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How Commando 2 became Die Hard

With “A Good Day to Die Hard” releasing this week we thought we’d take a look at how a proposed sequel to an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie turned out to be Bruce Willis’s biggest movie

“Die Hard” started out as “Nothing Lasts Forever”.

That’s a book.

It also wore the guise of “Commando 2” – for about 5 minutes.

Yep. Allysa Milano’s Pop should’ve been swinging from rope outside a building.

It’s true. John McTiernan’s landmark actioner originally started as a sequel to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s camouflaged-hero movie “Commando” (1985).

Fox had commissioned Steven de Souza, writer of “Commando”, to write a sequel to the 1985 Arnie biffobuster and he completed the libretto on-time and to company specifications. The story was inspired by one of de Souza’s favourites, a treasured detective novel by Roderick Thorp called “Nothing Lasts Forever”, which tells of a retired police officer named Joseph Leland and his plight to rescue the people of Klaxon Oil, whose company is taken over by terrorists (Frank Sinatra played the character in “The Detective”, also based on a book by Thorpe).  But even before it was a “Commando 2”, the guts of the story was originally intended for use by another sequel.

“In 1968, Roderick Thorp’s best selling novel “The Detective” had been made into a film starring Frank Sinatra and Lee Remick, released by 20th Century Fox”, explained ScriptSecrets. “When the film became a hit, the producers told Thorp if he wrote a sequel, they would buy it. Thorp’s response was “I’m writing one now.” Then he went home and started writing a new chapter in the life of the detective played by Frank Sinatra. He had read a book titled “The Glass Tower” (which would eventually be made into the film “The Towering Inferno”) about a group of people trapped on the top floor of a high rise office building by a raging fire, and found the idea of people trapped above the reach of rescue equipment intriguing.

“In that time period, the newspaper headlines seldom reported fires. What they did report was civil unrest, the latest bombings by the Weather Underground, and the latest kidnapping or bank robbery committed by the Red Army terrorist group. So Thorp substituted terrorists for fire, his Detective for the firemen… and “Nothing Lasts Forever” was born.”

“Fox made a “back loaded” purchase deal with Thorp, with the majority of his payment coming when the film went into production. This didn’t bother Thorp, as the hardback book would certainly become a best seller as soon as the film was officially announced. Thorp was on easy street. Until Frank Sinatra turned down the film. And the hardback book (without the heat of the film deal) didn’t become a best seller. “Nothing Lasts Forever” didn’t even go to paperback until 1979, and even with good reviews (“Single mindedly brilliant in concept and execution” – Los Angeles Times) it did not sell well.  Fifteen years later, Joel Silver was looking for a project they could make on the cheap. He found “Nothing Lasts Forever” in the Fox archives and commissioned a script. The first person they offered the lead to was, of course, Frank Sinatra. He had played the character in the hit film “The Detective”, after all. Sinatra turned it down again. Silver offered it to Robert Mitchum. Mitchum thought there was too much running and jumping for a man his age, and declined.”

The Examiner said, “Once you get in depth into the book you’ll see what an amazing job the screenwriter’s did in converting the book to the silver screen. The basic premise of the movie is all there in the book. Some of the character’s from the movie are the same. The desperation of the main character, whose name is Joe Leland in the book, is much the same as John McClane’s in the movie. ”

On, a reader says of the book :

“First of all, I should probably say that Die Hard is one of my favorite movies of all time. For me, reading the book it was based on was a no brainer, but I even recommend it to people who aren’t fans of the movie. While retaining the same basic “terrorists seize building” plot of the film, the novel is actually very different. It involves a much older hero (Joe Leland) who is desperately trying to save his daughter and two grandchildren, rather than his wife. The whole thing is a little more realistic and plausible than the movie. For instance, Leland’s daughter, Stephanie, is not your average, ethically flawless, damsel in distress. She is obviously not a perfect person. More than once, Joe finds himself thinking about all the mistakes she has made in her life. The book contains variations on all of the familiar stunts and supporting characters (minus the two arrogant FBI agents) that really helped to make the movie great. The action sequences are quite suspenseful, especially for a book. What really enhances the suspense is Leland’s vulnerability. He doesn’t kill without emotion, and he’s definitely not physically invincible. In a few parts it really seems like he’s done for. Nothing Lasts Forever is an overall great book that is extremely entertaining and hard to put down. My only major complaint is that since the entire story follows Leland’s point of view, you only come into contact with the head antagonist (Gruber) when Joe does. As a result, the character of Gruber is not nearly as memorable as Alan Rickman’s portrayal in Die Hard. To wrap up, if you liked Die Hard it would be a mistake not to pick up this book, and even if you weren’t crazy about the film, Nothing Lasts Forever is different enough to warrant a strong recommendation.”

Obviously, the script turned out well, and with Frank Darabont, then hot off “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3” script duties, hired to punch it up for Arnold, Fox were ready to make the deal with muscles.

Schwarzenegger went cold. Between the release of “Commando” and the time the script arrived on his doormat, he was the biggest movie star in the world. He could pick and choose whatever he wanted. He knew he didn’t want to reprise the role of John Matrix in a sequel to “Commando”, not because he didn’t enjoy the experience of doing the directed original, but simply because he didn’t want to repeat himself (that time didn’t come until 1991’s “Terminator 2”). So the actor, then gearing up for “The Running Man”, passed.

de Souza’s script wasn’t going to go to waste. Fox decided it could be salvaged. The scribe – who would write another Schwarzenegger vehicle, “The Running Man” – was asked to rework it into an original, stand-alone piece.

“Die Hard”.

Once completed, Schwarzenegger was asked whether he was interested in doing the picture now that a) the film was now an original, and featured a character called John McClane (Rather than John Matrix from “Commando”) and b) his “Predator” director John McTiernan had agreed to direct.

He wasn’t.

It was pretty clear “Die Hard” would not be a Schwarzenegger vehicle but the big guy wished “dem allz very gaud lark with what wheel be an aggzellent moffie”.
Everyone from Gibson to Stallone to Caan to Reynolds to Ford and Gere were offered the part of cheeky New York Cop John McClane (even then-hot TV star Don Johnson was discussed at one stage). Nobody was much interested – nobody on the A-list, anyway.

Bruce Willis was started to gather steam for his work TV’s “Moonlighting”. He wasn’t an action star – far from it; if anything, he was a comedy actor. But his name ended up on a ‘second list’ of ‘not as well known’ names – like “MacGyver” star Richard Dean Anderson, and “Platoon” scene-stealer Tom Berenger – that could potentially play McClane.

Willis nailed the audition. He understood the character. He was born to be McClane. But he was only given the role after a bunch of other candidates passed.
Their loss. Willis’s gain.

Even after the movie – which Willis shot at night, because he was doing “Moonlighting” during the day – was completed, and the studio saw how great the one-time bartender was in the role of McClane, Fox wasn’t convinced people would be rushing out to see something he was in. So, instead of building a marketing campaign around the up-and-coming star, they decided to concentrate on the film’s captivating storyline – even the original poster featured the building in the film, rather than Willis’s face.

When the movie came out, people went bananas for it… but more so, they went crazy for the film’s lead.

With his rapidly rising popularity, and all the good notices, the marketing campaign was soon tweaked to feature Willis’s image.

Obviously, Arnold’s probably kicking himself for not doing “Die Hard”, but there’s clearly no hard feelings between the Governator and Bruce Willis. Cut to 25 years later and the original intended star of “Die Hard” and the guy who’d end up carving himself a plum franchise – a further four “Die Hard” films would be made after the 1988 film – by accepting sloppy seconds (or was it sixths?!) are making movies together.

Willis’s latest “Die Hard” film, “A Good Day to Die Hard” opens this month.

Finally, here’s an old interview Bobbie Wygant did with Bruce Willis just after the release of the original “Die Hard”. It’s a goodie.

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