One of the most curious movie facts of recent decades is that thanks to a longstanding clause in his movie contract, the role of John McClane—the all-action hero of the Die Hard movies, forever associated with Bruce Willis—originally had to be offered to Frank Sinatra.
At the bottom of this peculiar arrangement is the fact that 1989’s Die Hard was not an original story. Instead, it was based on a 1979 novel, Nothing Lasts Forever, by the American author Roderick Thorp.
Admittedly, not much of Thorp’s novel remains in place on screen. The “American Klaxon Oil Corporation” from the book became the Japanese Nakatomi Corporation in Die Hard. The group of German Cold War-era terrorists in the novel became professional thieves merely disguised as terrorists in the movie, and led by a sole German national (memorably played by Alan Rickman).
And Thorp’s lead character—retirement-age ex-NYPD detective Joe Leland—became the considerably younger John McClane for the film.
Thorp’s Joe Leland, however, had not only already appeared in one of his earlier novels, but had already appeared on the big screen. In 1968, Thorp’s novel The Detective was adapted into a Hollywood movie starring Frank Sinatra in the title role, and that meant that when Thorp’s sequel, Nothing Lasts Forever, was mooted for a similar big-screen adaptation two decades later, Sinatra’s 1968 contract maintained that he still had first refusal on the role.
Thankfully, the fact that the producers of Die Hard had a much more action-packed adaptation of the story in mind (and the fact that Sinatra was 74 years old in 1989!) meant that the role of the newly renamed John McClane wasn’t for him. As a result, the producers looked elsewhere in their casting choices—but even then, Bruce Willis was not first on their list.
The role of Detective McClane was offered to a whole host of 1980s A-listers, almost all of whom turned it down—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Richard Gere, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Nick Nolte, Mel Gibson, Don Johnson, Burt Reynolds, and MacGyver star Richard Dean Anderson among them. Eventually, the role was offered to Willis, who at that time was best known as a comic television star (thanks to his role in Moonlighting), and had only made one movie.
Regardless of his relative inexperience, however, happily Willis would go on to make both the movie—and the role of John McClane—his own.