Wooing women. Taking a punch. Fending off wolves. The great American action hero solves every man’s most pressing concerns.
Wooing women. Taking a punch. Fending off wolves. The great American action hero solves every man’s most pressing concerns.
By Bill Zehme
“I question all of it,” he says of life itself just before he begins trying to save mankind (for you) one more goddamned time. “You can bet on me,” he will tell you, curling up that golden smirk. But he does reassure for a living, this Walter B. Willis — a man who goes by his middle name, and, frankly, can you blame him? He has endured exultantly at the forefront of Reliable Everymen who step up to cataclysm at a theater near you (lately, less cataclysmically in Kevin Smith’s comedy caper Cop Out). “I’m kind of a trademark now,” he says with belief and disbelief. And then: “If I had ever caught me saying that about myself before, I’d go, ‘Shut the fuck up.’ ” He is a man who answers his every thought with a second thought, and then a third, ad infinitum; they stack up fast and frenetic. “I’m a tangential thinker,” he apologizes. “I’m not sure if I’ve ever come to any conclusion.” ¶ Well, he does, and did — if eventually — during a long, twisting soul purge one cold afternoon at a Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow. This day, the youngest of his three colorfully named daughters — famously they are Tallulah, 16; Scout, 18; and Rumer, 21 — has been beset by flu, which inflames her father’s vigilance. He takes microbreaks to field sickbed-status texts sent from the nearby home of her mother, Demi Moore, between calls to a doctor friend and to his new bride, Emma Heming. (Sample news flash: “Ohh! A Tallulah update: ‘Feeling much better. Temp dropped two degrees, consuming food.’ Okay, good, good. ‘Giving her Tylenol, fluids. Holding off for now on Tama—’ It’s T-a-m-i-f-l-u. I correct people’s spelling all the time. I try not to. It’s a nervous tic.”) And so reels the electric Bruce-brain fast approaching its 55th year of minutiae management — “I’m a compendium of useless information,” he demurs, quite unnecessarily. “We’re just slouching toward wisdom here.” Never mind that his posture is plenty damned erect, thank you.
What new enlightenment awaits a man in the middle of his sixth decade?
These days I find that I’m in a continual process of trying to come to terms with everything that I used to think I knew. In my 20s I thought I knew exactly how the world worked. And in my 30s, I had to rethink it. Forties, same rethink all over again — as in, man, was I wronnng. Now I realize I was never right. There are things that you have to accept about yourself — limitations, old instincts and patterns — which is a very, very liberating kind of revelation. But you can’t teach that or give it to someone. We all just have to get there.
What are the benefits of owning your mistakes?
I don’t think you learn that much from being right. Or from catching a break. I doubt myself on a regular basis. I now enjoy the language caveat: “I’ll tell you what I think, but I’m prepared to be wrong.” And being wrong is such a good icebreaker, too: “I was wrong about so many things.…” Philosophically, karma-wise, you can say that your mistakes are part of your path in life or exactly what you’re supposed to be doing this time around on Earth. But I may be wrong.
Where does the concept of fate belong in a man’s life?
Here is why you can’t ever have any regrets or spend time thinking about “if onlys”: You can’t pull a thread out of the rug without the weave coming loose somewhere over on the other side. Then the whole rug falls apart when it’s still a work in progress. Only now can I look back at how I first got hired on Moonlighting and say, “Well, if I hadn’t been with that girl and if I hadn’t finished that play,” etc. — all these things combined to get me out here at just the right moment. Because it was the last week they were seeing actors after they’d already seen 3,000. The whole “meant to be” thing, it’s beyond my “comprenshun,” as we say in South Jersey. Same deal with love: What if you didn’t get on the bus and sit across from that girl who’s supposed to be the love of your life? What if you get off the bus before she gets on? I think you’ve got to forget about the bus, and just know that you’re always on the bus, and we really don’t have that much to say about it.
What is the secret to breaking patterns of our own idiotic behavior?
I’m a big fan of the mentality: “If a man doesn’t remember his own history, he’s destined to repeat it.” Always in wars and in romance, it happens. And, man, I have repeated myself way too many times not to pay attention. I finally addressed my history the really hard way. I just stopped, literally. I took time off from all relationships and said, “There is no way I can fuck it up any more than I have. There is no way I can really ever count on someone of the opposite sex, or anyone, to make me happy if I can’t make myself happy.”
After a man has soured on love, how does he find it again?
I was past soured. I turned my back on love. It ended up being four years. Now, there was some interaction with other women, but I was straight right away: “Even if we get along great, it is not going to become anything. So just get all your hopes and dreams out of the way and let’s just have a good time tonight.” So my stance was to just keep saying no. But I did know that you’re unlikely to find your next wife — or any partner — in a nightclub or in a bar. Or doing drugs. That is a different world. It’s like looking for water in the desert when the ocean is almost in front of you. Because I never really decided to open myself up — and there it was. I married someone I had already known for three years from working out at the same gym. That doesn’t happen very often. Is that Zen? Or was it just dumb luck?
How does a man know when he is in love?
I can look at how I interact with my kids and say, “This is love. I know what it is. I got it.” I would step in front of a car for them. I’d do it for my wife now. I’d probably still do it for my ex-wife. I’ve peeled every layer off and come to the bright core: It’s just a light. It’s when you can put someone else’s welfare ahead of yours. When you say, “You eat first, you go first, you do whatever first. I’m good.” It’s not a sacrifice. Last year — the year I got married — I was with Emma every single day except for one. Sleeping together and waking up together. Every day. If you knew me at all in my past, that’s a fucking miracle.
How does a man maintain a relationship with his ex-wife?
I was getting something out of it. You can’t spend a decade with someone and raise kids with her and come away unfeeling. I just put my head down and said, “The kids come first. And we’ll do whatever it takes and maybe even laugh about it.” You can fall in love again and bring another person into it, and if everybody is okay with it — and you’re not just faking it — we all win. Mr. K and everybody involved should also get credit for the synthesis of this. It’s not like you’re standing there going, “I hate this guy, he’s a dick, this is so painful, this is so uncomfortable for meeeeeee.” Once you start putting the kids first, it isn’t uncomfortable. Bravery is stupid a lot of times, but there’s nothing stupid about this particular subject.
When is it acceptable to tell a lie?
Little babies learn to lie before they can speak; they’ll cry or act like they’re hurt in order to get what they want. Gorillas have indicated lying to keep peace among the gorilla family. You can explain away lying, or not telling the truth, or shading the truth, or putting some spin on the truth, so you don’t hurt someone. But, really, what’s the truth? It’s hard to tell the truth about yourself. What you can learn to live with is the mark of your character. What you can tell about yourself that is true without having to make up a cover story is the mark of where you set yourself in the world. Not that every truth teller wins. Look at what happened to Jesus.
What is a man’s most dependable liquid intoxicant?
I’m a master at this topic from my early bartending years. The only answer: anything with vodka. I remember regularly seeing guys who drank brown alcohol — the nicest guys — become a mess. Next thing you knew two big guys had their arms and were sending them outside with the warning not to come back for two weeks. Brown brought on the madness. I had a long year when I developed a taste for Armagnac. I would get up in the morning, and my daughter Scout was old enough to know that I was pouring a little Armagnac into my coffee. I’d say [whispering], “Just a little medicine in the coffee.” And she’d give me a look. She still quotes me — “a little medicine in the coffee…”
Why do men try to fix things without consulting a manual?
I am a hands-on guy. Just today I was fooling around with the air-conditioning at home, doing it myself without a manual. I descend from a long line of mechanics. Every one of my uncles had at least one part of a digit on their hands missing, from working on car engines or welding or various things. My dad almost had the tip of one of his fingers cut off by a lawn mower. But it was all in the name of solving problems. No manual for the heating regulator? Let me see for myself — I can figure this out. And, while it’s hard to say this without sounding patronizing, I think women want to talk through the problem. That’s not a bad thing. But we just want to fix it fast, so you don’t have to worry about it. No matter what it takes. I tell ya, if I ever get out of this acting racket, I’m going to go be Dr. Phil’s competition. Except I would be the alpha-dog side and tell you how to kill a wolf with your bare hands.
How does a man go about killing a wolf with his bare hands?
Okay, it may never come up. You may never need it, but that one time when you’re confronted with that big wolf, this is how you do it. You’ve got to give the wolf your arm. You’ve got to lean into it. Stick your arm all the way down his throat. He can’t swallow it because he’s gagging on your arm. You reach in; you grab a handful of something — guts, the back of his throat, whatever you can hold — and pull it out. And try to avoid those claws while you’re doing it.
When is a man best suited to become a father?
I don’t think I would have had a clue about what to do with kids in my 20s. Back then, I didn’t want to be around kids or anyone else’s kids. I was busy trying to get this career thing going. I would’ve been that guy asking, “How am I going to pay for this? Does it all really end now?” For women there’s a whole different psychology attached. They start glowing immediately. When Rumer was born, I was 33. The baby was a surprise. But by that age I was really into it, like: “Let’s go! This is great!” I can say this after having three kids and being at four other births: I was right in there — delivering them, pulling the babies out, laughing, crying. Twenty-five people were in the room — sanitary hospital conditions set aside for the fact that we wanted to share this with all our friends. Demi wanted no drugs. She had the power of 10 men — almost snapped off two of my fingers squeezing them so hard. I went, “Go ahead, break them off. It doesn’t matter.”
Which essential lesson must a father pass along to his children?
You’ve got to hope that you’ve sent them into the world with enough information and ammunition to be able to fight for themselves. You don’t want your daddy fighting your battles. Rumer worked at a Marc Jacobs store while she was figuring out what she wanted to do. She found out that she had an aptitude for acting, and right away she came back to us and said, “I know you could help me, but I want to either fail or make it on my own without ever thinking that you did something for me.” I said, “All right, God bless you, that’s great.” She abandoned the lifeline. She did the hard thing first — which has always been a sign of character in my book.
What do women know about us that we never know about ourselves?
Forget “about us” — they know things in general, instinctively. Women can see through their own guy’s shit better than anybody can. And really quick. A woman can size up another woman in about 30 seconds. Just tell her, “I like that woman.” Slut. I go, “How do you get that? Already?” She’s fucking everything that moves. And they are right all the time. Dead right. They are working on a wavelength that men could never get to.
How can a man disarm a woman most effectively?
I’ve always gone for laughter. Not only to disarm, but to try to charm. Entertain them. But don’t make a big deal about it. The one that I like the best is to very quietly lean in and say something really goofy to make them burst out laughing so snot comes out of their nose and they are slobbering and going, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe you just said that!” It can throw ‘em off the track of thinking you’re predictable — at least for a few minutes. I will reduce myself to utter foolishness to keep my wife laughing. Here’s one just about every guy can pull off: Take a drink of water when they’re not looking, then wait until they ask you a question and just start talking and let water dribble out of your mouth. Guaranteed to get a laugh. You can’t go wrong.
How can a man avoid irritating the woman with whom he lives?
You could say, “I didn’t leave that toilet seat up, must be someone else,” but then you’ve got to tell that lie and you’ve got to remember your lies. I volunteer things I don’t even have to, like: “Here is something I didn’t tell you, but I just need you to know — for two days while you weren’t here, I reverted to my caveman mind and left the toilet seat up the whole time.” The truth is so easy.
How does fame change a man?
It’s like alcohol. Whatever you are, it’s going to make you more of that. Being famous, there really is a lot of illusion to it. It’s not the same as being successful. It’s a candy store and you can always choose when you want to get off the ride of your life. I think I’m still on it. I don’t think I’ve ever got to the point where I go, “It’s time to really start looking for something else to do.” I’m still digging it. But if I could tend bar during the day and do low-rent theater every night, I’d still be really happy.
How does a man benefit from escape in his life?
I don’t think that I can ever say that I made the choice to live in Sun Valley, but it was an idea that I had because Demi and I were becoming really famous and I said, “Ya know, what if we go to Idaho and live there for a while?” We ended up staying for almost 12 years. And becoming really invested in this little town of Hailey. Great town. I’d get the dogs and go outside and play in the river and mountains. And now I’ve got a place in Turks and Caicos. It’s tough to beat. I’ve been a lot of places and that one — if there’s something else that’s calmer, I don’t know what it is. Nobody comes up and hassles me. They don’t ask me for anything. I’m not compelled to be the big prize bull.
What is the best way to take a punch?
Try to protect your temples — because that’s a knockout punch. So is the button, on the chin, so keep it tucked down into the chest. But mainly just try with every ounce of strength you have not to fight. It took me a long time to understand that a lot of guys wanted to be the guy who kicked John McClane’s ass. And it’s really difficult to explain to someone who has been overserved, “No, I’m not that guy.” Not that he isn’t in here somewhere.
What’s the best way for a man to handle anger?
I allow myself a very short window to be angry. I’ve been fairly successful in trying to pass that on to my kids. Tallulah is the latest recipient of that little piece of knowledge. Here’s an example: “Okay, I know you’re mad right now. But, by and large, it’s a useless emotion. I’ll give you about five minutes. You can be as angry as you want. Bust up the joint. Throw things around, but after that you’ve just got to accept it, move on, and try to learn from it.” That’s older-man wisdom. You do have a shorter fuse when you’re younger. The hardest thing I had to get over was holding grudges. Now I let them go. But there are two or three big ones that I set in concrete when I was younger that I don’t think will ever go away. If it ever comes up, I go, “Ehhh, I don’t think I’ll ever speak to that person again in this lifetime.” Then I move on. Because it has no meaning or impact on my life now. I’ve gotten past it and I’ve survived.
How should a man’s mortality figure in to his everyday life?
There is nothing to say about our own mortality except that you can hurry it along a little bit. You have that option. You can drink every day of your life. And take drugs every day of your life. I’d rather smell somebody else smoking weed on the street than smoke weed myself anymore. Whenever I’m in the company of someone who used to do this drug that makes you run off to the bathroom to do it, I’m reminded of how often I get up to pee now. And I go, “Oh, my God, I wonder if somebody thinks I’m doing blow in there.” Until you have kids, you are not aware of your own mortality. They are little living calendars, and you know that while time is passing for them, it’s passing for you. I wonder whether science or medicine can get us to 100 in this lifetime. Because if I can feel good at 100 as I feel now and still run, still work out, still eat, drink, fuck — all the things that I am still capable of doing really well and enjoying — then all bets are off. So just wash your hands three or four times a day, and cough into the crook of your elbow instead of into your hands. Extending that life span has to start somewhere. Also, I will do everything in my power to not go under the knife. That way lies the acceleration of your death.
How does a man remind himself to live in the moment?
I’m glad we’re talkin’ about this. Embrace your death. Make friends with it. Know it’s out there. Tickle it under the chin, and just know that it’s coming. And not in a bad or morbid way — or an “Oh, God, I’m going to die someday” way — but use it as motivation. Use it as an impetus to get everything you want to do in this lifetime done before you die. I was raised in a generation that was saving money for a rainy day: “Don’t do anything too rash while you’re young; save it all for when you’re older.” Well, I think it’s rainin’ right now. I think live it up.
This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Men’s Journal.