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Bruce Willis Diagnosed With Frontotemporal Dementia

As his family announces a new diagnosis, we honor his distinguished career

spinner image Bruce Willis wearing a tuxedo on the red carpet at the Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis
Rich Fury/Getty Images

The family of Bruce Willis, 67, announced on Feb. 16 that his aphasia, which caused his retirement last March, has progressed to dementia.

“Bruce’s condition has progressed and we now have a more specific diagnosis: frontotemporal dementia (known as FTD),” said the family’s statement. “Unfortunately, challenges with communication are just one symptom of the disease Bruce faces. While this is painful, it is a relief to finally have a clear diagnosis.”

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​According to the Mayo Clinic, frontotemporal dementia often begins between the ages of 40 and 65. FTD is the cause of approximately 10% to 20% of dementia cases.

spinner image word aphasia on white toy cubes
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Everything You Need to Know About Aphasia

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Willis’ aphasia-impaired speech, announced last year, is unusually cruel, because it was his linguistic gymnastics that propelled him to fame. “People forget, but Moonlighting was very much about language — and nobody took greater delight in all that language than Bruce,” tweeted the show’s auteur Glenn Caron, who cast him, an unknown, over 3,000 candidates. “It was fun, a kind of acting college, graduate school,” Willis told Rolling Stone in 2000.

​A genius on stage, TV and film, Willis is also one of cinema’s great connoisseurs. “We all shared a goal, to do a show that reflected our love of movies by Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Preston Sturges and Leo McCarey,” recalls Moonlighting director Allan Arkush. “Cybill [Shepherd] was deeply knowledgeable about film history, and Bruce was the joker in our deck.” Musically as well as verbally dexterous, Willis exulted the day Ray Charles guest-starred on Moonlighting. “We were sitting around Ray’s piano bench, Bruce leaned over and in my ear he whispered, ‘Aren’t we the two luckiest Jersey boys in the world?’” says Arkush.

Willis lucked out more, shocking Hollywood as the nobody star of Die Hard — the first posters showed the imperiled skyscraper, not his face — and launching a multibillion-dollar blockbuster career alternating with artful performances in smart, smaller films like Nobody’s Fool. His comic style ranges from Moonlighting to the broader Death Becomes Her to the utterly puckish Moonrise Kingdom. His favorites of his own films include Mortal Thoughts, his love letter to his blue-collar New Jersey upbringing, Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys and The Sixth Sense, which got made because he took a pay cut (plus a percentage of the ticket sales, $1.1 billion in today’s dollars). His more recent masterful performances would make a fine indie film festival: Looper, Lucky Number Slevin and Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn.

Willis’ reaction to aging has long been sensible and exemplary. “I’m older,” he said at 45. “I have lines on my face. I’m losing my hair. It’s not a big deal. I dig getting old. I like the fact that I don’t look like a kid anymore. I was always wondering when I was going to become a man.”

The Willis family described more about the star’s new diagnosis in the statement.

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“For people under 60, FTD is the most common form of dementia, and because getting the diagnosis can take years, FTD is likely much more prevalent than we know,” the Willis family said. “Today there are no treatments for the disease, a reality that we hope can change in the years ahead. As Bruce’s condition advances, we hope that any media attention can be focused on shining a light on this disease that needs far more awareness and research.

“Bruce always believed in using his voice in the world to help others, and to raise awareness about important issues both publicly and privately. We know in our hearts that — if he could today — he would want to respond by bringing global attention and a connectedness with those who are also dealing with this debilitating disease and how it impacts so many individuals and their families.”

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