The ''Unbreakable'' star doles out some of his best performances yet

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated December 23, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Much as we admire the mannered cadences and layered textures of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inimitable acting style, we’re willing to bet that Quentin Tarantino never once considered casting him for any part in Pulp Fiction. And while we’d be the first to sing Sylvester Stallone’s praises as the greatest on-screen grunter since Brando, we know for a fact that M. Night Shyamalan never thought of hiring him to star in The Sixth Sense. But Bruce Willis — the guy who made ”Yippee-ki-yay, motherf—er!” one of the most memorable movie lines of the 1990s, the guy who spent the better part of the last 12 years dangling from office towers while kicking Euro-terrorist butt — turns out to be an action hero with acting chops.

This year, Willis, 45, not only graduated to Serious Actor status, he may have even elbowed his way to the front of the class. His performance in Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense follow-up, was so sublimely subtle and skillfully understated, it was easy to forget what sort of part he was actually playing — an action hero. ”I didn’t want to look or sound in any way like any other character I’ve ever played,” he says of his approach to the role of David Dunn, the sports stadium security guard with superhuman strength. ”I didn’t want to recognize anything in this film as being derivative of any other film I’d ever done.”

As it turns out, Willis did that a couple of times this year. With Warner Bros.’ The Whole Nine Yards, he finally managed to make a medium-budget dark comedy that didn’t sink at the box office ($57 million). And with Disney‘s The Kid — the third of his three-picture deal with the studio, after Armageddon and The Sixth Sense — he finally managed to make a medium-budget light comedy that didn’t sink at the box office ($70 million). For the first time in his career, Willis proved he could pull people into theaters without blowing stuff up. And not just into theaters: His three-part guest spot on Friends this year not only boosted the sitcom’s ratings, it netted Willis his first Emmy since he shared tube time with Cybill Shepherd in the 1980s.

”When I started out I was just a kid playing myself,” he says. ”I mean, my character on Moonlighting — that was me. And then I spent the next 15 years trying to reinvent myself, trying to try new things. I think that’s what most actors do.”

But not what all action heroes do.