‘Moonlighting,’ the series that launched Bruce Willis on Cybill Shepherd’s hunch

‘If the second half of the script is as good as the first, I’m interested in doing it,’ said the actress, who claims she chose Willis, a waiter with little acting experience, as her co-star

Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis in 'Moonlighting.'Cordon Press
Paloma Rando

A retired ex-model enters the private detective agency that she owns, ready to fire her staff. She has just declared bankruptcy after her accountant fled with her money. She is left only with the agency, which the accountant had advised her to buy in order to launder money through it. Thus begins Moonlighting (1985-1989), the ABC series that brought 60 million Americans together in front of their television sets.

Arriving at the agency, protagonist Maddie Hayes, played by Cybill Shepherd, runs into David Addison (Bruce Willis), a private investigator as irreverent as he is impertinent. He thinks he remembers her from a Playboy from 10 years ago and tries to flirt with her. Maddie stops him: “I’m not Miss March, Miss May, nor Miss anything else. For your information, I’m Miss Madeleine Hayes and I own this dump.” The conversation becomes tense, and he again puts his foot in his mouth: “From the TV commercials and posters and billboards and all that stuff, you’d never guess what a cold bitch you are.” Maddie’s response? A slap.

Maddie and David go on to become a detective couple, trying to revitalize the agency in order to survive. There’s no mistaking what’s going on between them: they really like each other. Their sexual tension is the backbone of a series that integrated elements that were extremely innovative for television at the time, such as breaking the fourth wall and other examples of meta-television language. At the same time, it made constant nods to popular culture: one episode is presented by Orson Welles in the manner of The War of the Worlds; in another, a musical fragment is directed by Stanley Donen.

Cybill Shepherd
Cybill Shepherd as Maddie Hayes in ‘Moonlighting.’

Eight months before American viewers first enjoyed Maddie and David’s meeting, the pair met off-screen. In the middle of writing the first episode of Moonlighting, series creator Glenn Gordon Caron realized that he was writing Maddie Hayes with Cybill Shepherd in mind. He told his agent, and they sent her half of the pilot of just over 40 pages — the scripts were twice as long as normal because the characters spoke so fast — and she agreed to a meeting. At a lunch that took place in July 1984 — the series premiered in March 1985 — Shepherd said: “If the second half of the script is as good as the first, I’m interested in doing it. It’s a Hawksian comedy.”

What the hell does she mean by “a Hawksian comedy”? Gordon Caron wondered, until he realized she meant Howard Hawks.

Shepherd, Peter Bogdanovich’s ex-girlfriend and close friend, had spent years cultivating a broad knowledge of film. She had visited Howard Hawks at his Palm Springs home. She knew what she was talking about. What’s more, as Gordon Caron explained in journalist Scott Ryan’s oral history of Moonlighting: “A lot of what I was doing was out of instinct, not out of any sense of, ‘Oh, there’s an old movie style here.’ She seemed to understand what it was in ways that even I didn’t.” Shepherd went from muse to consultant in a single meal.

Shepherd’s involvement in the series was much greater than her role as a lead actress, however. As she recounts in her memoir, Cybill Disobedience, she was given a say in the choice of her co-star. Gordon Caron had hoped to cast Bill Murray from Ghostbusters, but the actor couldn’t commit to the series. Over 1,000 actors appeared for auditions. Among the six in the final selection, only one caught Shepherd’s eye: a charismatic waiter with no acting experience, wearing earrings and a military jacket. A certain Bruce Willis. “As soon as he left, I leaned over to Glenn and said, ‘It’s him.’”

A week before filming the pilot, Shepherd recounts, she, Willis and Gordon Caron watched Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday just as she had suggested. The Hawksian comedy that the actress imagined from the beginning was about to take shape. It was important to review her references. In the series, though, she was not Katharine Hepburn, but Cary Grant. Willis had long speeches, and she specialized in learning to react.

Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd as David Addison and Maddie Hayes in ‘Moonlighting.’
Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd as David Addison and Maddie Hayes in ‘Moonlighting.’

In addition to her presence on screen, Shepherd commanded off-set as well. The sexual tension between Maddie and David was reflected in reality. As she tells it, after a particularly sexy scene between them, she left the set and Willis followed her. “Are we going to do something about this between us or what?,” she asked him. “Why don’t I come over to your house tonight?,” he answered. That night, as they were kissing passionately in her house, she told him, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this.” He complied and left.

Not all of her suggestions were accepted. The exhausting 14-hour days of filming left the actors and crew on the brink of exhaustion. The situation worsened for Shepherd when two years later, at the height of the show’s success, she became pregnant with twins. Her bosses did not take the news well. The solution they found was to marry Maddie off to a guy she had just met, which the actress objected to. Her boss’s response? “Shut up and do your job. You’re not producing the series.”

Tensions grew, both between her and the producers and between the two actors, whose unconsummated affair, Shepherd maintains, was only the beginning of her problems. When the series received a collection of Emmy nominations for its season-three episode “Atomic Shakespeare,” an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew written in blank verse, the actress confesses to praying that Willis wouldn’t win — she wasn’t even nominated. Her prayers went unanswered. The toxic atmosphere on set was so apparent that the writers decided to incorporate it into the series. In one of Moonlighting’s characteristic meta-television eruptions, a journalist went to the agency’s offices to investigate the rumors about constant fights between its leads.

The situation reached such an extreme that Gordon Caron walked off set in the fall of 1988, declaring that either he would go or Shepherd would. Brandon Stoddard, the president of ABC, interceded to save the series. He spoke to Gordon Caron: “Maybe you can’t run the series, maybe you can’t tell her what to do, but you could keep writing,” hinting to the creator that the dispute had already been settled in favor of the actress. Shepherd’s perspective is different, of course. In her memoirs, she recalls, “What had begun as an alliance between Glenn and me, as well as a newcomer named Bruce Willis, had turned into Glenn and Bruce against Cybill.” Another factor was that in 1988, thanks to the success of Die Hard, Willis had made the leap to Hollywood stardom.

Its creator’s departure was the beginning of the end for Moonlighting, which ended in 1989. In the last minutes of the final episode, while they flee in terror from the destruction of the set in another meta-turn, David and Maddie look for the reasons why the series is over. They end up in a movie theater where a television producer comes to tell them that the viewers fell in love when they saw them fall in love. Now that they are no longer in love, they have lost the audience’s favor. “Love is a very fragile thing,” he says.

After Moonlighting, Willis embarked on a successful film career until his recent retirement.

Shepherd went on to star in Cybill, the hugely successful CBS series that ended almost overnight for no apparent reason. Years later, she would say that the series was cancelled after she turned down the sexual advances of Les Moonves, then-president of CBS. In 2018, Moonves resigned after 12 sexual abuse cases were revealed.

In 2005, Gordon Caron created the show Medium. In 2021, he left another series, Bull, after several writers walked out, citing it as fostering a disrespectful work environment. In 2018, one of the actresses in the series, Eliza Dushku, alleged that she had suffered sexual harassment from the protagonist of the series, Michael Weatherly. In a letter, Dushku stated that Gordon Caron “fired her in silence” 48 hours after her complaints about Weatherly. Gordon Caron, through his representative, denied the claim. It later came to light that Dushku was paid $9.5 million to settle.

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