I Remember Bruno: Tales Of A Pre-Fame Bruce Willis Bartending In ’80s Era New York City

I’ll open with the naked truth: I’ve never shaken hands with Bruce Willis, whose very unfortunately forced retirement was announced this week. Indeed, given my profession, there’s not much of a chance that he would have ever wanted to shake my hand. At the height of his fame, and beyond, Willis’s disdain for journalists was nearly as legendary as his humongous screen presence. He apparently disliked premiere, the magazine at which I worked from 1996 to 2007, not because of something the magazine wrote about him, but rather on account of a profile of Demi Moore, his wife at the time. For this, we were denied coverage of many projects in which he participated.

So how is it that I can say “I remember Bruno” (Bruno being of course the alter-ego he presented on his 1987 LP The Return of Bruno, the critical drubbing of which absolutely contributed to Willis’ hatred for journos)? Because I was in the vicinity of his presence and mystique before and during the time of his big break.

Maybe rather than “his,” I should say “their” big break. For in 1985 Willis was indeed two guys. One the aspiring actor hustling for work. Not just any work, but work that would get him attention. That was Bruce. The other was Bruno, the bartender bouncing around Manhattan mixing drinks and collecting tips…and, at after-hours parties with other striving performers, blowing a mean harp, and belting out an impressive repertoire of R&B tunes.

The joint where I got to know of Bruno was a bar and grill called Robert’s, on Tenth Avenue and 50th Street in Manhattan. If you live in an urban area, you know restaurants have staffs packed with aspiring actors, singers, dancers, playwrights, what have you. There’s an especially sour joke in the 2011 Garry Marshall picture New Year’s Eve in which Penny Marshall, playing herself, drunkenly sneers at a woman carrying a tray, “You’re not an actress, you’re a waitress!” before demanding another drink. So it’s a pretty common thing.

So what made Robert’s a special place? It was not that just it was staffed by theater people, but also that it mainly served theater people. Being only 8 blocks away from the center of “Off Broadway” (which encompassed not only small theaters but booking agencies and acting schools; there were TV studios even further west) made it a terrifically convenient location. You could finish a shift in the afternoon and, if you were working in a play, just walk over to backstage most of the time. Robert’s was also the news hub, and what we’d now call a networking center. And the very charismatic Bruno was one of the place’s most beloved bartenders. Not to mention a rooting interest for everybody, because he was clearly in the top echelon of talents.

I hung out at the joint because a college buddy of mine, Joe Mulligan, also worked the bar there, right alongside Bruno. He was no small talent himself — at the time he was doing stand-up comedy, playing guitar and singing in a sort of comedy band, and acting in Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway stuff. (I remember him in a small production of Israel Horowitz’s The Indian Wants The Bronx, the ’80s actor’s rite of passage — it was one of plays that got Al Pacino noticed in the mid-’60s. He was good!! As good as Pacino? I could not say.) Bruno was a good buddy of Joe’s within the Robert’s circle — they met at the bar when he was called BJ’s, all the way back in the very early ’80s. He was known for his energy, his humor, and his against-the-grain-of-the-milieu political views. Yes, Willis was a GOP guy even as a young man. “You want to keep the money you earn?” he asked my friend. Then answered himself: “Vote Republican.”

Bruce Willis was a GOP guy even as a young man. “You want to keep the money you earn?” he asked my friend. Then answered himself: “Vote Republican.”

Here’s another thing about Robert’s: It was actually a bar you could go to. Broadway, Times Square, and areas west of there were quite a bit more motley than they are today. This was before Giuliani, before the Disneyfication of 42nd Street. Before Tenth Avenue became a hot strip for restaurants (a trend that Robert’s might have provided a pilot light for — their kitchen served pretty delectable grub.) This was when Worldwide Plaza was still in the blueprint stage, and when streetwalkers lined 8th Avenue going north , greeting the weary travelers emerging from the Port Authority. So you had a lot of pimp bars, a fair number of drag bars, and so on. Not to say that such places weren’t acceptable or even attractive spots for entertainment and social engagement. They were just somewhat … esoteric in their appeal. (And it’s not for nothing that all such joints were literally padlocked on the night The Lion King opened on Broadway in 1997.)

Robert’s was a little bohemia in the midst of this urban anarchy. When it was taken over by Robert Losick, it still had the name BJ’s, and prior to that it was called Sunbrite Bar, a hangout for the notorious Irish-American crime gang called The Westies. (One innovation of Losick’s was live jazz in the joint or on the stereo; it tended to deter the stray Westie who might wander in.) For the aspirant theater crowd, it was a safe space (in the parlance of our times).

And for my friend Joe, a more lucrative space after Willis got the first of two big breaks. He was tapped for the lead in an off-Broadway production of the then very hot Sam Shepherd’s very hot play “Fool For Love,” over at the Douglas Fairbanks Theater on 42nd and Tenth. Joe inherited Bruce/Bruno’s shifts while he acted. And after the show, Bruno and his harp would make an appearance, maybe at Robert’s, maybe in the Village.

It was during this run of the show that Glenn Gordon Caron, the television creator and producer, saw Willis and tapped him for the role of David Addison in what became the sensational hit series Moonlighting. What was probably a shock to Willis was an equal shock to his Robert’s buddies, because suddenly he was gone. Like that.

When I was reminded that the album The Return of Bruno was recorded in 1986 and released in January of 1987, I almost got whiplash. Fame/wealth — referred to by William James and many after him as (don’t blame me) “the bitch goddess” — bit Bruno in the ass right quick. Twitter wasn’t around then, but I can just imagine the mess had it been…

Even then, though, the album came in for a lot of “how dare this white boy sing the blues” criticism. It didn’t help that its leadoff single was a cover of a genuine African American anthem, the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself.”

What was Willis thinking? I don’t believe there was actual hubris at work here. I think he got in a bubble real fast and didn’t think through the essential thing: that what works at a boozy after-hours party with your good friends doesn’t necessarily make professional grade. The reverse text on an early head shot of Willis posted on social media recently by director, author and critic Isaac Butler has a line saying that Willis is “proficient” on harmonica. And that’s not inaccurate. (“Bruno could play the harp. He could really play,” Joe recalled when I spoke with him the other night.)

I imagine Willis wanted to cut loose, have a little fun, work in a real and snazzy recording studio, and so on. And Motown Records itself was gonna give him the chance. Eddie Murphy could not resist similar temptation, even as his own album proved that a supernaturally good mimic isn’t necessarily a born singer.

The bad press no doubt stung and contributed to his dislike of my kind. (Had I actually met him in the Robert’s days, when I was merely a rock critic, and a very fledgling one at that, things might have been different. Or perhaps I’m just kidding myself.) We all know what he did a year after the “Bruno” record came out: diehard. Which is one reason we don’t talk about the record —or its followup, for indeed there was one— that much anymore. (Which is not to say he fully retired Bruno: “I last saw him in 2009, at an Allman Brothers 40th Anniversary Show, where they brought him out to play harp on ‘One Way Out,’” Joe recalled to me. “And he tore it up.” Needless to say I’m encouraging Joe to put his own memories to paper.)

In any event, through the years after that, in addition to gifting us with fantastic performances in a spectacularly varied filmography (remember that his last great performance was in motherless brooklyn, released only three years back) he built up a track record of consistently treating his acting colleagues with generosity and consideration. And that included the old gang from Robert’s. When he famously bought the town of Hailey, Idaho in the early ’90s, he booked my buddy Joe for a long set of dates at the burg’s comedy club.

Veteran critic Glenn Kenny reviews‎ new releases at RogerEbert.com, the New York Times, and, as befits someone of his advanced age, the AARP magazine. He blogs, very occasionally, at Some Came Running and tweets, mostly in jest, at @glenn__kenny. He is the author of the acclaimed 2020 book Made Men: The Story of Goodfellaspublished by Hanover Square Press.

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