMTags
Watch: Is Die Hard a Christmas Movie? Reginald VelJohnson Says…

It's always a good day to talk about Die Hard.

But July 15 is particularly appropriate, since that's the day in 1988 when the action thriller opened in theaters, turning Bruce Willis into a movie star and proving that there's no wrong time of year to celebrate Christmas.

"It broke boundaries," Reginald VelJohnson, whose Sgt. Al Powell served as Willis' character John McClane's eyes and ears on the ground, told E! News in an exclusive interview. "And it was a very good film from the beginning."

It was also a hit, making $142 million worldwide. Which maybe doesn't sound explosive in MCU box office terms, but it was made for only $28 million, and at the time Willis was known for TV's Moonlighting, Alan Rickman was just some British import and VelJohnson's biggest movie moment to date was telling the Ghostbusters the mayor wanted to see them.

Then, Die Hard changed all their lives.

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Bruce Willis' Best Roles

Yet even when VelJohnson got the part, he had no idea how important his role was going to be—to McClane, as the embattled cop who literally crawls through broken glass to save his wife and her fellow hostages from the terrorists who crashed her office Christmas party, and to the movie's overall entertainment factor.

He sat down with E! News to reminisce about the making of the enduring classic, so you will not have to read about it in TIME magazine.

The Accidental Hero

"It's Bruce's top performance ever, I think," Reginald VelJohnson told E! News of Bruce Willis' first of five outings as New York cop John McClane.

And he only got the chance after Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Richard Gere and Burt Reynolds said no—as did 70-year-old Frank Sinatra, who was offered the part first as a contractual formality because he'd starred in another movie based on a novel by Roderick Thorp, whose Nothing Lasts Forever became Die Hard.

Blessings All Around

The list of actors who passed on the role of McClane almost included Willis. He was still making Moonlighting in 1987 and didn't think he'd be able to mess with that schedule.

"As it turns out, a miracle happened," he recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 2007. "Cybill Shepherd got pregnant and they shut down the show for 11 weeks—just the right amount of time for me to run around over at Nakatomi Tower."

Acknowledging that he was at least the fifth choice for the film, Willis quipped, "I think I was the 50th choice! They went to everybody...All of those guys probably would have been great John McClanes. As it turns out, if you think about John McClane now, you can't imagine anybody doing it but me, right?"

And being a blockbuster newbie didn't prevent 20th Century Fox from paying Willis a then-eye-popping $5 million.

"It was nothing more than the fact that a film I'd done, Blind Date, had a good opening," he said. "A good opening weekend in those days was $7 million. Now, if it doesn't make $100 million it's a failure."

Welcome to the Party

Needless to say, the tone of Die Hard would've been wildly different without Willis—or with one of the other actors who almost played LAPD Sgt. Al Powell, who fatefully gets the call about a possible disturbance at Nakatomi Plaza while he's at an am/pm stocking up on Twinkies for his pregnant wife.

Director John McTiernan wanted Robert Duvall to play Powell, according to casting director Jackie Burch, though McTiernan said he was "hoping for Larry Fishburne." But in any case, Burch told Brian Abrams' for his 2016 e-book Die Hard: An Oral History that she went to bat for VelJohnson.

"'He's the nicest man you'll ever meet,'" she recalled saying at the time, "'and you need him just the way Bonnie Bedelia is an asset for Bruce'" as McClane's wife Holly.

VelJohnson recalled Gene Hackman actually getting the job but then having a scheduling conflict, after which "they decided to go with an unknown," he told E! "And I happened to be the unknown they decided to go with."

Over and Out

McClane and Powell famously don't meet face-to-face until the end of the movie after spending most of the time conversing through walkie-talkies. 

"I treated the walkie-talkie like another actor," VelJohnson recalled. "I didn't realize it was going to be an integral part of the movie until the movie came out. I had no idea."

When McClane is in the bathroom tending to his feet, Willis had VelJohnson come read his lines in person—and the actor was admittedly terrified because, simply, it was his first big movie and he didn't want to screw it up.

Willis wasn't called upon to read in person for VelJohnson, but no hard feelings. "I was in awe of him," VelJohnson said. And they got to be friends after filming wrapped, when both were on solid ground.

Many Moving Parts

Willis did end up pulling double duty on Moonlighting and Die Hard at first.

"So after the first week," screenwriter Steven E. de Souza told Slash Film in 2018, "John McTiernan came to me and said, 'We have at least another week of this overlap. Why don't you go back into the script and see if you can find more stuff for all the other characters to do?'

"That led to more scenes at the house with the housekeeper," he explained, "it led to building up the idiot newscaster, and it led to some of the great scenes between Holly and Hans Gruber."

Moreover, de Souza continued, "Powell was always in there, but under that direction, I ended up giving him more interaction with the cops on the ground, and there was some comedy that came out of that."

The 11th-hour additions to the dialogue necessitated a bit of improvisation from the actors and a lot of last-minute memorization. Willis credited his Moonlighting experience, while VelJohnson attributed his stage work for his ability to go with the flow.

"For a young actor," he told E!, "the stage is the most telling classroom that you could ever have...Theater gives you a certain discipline that you don't get otherwise. It teaches you how to deliver."

Magic Potion

The late Alan Rickman was a respected actor in his native Britain but a newcomer to Hollywood when he was cast as Hans Gruber, the witty and ruthless big bad who spawned countless imitators.

In real life Rickman was so lovely, VelJohnson recalled, "that it's hard to see him as a villain. He was so kind to me, and I admire that he became a star because of that movie. He was a great guy."

And a good sport: When it came time for Gruber's, er, downfall, they attached Rickman to a rig and practiced dropping him from different heights, always with a "3-2-1-go" countdown onto an air bag. 

But when it was time to get the shot, they dropped him on "1," so that's real shock registering on Gruber's face.

Rickman "was terrified," production designer Jackson De Govia told Abrams. "Any of us would be. You saw a fear of death, and I think, as an actor, he just let his emotions go."

A Real Cut-Up

R-rated violence aside, nothing is more wince-inducing than what happens to McClane's feet, his bloodied soles a constant reminder that he is, in fact, just a mere mortal who got caught up in a terrorist attack with his shoes off.

Of course, that was just movie magic, and to lessen the possibility of real injury, Willis wore rubber feet when he was running through any prop glass.

Getting Tanked

McClane's increasingly soiled white undershirt (and eventual foot bandage) was a purposeful wardrobe choice to distinguish him from the nattily dressed Gruber.

Die Hard costume designer Marilyn Vance said she made 17 tank tops for Willis and another 17 for stunt double Keii Johnston, according to CNN. And, she told Dazed in 2012, she specially tailored Willis' pants to make him more proportional "because he has a long body and short legs."

The Natural

VelJohnson went on to play a police officer for nine seasons on Family Matters—and that was not a coincidence.

"[Series co-creator] Tom Miller saw Die Hard and they were looking for the husband of Harriette," he shared about getting cast as Carl Winslow opposite Jo Marie Payton on the classic ABC sitcom. "They had me come in and it was a perfect moment." (Though the success of Family Matters rendered him unavailable for more than a small role in 1990's Die Hard 2.)

A Christmas Story?

Despite singing a few bars of "Let It Snow" in the film, VelJohnson was not aware he was starring in a Christmas movie. Or at least in a movie that would cause a massive debate over whether it's a Yuletide treasure or not.

"Everybody seems to think that it's a Christmas movie," he noted. "I guess they have the right to say so...Bruce would say no, he doesn't think it's a Christmas movie, I'm sure."

And, he added, "Personally, I don't think it is, but if people see that, then let them see it. Whatever made the film a hit, I'm happy for it."

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