Steven E de Souza on 35 years of Die Hard: "Bruce broke the steroid ceiling"
The screenwriter talks to RadioTimes.com about the actors who turned down the role, writing for Alan Rickman and coining the iconic "yippee-ki-yay" line.
John McClane was very nearly played by Arnold Schwarzenegger – and that would have made Die Hard a very different action classic.
Steven E de Souza, the screenwriter of the iconic movie, is talking to RadioTimes.com ahead of the film's 35th anniversary and has opened up about the road of bringing the film to screen.
“Arnold would not have worked because he was such a physical specimen," he says on the prospect of Schwarzenegger potentially playing McClane. "At the time when the Die Hard script went out, we were coming off Commando and Rambo and all these giant guys.
"[Casting Bruce Willis] opened the door for a lot more normal looking guys like Keanu Reeves being in action movies. Bruce broke the steroid ceiling.”
The number of action stars that turned down Die Hard is now the stuff of Hollywood lore. Virtually every big name in the business said no before TV star Willis was selected off the back of the success of Moonlighting.
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De Souza thinks he knows why all the big names were not eager to sign on: “James Caan passed on it. He said the first 25 pages were the guy hiding and trying to call for help and that he didn’t get it. And that was probably the reason every other actor turned it down. It was the antithesis of what we had trained audiences to expect from action heroes.”
The role was also originally offered to Frank Sinatra, who at that point was in his seventies. The thought still makes de Souza chuckle: “The script had to be offered first to Frank Sinatra because of a contractual thing but fortunately he said he was too rich and too old to do it because, as I always say, the chases through the building would have been on a rascal scooter.”
Die Hard, of course, made Willis one of the biggest and most beloved stars on the planet, and he would reprise his role as McClane three more times before his retirement in 2022, but it also ushered the very unusual phrase 'yippee-ki-yay motherf*****' into the popular lexicon. The line was a joint effort between de Souza and Willis - something of a tribute to cowboy TV host Roy Rogers, who was popular in the US in the 1950s.
“When I first met Bruce, as soon as I opened my mouth he knew I was from Philadelphia, and we grew up about 30 miles apart and watched all the same TV shows. And one of those shows was the Roy Rogers Show where he would say yippee-ki-yay, so it wasn’t an obscure line. I confess, I don’t think I wrote motherf*****. I think I wrote yippee-ki-yay asshole in the script and Bruce suggested motherf*****.”
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In addition to boasting arguably the most iconic action hero and the most quoted one-liner in history, the film also includes one of cinema’s most memorable villains in Hans Gruber, played by the late and great Alan Rickman in his first screen role.
De Souza reveals that he ended up tailoring the character to Rickman’s abilities: “I met him at a wardrobe fitting and knew that he could do anything I gave him so I wrote for him. I made the character more elegant, educated and with all this bespoke clothing so the opposite to blue collar Bruce.”
The writer – who also penned screenplays for Commando, The Running Man and Street Fighter – also admits he tapped into the political atmosphere of the Reaganite '80s: “At that time in America, there was a lot of paranoia about foreign companies buying American companies, and a Japanese company had just bought Columbia Pictures. So the script leans into that. And we leaned into the xenophobia of the time by having the guy mock American culture and things like that.”