Author and Death and Taxes editor-in-chief Brian Abrams previously won our hearts with And Now… An Oral History of Late Night with David Letterman. His 2015 book Party Like a President is a very fun, informative, and booze-fueled history lesson. This week he’s back with a year-long effort to tell the story of how arguably the greatest action movie of the 1980s, if not all-time, was made in Die Hard: An Oral History. It goes without saying that this is a must-read for ‘80s action junkies and people who simply enjoy stories about how Hollywood works.
Abrams interviewed approximately 40 people who were involved with the big screen adaptation of author Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, knew Bruce Willis when he was a young bartender, or worked on Die Hard, and there are plenty of revelations to sort through. For example, the protagonist of Nothing Lasts Forever, Joe Leland, a 65-year-old retired cop, and in the end of the original version, he dies. So does his daughter, after Anton “Little Tony” Gruber drops her from a building. It’s hardly the Christmas miracle that John McClane experiences with his wife at Nakatomi Plaza, and that’s why it took more than 10 years for a studio to finally take a chance on it.
Additionally, there was a rumor in the late ‘70s that Frank Sinatra, who had played Leland in the big-screen adaptation of Thorp’s The Detective in 1968, was attached to play the hero. It’s a lot of fun to imagine a 70-something Ol’ Blue Eyes shouting, “Welcome to the party, pal!” And of course there’s the story of the Hollywood insiders who had to fight like crazy to prove that Willis could be a leading man. But the aspect of this oral history that really jumps out at me is the struggle of screenwriter Jeb Stuart, who at the time was a quarter-million dollars in debt and in over his head with scripts.
As Stuart recalls, the biggest problem with making this film was finding a story that didn’t make viewers miserable. After all, no one wants to see the hero die in the end, and we certainly don’t want to see the daughter offed in the worst way possible. That’s why the manuscript had been marked with “Not recommended” at least twice in the 10 years before the film was released. So, Stuart was tasked with making the idea, characters, and ending more appealing to mainstream audiences. And that’s when it hit him… almost literally.
“It’s not about a 65-year-old man whose 40-year-old daughter gets dropped off a building,” he continues. “It’s about a 30-year-old guy who should have said he’s sorry to his wife, and then bad stuff happens.” Enough bad stuff, in fact, that it made Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber one of the all-time great movie villains, and ultimately inspired a film franchise that will never stop, even after John McClane is rebooted as a young New York City beat cop.
Also interesting is how the film got its name. Stuart remembers his script being “green-lit over a weekend” and his answering machine being full when he returned from a family trip. From that point legendary producer Joel Silver became involved and he told Stuart that the film’s new title would be Die Hard, and that he “had this title in my head for years and never found anything that we can call it.”
Except it was Shane Black who put the title in Silver’s head, because that was the original title of The Last Boy Scout, which Black had pitched to Silver, according to stuntman and director Craig R. Baxley, who told Abrams, “Trust me. Shane came up with Die Hard.”
It’s all fascinating stuff, covering everything from Willis’ early days as a bartender to director John McTiernan’s reluctance to take on the film unless Silver was willing to alter the story even more than Stuart already had, which led to Stuart being replaced by Steven DeSouza. There’s even an appearance from Reginald VelJohnson, who had all but given up on acting before he auditioned for the role of Sgt. Al Powell, and was upset that he didn’t get a bigger role in Die Hard 2.
Who knew there could be so much drama surrounding an ‘80s action masterpiece?