How Bruce Bailed
An action hero disses his roots

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, there was a scrawny boy named Bruce.

See also...
... by G. Patrick Pawling
... in the Dirt section
... from September 13, 1999

He stuttered badly. He liked attention. The girls thought he was cute.

No, this isn't the Bruce from Asbury Park, New Jersey. This is the one from Jersey's farm country; the kind of place where men are men and sheep are afraid.

You know him as Bruce Willis, Mythical Action Man. I remember him as a skinny kid in an olive-green Army coat, hanging out on the corner in front of the YMCA, hands shoved into his pockets against the cold, watching enviously as the cool guys in the Chevelles and the Camaros drove past. There wasn't much else to do in Penns Grove, NJ.

Bruce was a year younger than I was. We hung in different crowds. Mine was much cooler (so we thought). He became class president; I became a hippie. He disappeared for awhile and moved to New York; I hitchhiked. He showed up on a TV show called Moonlighting; I went to work for a tiny newspaper, where I was only going to stay for a short time while learning to be a Great Writer. He wound up rich and famous; I did not.

Back in Penns Grove, the memories of Bruce aren't all good. You see, he made some promises. He was going to fix the town up. He bought some land, and people began buying the whole dream. For a dying town, a $48.5 million waterfront complex is a salvation. You could feel the optimism in the air. But Bruce pulled out, and the land is for sale. In this movie, John McClane can't save the world.

"I don't think he gave a rat's ass," said one former childhood friend. "There were a lot of people who thought that the whole town was going to be transformed."

Bruce still shows up occasionally. His father still lives there, in the house Bruce bought him.

While shooting The Sixth Sense in Philadelphia, Bruce dropped in at the Roman Pantry to see Marianne DiMarco, the restaurant's owner and a childhood friend. "I tell the girls to try to be cool, not to make a fuss over him," DiMarco said. "I want him to feel normal. So what do I do? I yell his name real loud. Bruce!"

Did she ask about Demi?

"I didn't dare."

Does she remember him from back in the day?

"Oh yeah, he was really cute," she said. "He still is. He's got a baby face. He was always like a comedian, fun to be around."

She couldn't remember if he ever tried to put the make on her. "He was flirty," she said, laughing. "He probably did."

Truth is, he's still flirty. The way some people tell it, he seduced a whole town, then walked away.

Pat Pawling, who lives at the New Jersey shore, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Life, Time, Sports Illustrated, and others. He says he wouldn't trade places with Willis, and he claims he means it.