Die Hard is one of the most important action films ever made. Revolutionising the genre in the late 80s and inspiring countless imitations, the film presents a more pared-back and believable take on a story of one bold hero fighting to save the day against overwhelming odds. We suspect that (like us) many of you have seen the film multiple times, but how much do you really know about it? Here are some facts about Die Hard you might not have known.
20. Frank Sinatra could have been John McClane
Die Hard is based on Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever, which was itself a sequel to a 1966 book called The Detective. Frank Sinatra starred in the film as cop Joe Leland back in 1968, and the legendary entertainer himself asked Thorp to write a follow-up which was more action-oriented. Unfortunately, this took Thorp a little longer than expected, as Nothing Lasts Forever was not published until 1979.
Because of Thorp’s delay in writing his sequel to The Detective, once the film adaptation was in development Sinatra was already in his 70s. Nonetheless, the filmmakers were contractually obliged to offer Sinatra the film first, though happily he decided to pass, recognising that he was too old to take so physical a role. It was then decided to rework the project into a standalone movie, and the character of Joe Leland became John McClane.
19. Sam Neill was offered the role of Hans Gruber before Alan Rickman
Irish-born New Zealand actor Sam Neill rose to prominence internationally in the early 80s, taking the lead role in The Omen sequel The Final Conflict, and at one point becoming a serious contender for the part of James Bond. When it came time to cast Die Hard’s villain, German terrorist and criminal mastermind Hans Gruber, Neill was the first actor offered the role.
However, Neill was not interested in the script and turned it down, clearing the way for Alan Rickman to be cast instead. We might consider this a blunder on Neill’s part, but he had no shortage of success in his future, appearing in such acclaimed hits as Dead Calm, The Hunt for Red October and The Piano before landing his signature role of Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic Park.
18. Bruce Willis was left off the posters – until the studio realised audiences loved him
Die Hard established Bruce Willis as one of the all-time great big screen action heroes, but this was total virgin territory for the German-born American actor back in 1988. After early trailers for the film were reportedly laughed at by audiences accustomed to hulking action heroes like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, studio 20th Century Fox became concerned that their leading man might be promotional poison.
For this reason, early posters produced for Die Hard simply focused on the Nakatomi Tower building, with no sign of Willis and no mention of his name. Happily, once the movie was released audiences responded well to Willis’ wise-cracking turn as John McClane, and subsequently new posters were issued which prominently featured the actor’s name and face.
17. Alan Rickman performed a 40-foot fall for real
Everyone remembers the death scene of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, plummeting from the skyscraper in slow motion. It’s a remarkably convincing use of blue screen technology, as Rickman really looks as though he’s falling from the building – when in reality he was dropped 40 feet onto a giant blue air cushion which (so long as he landed correctly) presented little physical risk.
If you’ve ever thought that the look of terror on Rickman’s face was convincing, there’s a good reason for that. In order to inspire a very genuine reaction, Die Hard director John McTiernan pulled a trick on the actor; Rickman was expecting a ‘one, two, three’ before being dropped, but he was let go on ‘one’. That take was the one used in the final film, and it was the last thing shot with Rickman.
16. Bruce Willis was shooting Moonlighting at the same time
Bruce Willis was by no means a movie star when Die Hard was first released (his earlier films Blind Date and Sunset both flopped), but he was still a familiar face to audiences, albeit on the small screen. The actor had risen to fame alongside Cybill Shepherd on TV detective comedy Moonlighting, and he was still working on this show at the same time as Die Hard.
Often he would work on Moonlighting during the day whilst also filming Die Hard at night (not unlike how Michael J Fox simultaneously worked on Back to the Future and TV’s Family Ties). Not long after Die Hard proved a box office smash, Moonlighting was cancelled, in part because of how in-demand Willis had become as a film actor.
15. ‘McClane’ falling down the elevator shaft was actually a real accident by a stuntman
One of the most heart-stopping moments in Die Hard comes as Willis’ John McClane nervously lowers himself down an elevator shaft from the strap of a machine gun, reaching out for the vent below. Just as it seems in reach, the strap gives way, and McClane goes tumbling down, seeming sure to fall to his death – until he manages to grab onto the next vent below and crawl in.
The stuntman performing the move down the elevator shaft (which was in reality nowhere near as deep as it appears to be) was meant to successfully climb over to the vent, but he accidentally fell. Die Hard’s editors Frank J Urioste and John F Link were able to cut this into the sequence in a way that looked natural and made the moment even more dramatic than it might have been.
14. Bruce Willis wore rubber feet when running through the glass
Bruce Willis’ costume in Die Hard is one of the most memorable, not to mention easily imitated action hero ensembles ever: black slacks and plain white vest (or at least, it’s white at first), with bare feet. Shooting an action role without shoes was obviously a bit of a challenge for the actor, as there were certain moments where his exposed tootsies were liable to get hurt.
This is never more evident than in the wince-inducing sequence in which Gruber, aware of McClane’s lack of footwear, orders his henchmen to shoot out the glass doors, forcing McClane to run for his life across a pathway covered in broken glass. In order to perform this scene safely, Willis was given a pair of specially made rubber feet.
13. McClane and Gruber’s first meeting was unrehearsed
While the initial script for Die Hard was written by Jeb Stuart, significant revisions were made by Steven E de Souza. The script was not 100% complete when the film started shooting, so de Souza was on set throughout production to make as many last minute rewrites as were necessary. This even included the addition of some entirely new scenes which hadn’t been in the script beforehand.
The scene in which McClane and Gruber first meet, with McClane initially seeming unaware of his adversary’s true identity, was one of those last-minute rewrites. De Souza got the idea after he heard Alan Rickman trying to speak in a Californian accent, and realised that Hans pretending to be an American hostage would be a good way for him to meet McClane. As well as being written late in the day, the scene was also shot without any rehearsal, as director John McTiernan wanted to create a feeling of genuine spontaneity.
12. Editors had to cut around Alan Rickman’s gun scenes because he kept wincing
As is common for action movies, Die Hard features a whole lot of guns, and many of the film’s actors were required to handle and fire them on camera. This proved to be a bit of an issue for Alan Rickman, as the British stage actor had barely any experience with firearms. To begin with, Rickman wasn’t even sure how to hold a gun correctly, initially handling it with a limp wrist.
Rickman also had a problem, which many actors are known to struggle with when firing guns on camera: involuntarily wincing and blinking every time he pulled the trigger and the blank round went off. This forced the film’s editors to cut very carefully when they were working on Rickman’s gunfire scenes, doing their best to avoid any glimpse of his awkward reaction.
11. John McClane’s teddy bear also appears in The Hunt for Red October
When Bruce Willis’ John McClane arrives in Los Angeles from New York, he’s not entirely alone: the off-duty NYPD detective is accompanied by a massive stuffed bear, which he has brought as a Christmas gift for his children. This fuzzy co-star winds up spending the bulk of the film in the limo, with driver Argyle (De’voreaux White).
Endearingly, this massive cuddly toy really belonged to Die Hard’s director John McTiernan, and was included in the film at his behest. Nor was this the last time the esteemed action filmmaker would feature the big brown bear on camera: it would make a second feature film appearance in McTiernan’s next directorial effort, 1990’s The Hunt for Red October.
10. The title was taken from a script which later became The Last Boy Scout
Die Hard was produced by Joel Silver, who was rapidly becoming one of the most successful action producers of the decade after such hits as 48 Hrs., Commando and Predator. Silver also produced 1987’s Lethal Weapon, a hugely influential action smash which was written by a young up-and-comer named Shane Black. Silver had seen some other scripts by Black, one of which was a detective movie called Die Hard.
The producer loved this title, and thought it would be a much better fit for his latest production than Nothing Lasts Forever. Black agreed to let Silver take the title Die Hard, and the writer renamed his script The Last Boy Scout. This would be filmed in 1991, with none other than Bruce Willis in the lead.
9. Nakatomi Plaza is really the headquarters of studio 20th Century Fox
Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman may be the headline actors, but in many ways the real star of the show in Die Hard is Nakatomi Plaza, the eye-catching skyscraper in and around which the lion’s share of the movie’s action takes place. The filmmakers didn’t have to go particularly far from home to find the right building for them to use.
In reality, Nakatomi Plaza is Fox Plaza, which was the corporate headquarters of Die Hard’s studio 20th Century Fox. (Since the studio was purchased by Disney, the building is now renamed 20th Century Studios Plaza.) This 493-foot tower once housed the offices of former President Ronald Reagan, and has also been seen in the movies Lethal Weapon 2, Airheads and Fight Club.
8. Alan Rickman had never made a film before
It wasn’t only Die Hard’s leading man Bruce Willis who was lacking in big screen experience when the film went into production. The filmmakers took an even bigger chance on casting Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber. Whilst the esteemed British thespian had been working in theatre for more than a decade and had a few TV credits to his name, he had never made a feature film before.
Of course, Die Hard changed all that. Just as Willis suddenly became Hollywood’s hottest action star, Rickman was quickly in demand as a movie villain, although the actor was reluctant to play nothing but bad guys. Rickman’s other best-loved films include Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Galaxy Quest and the Harry Potter series.
7. Pretty much every big name actor of the 80s turned down the role of John McClane
To this day, Die Hard remains the film that Bruce Willis is most closely identified with, and the actor put so much of his own unique personality into his performance that it’s hard to envisage anyone else playing John McClane. However, Willis was only offered the role after more or less every big name 80s actor you can think of said no.
Early on, Clint Eastwood was attached to the project. Later, it was earmarked for Arnold Schwarzenegger (as a potential sequel to Commando). Then it was offered to Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Nick Nolte, Don Johnson, Charles Bronson, Richard Gere, Mel Gibson and even MacGyver’s Richard Dean Anderson, all of whom declined.
6. The “yippee ki-yay” line originally ended with a different swear word
Much as how John McClane has remained Bruce Willis’ signature role, the character’s most famous line remains Willis’ signature catchphrase: “yippee ki-yay, motherf***er!” This vulgar play on the words of more innocent big screen cowboy Roy Rogers became instantly iconic, and yet the line Willis delivered wasn’t quite what was in the script: as written, the line was “yippee ki-yay, a**hole.”
After shooting several takes, Willis ad-libbed “motherf***er” purely to make the crew laugh. He succeeded, but the filmmakers immediately recognised this was a much better line. To this end, they had Alan Rickman’s Gruber say it back to McClane later in the film, and Willis has repeated it in every Die Hard sequel (although it was controversially censored in the PG-13 rated Live Free or Die Hard, aka Die Hard 4.0).
5. The rooftop explosion jump was the first scene Willis shot
One of the most iconic moments in Die Hard comes as John McClane leaps off the roof of Nakatomi Plaza with a firehose tied around his waist, just in time to evade an explosion. While this scene was of course not actually shot at the top of the skyscraper, Willis did indeed perform the jump himself with an explosive device set off right behind him – and it was his first day on set.
Willis later recalled, “When I jumped, the force of the explosion blew me out to the very edge of the air bag I was supposed to land on. And when I landed everyone came running over to me, and I thought they were going to say, ‘Great job! Attaboy!’ And what they were doing is seeing if I’m alive because I almost missed the bag. Finally, I was like, ‘Why would you shoot this scene first?’ And they were like, ‘If you were killed at the end of the movie, it would cost us a lot more money to reshoot the whole thing with another actor.”
4. Holly actress Bonnie Bedelia is the aunt of Macaulay Culkin
There seems to be a never-ending debate as to whether or not Die Hard is really a Christmas movie, but given that it’s set on Christmas Eve, for many people it’s staple viewing in the holiday season. You might not have known that the film also has a connection with another beloved festive favourite released just two years after Die Hard.
The role of John McClane’s estranged wife Holly is taken by Bonnie Bedelia, who Bruce Willis personally suggested for the role after seeing her in 1983 film Heart Like a Wheel. Bedelia’s birth name is Bonnie Culkin, and she is the aunt of actors Macaulay Culkin and Kieran Culkin, both of whom appear in Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.
3. The script was originally set over the course of three days
A big part of what makes Die Hard such an intense, gripping viewing experience is how its events seem to play out almost in real time, over the course of a single night. This was not the way things went in screenwriter Jeb Stuart’s initial draft of the screenplay, however, in which the action was spread over the course of three days.
Director John McTiernan insisted on changing this set-up, feeling that there would be a far greater energy to the movie if it took place over just one night. This was one among many changes made to the script by co-writer Steven E de Souza, who at McTiernan’s behest also rewrote the villains to make them thieves rather than genuine politically motivated terrorists.
2. Ellis was originally meant to be suave
Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber and his cohorts make for very memorable bad guys, but there’s another bad apple in the bunch who winds up stealing a lot of scenes in Die Hard: Hart Bochner’s Ellis, a co-worker of Holly’s. Bochner’s gleefully sleazy performance makes Ellis a memorable anti-hero, but this is quite far removed from how the character was originally envisioned.
John McTiernan initially wanted Bochner to play the role as genuinely suave and sophisticated, but Bochner suggested making Ellis a satire on the drug-fueled arrogance and ignorance that exemplified the 80s corporate yuppy. The director wasn’t convinced, but allowed Bochner to play the role that way after producers Joel Silver and Larry Gordon responded well to his performance.
1. Bruce Willis was only able to do the film because of Cybill Shepherd’s pregnancy
Believe it or not, after every major Hollywood leading man said no to the role of John McClane, Bruce Willis initially followed suit. When the actor was first offered Die Hard, the production schedule on the film clashed with the upcoming latest season of Moonlighting, which left Willis unable to accept the role despite being interested.
Then, as Willis himself puts it, “a miracle happened: 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.” Willis’ commitment to Die Hard meant further delays on production of the fifth (and ultimately final) season of Moonlighting, but the show’s creator Glenn Gordon Caron forgave him, later calling Die Hard “one of the greatest movies ever made.”