Yippee-ki-yay! The Truth About Die Hard

This article was originally published on our sister site Nostalgic Reads

Can you believe it’s almost been four decades since the first Die Hard movie came out in 1984? Since then, Bruce Willis’ action vehicle has catapulted beyond Nakatomi Plaza with four sequels, comics, merch, video games, and over a billion dollars in combined worldwide box office. Basically, Die Hard refuses to die, and that’s how we like it.

Bruce Willis / Alan Rickman / Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia / Bruce Willis.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com

Back when summer movies still meant something, 20th Century Fox took a risk when they released a high-concept film featuring a relatively unknown cast. Over thirty years later, Die Hard remains one of the greatest action movies… or Christmas movie, depending on who you ask.

In celebration of the holiday season, we wanted to look behind the scenes into the most controversial Christmas movies of all time. Is it a Christmas movie? Is it an action flick? We’ll let you be the judge of that.

“Die Hard” Was Meant for Frank Sinatra

Believe it or not, Die Hard was originally made for Frank Sinatra. Based on the novel by Roderick Thorp, “Nothing Lasts Forever,” Die Hard is actually a sequel to one of Thorp’s earlier novels, “The Detective” – which was adapted into a 1968 film starring Frank Sinatra as Joe Leland, a hard-boiled cop.

Bruce Willis in a scene from the film.
Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

20th Century Fox was contractually obligated to offer Sinatra the role in what would become Die Hard. But Sinatra, who was in his early seventies at the time, declined the role.

The Towering Inferno Inspiration

In the novel, the hero was named John Leland as opposed to the steely John McClain, and the action doesn’t take place during the cop’s visit to his wife’s workplace but his daughter’s.

A still from the film The Towering Inferno / Paul Newman in a still from The Towering Inferno.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: 20th Century Fox

Die Hard might have never existed if it weren’t for the 1974 Irwin Allen disaster film, The Towering Inferno. The “Nothing Lasts Forever” author, Roderick Thorp, was inspired to create a sequel for “The Detective” after watching “Inferno” featuring the protagonist being chased through a skyscraper by men with guns.

Clint Eastwood Owned the Movie Rights

Even though “Nothing Lasts Forever” was initially supposed to star Frank Sinatra, Clint Eastwood actually owned the rights to the story in the 1980s. But as in so many other cases, whatever they planned never ended up happening.

Clint Eastwood speaks at a microphone.
Photo by SGranitz/WireImage/Getty Images

It’s one of those things that you look back on later and wonder if you made the right choice. If he had still owned the rights to the movie, he would have taken on the lead role. The part was a big break for Willis, but would it have changed the already famous Clint Eastwood’s life?

Bruce Willis Was the Last Resort

Bruce Willis was still a relatively unknown actor back in 1987. He starred on ABC’s Moonlighting and the hit comedy “Blind Date,” but those were the only notable gigs he had under his belt. He was not the first choice.

A portrait of Bruce Willis in a still from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: 20th Century Fox

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone, Don Johnson, Clint Eastwood, Richard Gere, and Burt Reynolds all turned down the role before it was ultimately given to Bruce Willis. Willis was considered a comedic actor, which is why he was the last resort for the action flick.

Alan Rickman’s First Hollywood Movie

As a veteran of the London stage, Alan Rickman was unknown to American audiences when he landed the role of chief villain Hans Gruber. At first, Rickman was reluctant to accept the role of a German terrorist/thief. He almost declined the part until his agent explained to him how rare it was to get such a big opportunity after only spending a short amount of time in Los Angeles.

Alan Rickman as Professor Severus Snape / Alan Rickman in Die Hard.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com, Copyright: Warner Bros. / Moviestillsdb.com, Copyright: 20th Century Fox

As we know, Rickman killed the role, as per usual. Rickman has this ability to take on a character in such a captivating way that audiences cannot imagine anyone else playing the part. I mean, can you picture anybody else playing Professor Snape?

Rickman Also Wasn’t the First Choice

Alan Rickman is such an essential part of the success of Die Hard. As we mentioned, we can’t picture anyone else filling the Italian loafers of Hans Gruber. It’s like all the characters he plays were created for him. That’s why it may come as a surprise that Rickman wasn’t the first choice.

Sam Neill and Sean Connery in a movie still from The Hunt for Red October.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Paramount Pictures

Before they happened to stumble upon Alan Rickman, the producers approached Kiwi actor Sam Neill. Neill turned down the role. However, the actor didn’t shed any tears. He would work with director John McTiernan two years later in The Hunt for Red October.

John McTiernan Almost Turned Down Die Hard

During the ‘80s, director John McTiernan had a pretty amazing three-film run with Predator, Die Hard, and The Hunt for Red October. However, he came really close to walking away from Die Hard because he didn’t really want to shoot a movie about terrorists.

John McTiernan at the film premiere.
Photo by Stephane Cardinale/Sygma/Getty Images

It was because of the director that the movie deviated from its initial terrorist plot and turned Gruber’s crime into a heist – a plotline he would later replicate when he directed the third sequel of the franchise, Die Hard With a Vengeance.

Fluent in Gibberish

Even though most of the terrorists were depicted as German, most of their dialogue was actually in gibberish – at least in the theoretical version. Of course, this was later fixed in the VHS release, where the characters are, in fact, speaking German.

A photo of Bruce Willis speaking on the phone on the set of Die Hard.
Photo by Mitchell Gerber/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

However, in order not to cause any international tension, the German version of the movie doesn’t even credit the actors as being German; instead, they are considered random Europeans. Whatever works. As long as it’s preventing international drama, I’m all for it!

They Improved a Scene

One of the most notable scenes in Die Hard is when Hans Gruber and John McClane first meet, with Gruber pretending he is an American named Bill Clay, but apparently, there was a reason behind this scenario.

Alan Rickman is in a still from the film.
Source: YouTube

As Alan Rickman put it, he initially suggested the scene as a way to humanize the character. At first, the filmmakers disregarded the suggestion until they realized Rickman could pull off a pretty convincing American accent. From there, Rickman and Willis ad-libbed their way through the scene, giving off the genuine feel of two dudes just talking.

Nakatomi Plaza Was the Headquarters of 20th Century Fox

Since the biggest star in Die Hard was the building under siege, 20th Century Fox made a simple choice: their own building. It made sense. At the time, Fox Towers was a state-of-the-art facility, and in order to try and save some money and show off their own wares, Fox Towers became Nakatomi Plaza, and they charged themselves rent to film there.

Die Hard promotional shot / A photo of 20th Century Fox headquarters.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: 20th Century Fox

Of course, filming an action movie with gunfire frequently caused problems for the people who were actually working on the other floors during the shoot. I can only imagine how annoying that would have been.

Alan Rickman Was Really Surprised

Sometimes directors try to get some real emotion from their actors in order to maintain a certain level of authenticity on screen. Director John McTiernan decided that the best way to get emotion out of the cast was to take the actors by surprise.

Alan Rickman is in a still from the film.
Source: YouTube

When Alan Rickman was harnessed for his 40-foot fall during the movie’s finale, McTiernan made sure he stopped one second before he was expecting to, delivering a look of horror that in a moment that would ultimately become Die Hard’s most memorable scene.

Bruce Willis Suffered Hearing Loss From Die Hard

Bruce Willis had long-term effects after filming Die Hard. In the scene where McClane shoots one of the bad guys from underneath a boardroom table, Bruce Willis actually suffered hearing loss because of how close the gun was and the echo of the blanks.

Bruce Willis speaks to the media.
Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty Images

It didn’t help the situation that director John McTiernan specifically ordered extra loud blanks in order to deliver a greater sense of realism during the shoot. Willis is lucky he can still hear. Sometimes these situations can become serious.

Bruce is Taking Time Off Due to His Aphasia

March 30, 2022, was a sad day for fans as Willis announced that he’ll be taking a break from acting. The reason is that he’s suffering from aphasia, “a condition that robs you of the ability to communicate,” as explained by the Mayo Clinic. It can be caused by a stroke, head injury, a brain tumor or disease.

Source: Instagram/@emmahemingwillis

On his daughter Rumer’s Instagram account, she posted a photo of the Die Hard actor: “To Bruce’s amazing supporters, as a family we wanted to share that our beloved Bruce has been experiencing some health issues and has recently been diagnosed with aphasia, which is impacting his cognitive abilities.” Let’s hope he get’s better soon!

Alan Rickman Despised Gunfire

Considering the fact that Alan Rickman was a stage actor making his first-ever Hollywood movie, his extensive acting training didn’t exactly cover firing Uzis. If you look closely, you’ll notice that every time Hans Gruber fired a gun, the scene cuts away.

A picture of Alan Rickman during an interview.
Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

The reason for this was that Rickman flinched whenever he had to pull the trigger. As someone who is known for brilliantly pulling off dark, mysterious characters, you would assume he is an expert at handling guns; however, it seems like wands are more of his specialty.

Unlimited Twinkies

In the movie, there are three characters who have the last name Johnson. What you may not know is that this is not a coincidence. The names were actually a joke directed at Reginald Veljohnson, who starred in the movie as Sgt. Al Powell, McClane’s only friend during the action.

Reginald Veljohnson as Sgt. Al Powell is in a still from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: 20th Century Fox

Thanks to his appearance in the first two Die Hard films, Reginald Veljohnson’s fans and friends would sometimes give the actor Twinkies since it was his character’s favorite treat. The actor admitted that he would sit in his car, and people would just throw Twinkies at him, saying, “Oh, we knew you wanted some of those.”

Die Hard Was Supposed to Be Three Days

Originally, the Die Hard script had the hostage situation take place over three days. However, director John McTiernan decided to change it after being inspired by the Shakespeare classic “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline in A Midsummer Night’s Dream film adaptation.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The director decided that the entire film should take place in just one night. It was certainly the correct choice for the now cult movie; it’s strange to even think that this wasn’t their initial vision. And how William Shakespeare was able to influence an action movie is a story for another day.

Walking Through Glass

This should definitely go without saying, but for all the gullible fans out there: Bruce Willis did not actually walk barefoot while he was filming Die Hard. If you pay very close attention, you can see that the actor’s feet look a little larger than normal in many of the scenes.

A photo of Bruce Willis behind the scenes.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: 20th Century Fox

As it turns out, the actor doesn’t have naturally giant feet. The reason he looked like bigfoot was because he actually wore special shoes molded from his own feet to for an authentic look. Other than the size, those shoes could be a very convincing pair of feet.

The Bad Guy Was a Ballerina

Not everyone in Die Hard is as macho as they appear. One of the baddest members of Gruber’s gang was Karl, whose brother ended up becoming one of John McClane’s first victims. What you may not know, however, is that the fearful Karl, played by actor Alexander Godunov, started off as a ballet dancer in the Soviet Union.

Alexander Godunov’s character in Die Hard / Alexander Godunov during a ballet practice.
Source: Moviestilsdb.com, Copyright: 20th Century Fox / Photo by Images Press, IMAGES, Getty Images

The actor, who passed away in 1995, had a traumatic, real-life experience of his own in 1979 when he defected from the Soviet Union. Who would have thought?

“Yippie-ki-yay” Was Just a joke

Yippie-ki-yay became a phrase that people use all the time, usually when they are excited about something. In many instances, people don’t even realize that it originated in Die Hard. Bruce Willis originally uttered the famous line as a joke to lighten up the crew during filming.

A picture of Bruce Willis.
Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty Images

What he didn’t know was that the ad-libbed line would not only become a significant part of the movie, but it would also go down in cinematic history. I’m sure Willis isn’t the first person ever to say the words “Yippie-ki-yay,” but he was certainly the first one to become a legend for it.

The Accidental Stunt

Another one of the more memorable moments in Die Hard happened purely by accident. Remember that scene where John McClane tried to make his way through an elevator shaft? Yeah, none of that was really planned the way it turned out.

Bruce Willis in a still from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: 20th Century Fox

During the scene, the stuntman was supposed to jump from one shaft to the next. However, when he tried, he completely missed his mark. Still, the crew was so impressed by how realistic the fall looked that they decided to keep it in the final cut.

Bruce Willis Wasn’t Part of Their Marketing

When he first signed on to the film, Bruce Willis was such an unknown actor that Fox didn’t want to use him as the main part of their marketing. Instead, they shifted their focus to Fox Tower, also known as Nakatomi Tower.

The Fox Tower in Die Hard promotional shot.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: 20th Century Fox

It really wasn’t until the movie became a true success that the marketing was redirected to include Willis. Well, the once unknown actor certainly proved he was destined to become a household name. today, no one would think twice before stamping the A-lister’s face on anything related to marketing.

They Spent a College Tuition’s Worth on Glass

If there is one thing clear about Die Hard, it’s that they destroyed a lot of glass in that movie. You can see the characters shooting glass, jumping through glass, and pulling it out of their feet. So, naturally, all that glass adds up to a lot of money.

Bruce Willis stands behind broken glass in a still from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: 20th Century Fox

The production spent a total of $130,000 just on glass alone. All that destroyed glass feels like such a waste, even though it looked incredible on screen! I know what you’re thinking; that money could have gone towards your college loans.

The Book Was Out of Print

You would think that being that basis of one of the greatest action films in history would ensure strong long-term sales. That wasn’t really the case for Nothing Lasts Forever. After the initial success of the movie, the novel started seeing strong sales.

A photo of Bruce Willis at the film premiere.
Photo by Denny Keeler/Getty Images

Unfortunately, it didn’t keep selling and eventually went out of print. It didn’t help the book sales that most people were completely unaware that the movie was even based on a novel. However, in 2013, the book was released to coincide with the movie’s 25th anniversary.

Five Million Dollar Role

These days, nobody would bat an eye at a $5 million paycheck in Hollywood. But for an unproven movie actor, $5 million was a serious chunk of money in the 1980s. They were still unsure about whether the movie would become a hit.

A picture of Bruce Willis and Emma Heming.
Photo by Indigo/Getty Images

20th Century Fox president Leonard Goldberg pointed out how significant the lead actor was to the movie – a role that had been turned down by multiple Hollywood big boys before it was offered to Willis. Basically, they planned on spending a lot of money on the lead; they just assumed it would be a bigger actor.

McClane Gets Sensitive

Just in case you were wondering, Bruce Willis does, in fact, have a favorite scene in Die Hard. During an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the actor revealed his most memorable moment, saying:

Bruce Willis in a still from the film.
Source: YouTube

“There was some discussion about whether or not McClane should cry or get choked up when he’s talking about saying goodbye to his wife. And I remember we did one take without, and one with, and everybody liked the one where I got a bit choked up. I thought that was an interesting scene.”

Willis Denies Doing Any Casting

Persistent rumors suggested that it was Bruce Willis who wanted Bonnie Bedelia to play his estranged wife in the film. But during a 20th-anniversary interview, the actor assured Entertainment Weekly that he had nothing to do with the casting.

A dated portrait of Bonnie Bedelia.
Photo by Ron Galella,Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

He explained that he didn’t do anything, and she landed the role on her own. He complimented his former castmate’s talent and blossoming career, saying, “No, Bonnie had already had some hits, so I don’t think I was responsible for that.” Either way, it was perfect casting.

It Could Have Been Worse…

As we mentioned, there was a lot of glass-breaking happening in this action flick. With all the fighting and stunt work, I’m just thankful there was nothing gory in there. But there almost was. Do you remember that scene where McClane pulls a shard of glass from his feet? And it looks incredibly painful?

An image of the movie set behind the scenes.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: 20th Century Fox

Well, it was originally supposed to be much worse. It included gruesome sound effects to make the viewers feel like they were actually there. However, producers were not happy and demanded they remove the sound.

Making It a Date Movie

Director John McTiernan needed a little convincing that Die Hard was a film worth making. He explained to Empire Magazine that the original version of the screenplay was more of a “grim terrorist movie.” He went on to explain:

A still from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: 20th Century Fox

“On my second week working on it, I said, ‘Guys, there’s no part of terrorism that’s fun. Robbers are fun bad guys. Let’s make this a date movie.’ And they had the courage to do it.” Making it a date movie certainly doubled the target audience at the time.

Die Hard Gets Lost in Translation

Sometimes, the clever wordplay of the film’s title can be hard to convey when it’s not in English, which was depicted in the countless versions of the title that have appeared in foreign markets.

Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis in a scene from the film.
Source: YouTube

In Germany, the title is Die Slowly; in Greece, it’s called Very Hard to Die.; in Norway, the movie is entitled Action Skyscraping; in Poland, we have The Glass Trap. Hungary has the most confusing title, Give Your Life Expensive. Nothing has quite the same ring to it as Die Hard.

Fans Wanted Holly to Return

Holly Gennaro is John McClane’s ex-wife. Their relationship becomes more and more strained throughout the films, before they get divorced in the fourth film. Bonnie Bedelia beautifully portrayed Holly Gennaro McClane in Die Hard and Die Hard 2.

Bruce Willis and Bonnie Bedelia in a scene from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: 20th Century Fox

When she was asked if she’d return for the fifth installment, Bruce Willis made no promises. “I always think about Bonnie Bedelia and having her come back,” the actor said. “Those things are unfortunately out of my hands. It has to do with the story.”

A Perfectly Timed Pregnancy

As we mentioned, there were a lot of leading Hollywood men in line to star in Die Hard before Bruce Willis was offered the role. However, Willis also rejected the part at first because of his scheduling conflicts with Moonlighting, a show he was already committed to.

Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in a promotional portrait for Moonlighting.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Then, his costar Cybill Shepherd announced her pregnancy, and it worked out great for Willis. Since her pregnancy didn’t work within the show’s storyline, producer Glenn Caron decided to give everyone 11 weeks off. This allowed Willis to accept the starring role in Die Hard, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Hans Gruber’s American Accent

The scene where Rickman, as Gruber, slips into an American accent and pretends to be another hostage was insisted on by screenwriter Steven de Souza. He wanted the pair to duke it out in a room together.

A portrait of Alan Rickman ad Hans Gruber in a still from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: 20th Century Fox

But McTiernan wasn’t satisfied with Rickman’s American accent, saying, “I still hear Alan Rickman’s English accent. I was never quite happy with the way he opened his mouth [in that scene] … I shot it three times trying to get him to sound more stridently American… it’s odd for someone who has such enormous verbal skills; he just had terrible trouble getting an American accent.”

Rickman Helped Create Gruber’s Slick Look

In the original script, Hans Gruber was supposed to wear terrorist attire. “I was just thinking: if I was wearing a suit and not all of this terrorist gear, then maybe there could be a scene where I put on an American accent, and he thinks I’m one of the hostages,” Rickman explained.

A dated photo of Alan Rickman attending the film premiere.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Rickman was so sure that this would be a good look, so he left a note on producer Joel Silver’s desk, making the suggestion. But the hot-tempered producer didn’t want any suggestions. “Then I went back to England, and I kind of got the Joel Silver ‘Get the hell out of here, you’ll wear what you’re told,’ and I said, ‘Okay, fine.’ And then I came back, and they handed me the new script. So, you know, it just pays to occasionally use a little bit of theater training when you’re doing a movie.”

Alan Rickman Didn’t Think His Character Was a Villain

Although his first movie role was in Die Hard, Alan Rickman did not want to accept the role of Hans Gruber at first. The actor explained that he didn’t want to play the villain during a promotion for the movie. “I’m just somebody who wants certain things in life, has made certain choices, and goes after them.”

A still of Alan Rickman during an interview.
Source: YouTube

Well, he could have fooled me. I would never have guessed Die Hard was Alan Rickman’s first Hollywood movie, based on his amazing performance. He truly brought the criminal mastermind to life.

The City View Is Fake

Do you remember that beautiful view of the city down below in Die Hard? Well, you may be disappointed to find out it’s not real. The illusion of the breathtaking city view in the movie was created with a 380-foot-long background painting. Wow! That’s very impressive.

Die Hard promotional shot.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: 20th Century Fox

It was a state-of-the-art one, too, with animated lights, moving traffic, and the ability to change from night to day. In Hollywood, it’s either go big or go home. The painting is still owned by the studio and has been used in other productions since Die Hard.

Yippee-ki-yay, Mother*ucker!

It was a very simple line: “Yippee-ki-yay, mother*ucker!” but it became iconic. It was truly the defining moment of the film and its unofficial catchphrase. However, it wasn’t in the script.

Bruce Willis in a still from the scene.
Source: YouTube

In a 2003 interview, Bruce Willis told Ryan Seacrest that “Yippee-ki-yay, mother*ucker!” was just a joke. “It was a throwaway,” the actor said. “I was just trying to crack up the crew, and I never thought it was going to be allowed to stay in the film.”

They Had 17 Dirty Vests on Standby

It’s really difficult to film a movie that takes place in just one day, especially if it’s being shot out of order. Sure, it’s probably easy for the wardrobe department because they just need one outfit for each character, but throughout filming, these outfits get dirty, specifically in the case of John McClane, who spends the movie crawling through dusty vents and bleeding all over his undershirts.

Bruce Willis in a scene from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: 20th Century Fox

Because of this, the wardrobe department for Die Hard had 17 different undershirts, all with different degrees of dirtiness, depending on what part of the film’s timeline they were shooting. I guess the wardrobe department didn’t have it that easy, after all.

The Filthy Shirt Is Displayed in a Museum

Some of the most historically significant American artifacts are kept at The Smithsonian for the world to see. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the museum also hosts the dirty, bloody undershirt Bruce Willis wore in Die Hard (well, at least one of those 17).

Bruce Willis poses next to the exhibited shirt.
Source: Pinterest

Willis actually donated the shirt to the museum in 2007, along with a poster for the movie. They are both displayed in the museum’s “Treasures of American History” exhibition, right next to Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz.

Is It a Christmas Movie?

People are really split on this. Some people think that, of course, Die Hard is a Christmas movie; after all, it does take place on Christmas. Others strongly believe that Die Hard is an action movie and calling it a Christmas movie is insulting. Sure, it happened on Christmas, but it has nothing to do with the holidays!

Bruce Willis holds down Bonnie Bedelia in a scene from the film.
Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

Well, the debate has been settled once and for all. The movie’s writer, Steven E. de Souza confirmed that Die Hard is indeed a Christmas classic. He even went as far as to compare Die Hard to the “baseline” Christmas movie, 1954’s White Christmas, during his appearance on the Script Apart podcast.