Bruce Willis: what is actor’s illness aphasia, why did he retire - and has he sold rights to his face?

The Die Hard actor retired from the big screen after 44 years in the industry following his dementia diagnosis
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Hollywood icon Bruce Willis has called time on his glittering career after his health situation was revealed over the course of a few months.

The action star, best known for his performances in Die Hard, Pulp Fiction and The Sixth Sense, was initially diagnosed with aphasia. The debilitating condition was then announced to have progressed into frontotemporal dementia. His family made the announcement in February 2023.

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Now his daughter, Tallulah has opened up about the impact the diagnosis has had on him and his family. In a personal essay for Vogue, she said that Willis' mental decline was noticeable for "a long time", adding: “It started out with a kind of vague unresponsiveness, which the family chalked up to Hollywood hearing loss: ‘Speak up! Die Hard messed with Dad’s ears.’"

Tallulah, 29, said that the unresponsiveness from her father continued and worsened over time, with the 29-year-old taking her father's indifference in her life "personally". She said: "He had had two babies with my stepmother, Emma Heming, and I thought he’d lost interest in me.

“Though this couldn’t have been further from the truth, my adolescent brain tortured itself with some faulty math: I’m not beautiful enough for my mother, I’m not interesting enough for my father.”

However, she revealed that post-diagnosis, Willis is coping as well as possible with the diagnosis. She said: “He still knows who I am and lights up when I enter the room.”

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Prior to his retirement announcement, confusion over whether the actor has sold the rights to his face to a deepfake company, after his ‘digital twin’ appeared in a Russian advert.

But what exactly is aphasia and why is Willis not working in Hollywood anymore? Here’s everything you need to know.

Bruce Willis’ stellar film career

The veteran actor is one of Hollywood’s most recognisable stars, reaching the height of his career in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. During this time, he became famous for his portrayal of John McClane in the Die Hard film series.

In the late 1990s, he also went on to star in box office juggernauts Armageddon and The Sixth Sense. Bruce also had a starring role on sitcom Friends and won an Emmy for his performance in the show.

Bruce Willis as John McClane in Die HardBruce Willis as John McClane in Die Hard
Bruce Willis as John McClane in Die Hard
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In more recent years, Willis has appeared in The Expendables franchise alongside fellow action stars Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well reuniting on screen with director M. Night Shyamalan in the Unbreakable trilogy, where he starred alongside James McAvoy and Samuel L. Jackson.

He has also turned his hand to music over the years, recording and releasing three solo albums.

Why has Bruce Willis retired from acting?

After a glittering career on screen, the actor announced earlier this year that we was to retire after being diagnosed with aphasia.

His daughter Rumer Willis shared a statement on Instagram which read: “To Bruce’s amazing supporters, as a family we wanted to share that our beloved Bruce has been experiencing some health issues and has recently been diagnosed with aphasia, which is impacting his cognitive abilities.

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“As a result of this and with much consideration Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him.

“This is a really challenging time for our family and we are so appreciative of your continued love, compassion and support. We are moving through this as a strong family unit, and wanted to bring his fans in because we know how much he means to you, as you do to him.

“As Bruce always says, “Live it up” and together we plan to do just that.”

The statement is signed off by members of his close family including his ex-wife Demi Moore.

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The actor seems to be in good spirits depsite the recent diagnosis, after his wife, Emma Heming, posted a video of him playing basketball to Instagram stories. She captioned the video: “I see you BeeDub”.

Sylvester Stallone, a good friend of Willis’ and a former co-star, provided a further update to his health in November. He said that the actor was in a difficult place following his diagnosis, saying: “Bruce is going through some really, really difficult times. So he’s been sort of incommunicado. That kills me. It’s so sad.”

What is aphasia?

Aphasia is a condition in which your ability to communicate is severely impacted. The condition is normally caused by damage to the left side of the brain - for example, a stroke or head trauma.

According to the NHS, people with aphasia often have trouble understanding and using language, and often struggle to read, write, type, speak and listen. This can include getting words mixed up while speaking, using the wrong word or using the wrong sounds to pronounce a word.

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It is most common in people over the age of 67, however can affect people of all ages.

Has Bruce Willis sold the rights to his face?

There has been speculation that the Hollywood star has sold the rights to his face to a deepfake company called Deepcake, following his retirement.

An advert for a Russian telecoms firm featured a fake version of Bruce WillisAn advert for a Russian telecoms firm featured a fake version of Bruce Willis
An advert for a Russian telecoms firm featured a fake version of Bruce Willis

On 27 September, the Daily Mail reported that a deal had been agreed between Willis and Deepcake, and that the AI firm had “created an ultra-realistic 'digital twin' of the actor, 67, by putting images of his face into their network”.

Willis's agent denied the deal in a statement to the BBC: "Please know that Bruce has no partnership or agreement with this Deepcake company."

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However, a deepfake of Willis was used to create an advert for Megafon, a Russian telecoms company, last year, which Deepcake was involved with. "What he definitely did is that he gave us his consent (and a lot of materials) to make his Digital Twin," they told the BBC.

And there is a statement on the Deepcake website which purports to be from Willis, which reads: "I liked the precision of my character. It's a great opportunity for me to go back in time. The neural network was trained on content of ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Fifth Element’, so my character is similar to the images of that time.

“With the advent of the modern technology, I could communicate, work and participate in filming, even being on another continent. It's a brand new and interesting experience for me, and I grateful to our team."

In a statement from Deepcake, the firm said reports that it had bought the rights to Willis's face were inaccurate: "The wording about rights is wrong… Bruce couldn't sell anyone any rights, they are his by default," a representative for the company said.

Given the conflicting reports, it remains unclear whether Willis has sold the rights to his face and if we’ll be seeing any more of his ‘digital twin’ on our screens.

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