After his sophomore year at Montclair State College, the blue-collar, Carney's Point, N.J., native (he was born on a military base in Germany) drops out of school and moves to New York determined to make it as an actor. Willis parties hard, tending bar and nightclubbing while getting roles off Broadway and off off Broadway. "I'd just start walking, anywhere, wind up in some new neighborhood, spend all day doing that," he later tells The New York Times in 1995.
As wisecracking private detective David Addison, Willis becomes a household name opposite Cybill Shepherd on the ABC primetime series Moonlighting. "Women find him appealing and guys have a fantasy that they could be like him," ABC talent vice-president Gary Pudney tells PEOPLE in 1987. "That's why he's become such a valuable commodity to us so quickly."
Throwing a raucous four-day Memorial Day weekend bash at his Hollywood Hills home, Willis is arrested on suspicion of assaulting an LAPD officer when police respond to several noise complaints. With stereo speakers set up poolside, Willis plugged in a mike and sang along with many of his favorite albums, to his neighbors' chagrin. "Listening to Bruce Willis try to sing over a P.A. system," a nearby resident tells PEOPLE, "isn't quite like listening to Sinatra." He'll move out of the rented house several weeks later and charges against him will be dropped.
After dating for several months, Willis marries actress Demi Moore in a suite at the Golden Nugget hotel in Las Vegas. It's the first marriage for Willis, while Moore, 25, who was engaged to fellow Brat Pack actor Emilio Estevez until the previous winter, was married in the early '80s to musician Freddy Moore.
Willis earns $5 million to play Det. John McClane in the explosive blockbuster Die Hard. In his first non-comedy role, Willis becomes a bona-fide action star, performing his own stunts, including jumping off a 25-foot ledge into an air bag, just ahead of a 60-foot ball of flame. "My character, even though he's a hero, is just a regular guy," Willis tells the Los Angeles Times. "This film satisfied me in a lot of masculine ways." After Die Hard grosses over $81 million domestically, Willis will star in three sequels: 1990's Die Hard 2, 1995's Die Hard: With a Vengeance, and 2007's Live Free or Die Hard.
On location in Kentucky where Willis is filming the Vietnam vet drama In Country, Moore gives birth to an 8-lb., 1-oz. daughter named Rumer Willis (after British fiction writer Rumer Godden). "We are ecstatic," Willis tells the Associated Press. "The baby is very happy and healthy." The couple will have two more daughters, Scout Larue in 1991 and Tallulah Belle in 1994.
After several years of middling big-budget action fare (The Last Boy Scout), Willis appears as Butch Coolidge in the surprise hit Pulp Fiction. Although he initially wanted the role of Vincent Vega (played by John Travolta), he takes his part for scale, earning $1,685 per week with a back-end arrangement that allows him to receive a share of the profits.
In one day, Willis purchases a slew of buildings in Penns Grove, N.J., the blue-collar town neighboring Carney's Point, where he grew up. After spending $475,000 on an 11-acre parcel on the Delaware River and $175,000 on a large stone house, Willis buys the long-vacant Penns Grove National Bank – where his mother once worked – for $65,000. "I'm an investor who has come home to the town where I grew up," he tells PEOPLE. It's not his first real estate venture. In 1986, he began buying property in the small Idaho village of Hailey –where he and Moore raise their children – and now owns almost $10 million in investments in the area including a barbershop, pizza joint, movie theater and bar.
Willis and Moore decide to separate after more than 10 years of marriage. A producer close to Moore notes to PEOPLE that "they have had problems for at least two years." They also spent considerable time apart, with Willis never visiting Moore during the four-month shoot of G.I. Jane. They finalize the divorce in 2000, with Willis buying a $1.1 million home near Moore and the girls in Hailey, Idaho.
Bruce is one of the few actors who can play a rugged guy who is also dealing with emotions," writer-director M. Night Shyamalan tells PEOPLE. As a psychologist who helps a young child (Haley Joel Osment) tormented by ghostly visions, Willis helps propel the hair-raising The Sixth Sense to almost $300 million in box receipts. "Although a lot of people lumped him in with Stallone and Schwarzenegger," adds Shyamalan. "I never did." The pair team up again in 2000's
Unbreakable, where Willis plays the lone survivor of a train crash.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Classmates Yearbook Archives; ABC/Getty; David McGough/DMIPhoto; 20th Century FOX/Everett; Ron Galella/Wireimage; Miramax; Anita Weber/SIPA