Bruce Willis has frontotemporal dementia, as condition worsens

‘While this is painful, it is a relief to finally have a clear diagnosis,’ his family has said, nearly a year since they announced he would step away from acting after being diagnosed with aphasia

Bruce Willis
In this file photo taken on January 15, 2019 US actor Bruce Willis attends the premiere of Universal Pictures' "Glass" at SVA Theatre in New York City.ANGELA WEISS (AFP)

Nearly a year after Bruce Willis’ family announced that he would step away from acting after being diagnosed with aphasia, his family says his “condition has progressed.” In a statement posted Thursday, the 67-year-old actor’s family said Willis has a more specific diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia.

“While this is painful, it is a relief to finally have a clear diagnosis,” the statement read. “FTD is a cruel disease that many of us have never heard of and can strike anyone.”

Last March, Willis’ family said his aphasia had affected his cognitive abilities. The condition causes loss of the ability to understand or express speech. In Thursday’s statement, his family said communication challenges were just one symptom of frontotemporal dementia.

The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration describes FTD as a group of brain disorders caused by degeneration of the frontal and/or temporal lobes of the brain that affects behavior, language and movement. Aphasia can be a symptom of it. The association describes frontotemporal degeneration as “an inevitable decline in functioning,” with an average life expectancy of seven to 13 years after the onset of symptoms.

“Today there are no treatments for the disease, a reality that we hope can change in the years ahead,” the family’s statement read, adding that it can take years to get a proper diagnosis. “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.”

The statement was posted on the website for the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration and signed by Willis’ wife, Emma Heming Willis, his ex-wife Demi Moore, and his five children, Rumer, Scout, Tallulah, Mabel and Evelyn.

Over a four-decade career, Willis’ movies had earned more than $5 billion at the worldwide box office. While beloved for hits like “Die Hard” and “The Sixth Sense,” the prolific actor had in recent years primarily featured in direct-to-video thrillers.

“Bruce has always found joy in life — and has helped everyone he knows to do the same,” the family said Thursday. “It has meant the world to see that sense of care echoed back to him and to all of us. We have been so moved by the love you have all shared for our dear husband, father, and friend during this difficult time. Your continued compassion, understanding, and respect will enable us to help Bruce live as full a life as possible.”

In addition to playing the lead in Hollywood blockbusters, Willis gained popularity in the early 1980s thanks to the television show Moonlighting, together with actress Cybill Shepherd. His role as the private detective David Addison won him three Golden Globe nominations and one win. He was also a candidate for two Emmys, and he won one for Best Lead Actor. His film career didn’t bring him any awards, despite playing several renowned roles. He appeared in iconic films including Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994); Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1994); M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) and Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012), in which he shared the screen with Bill Murray and Edward Norton.

In 2015, Willis made the leap to Broadway, playing the lead in the adaptation of the Stephen King novel Misery. New York theater critics panned his acting, calling it “inert and empty.” Since then, he has performed only in low-budget films made for direct-to-video release. Most of his late work has been poorly received by critics, when they took note of it at all: Willis has been so prolific that many of his recent films have gone unnoticed. In the last edition of the Razzies, known as the anti-Oscars, he received eight nominations in a category made just for him: “Worst Performance by Bruce Willis in a 2021 Movie.” But he didn’t reach the extremes of other once-famous actors who later fell into disgrace, maintaining a delicate balance between his blockbuster fame and mass production.

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