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Frank Sinatra Almost Became A 1980s Action Hero

Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images and 20th Century-Fox / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images and 20th Century-Fox / Getty Images

To imagine anyone other than Bruce Willis as John McClane in the Die Hard franchise is a difficult thing to do. However, believe it or not, there was a time when famous crooner Frank Sinatra was wanted for the lead role. How had this happened? Well, when the movie was in production, Bruce Willis’s reputation was somewhat different from what it is now.

Bruce Willis was a rom-com star

Headshot of Bruce Willis.
A headshot of Bruce Willis during his romantic comedy years in ‘Moonlighting.’ (Photo Credit: ABC / ansoro / MovieStillsDB)

When the studio began developing Die Hard, Bruce Willis wasn’t exactly the first person that came to mind for the action hero role. In the late 1980s, he was best known for the romantic comedy TV show, ‘Moonlighting,’ and Blake Edwards’ movie romp, Blind Date. He was affable yes, resourceful, kind of tough… but an action hero? Forget it.

Of course, naysayers went on to eat their words. With Willis at its heart, the film was a smash hit. Its self-contained, high-concept premise of a skyscraper under siege made it dynamic and innovative. In fact, the film became so popular that the franchise went on to produce a total of five movies. The put-upon central character John McLane became the most enduring part of his career to date.

Considering Sinatra

Headshot of Frank Sinatra.
Frank Sinatra wearing fedora hat from the 1968 thriller, The Detective. (Photo Credit: Screen Archives / Getty Images)

Based on the 1979 book Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, the original flick took some time to reach the big screen. When producers were first mulling over a movie version, Frank Sinatra’s name was top of the list. While this sounds strange, it makes sense in the context of the source novel. Nothing Lasts Forever was thought of by Thorp in a dream. He’d somehow managed to go to sleep during that other iconic skyscraper film, The Towering Inferno (1974).

He wound up dreaming about Joe Leland, the hero of his previous book, The Detective (1966), facing off against criminals in a high rise. This was the essence of Nothing Lasts Forever, a follow up to Leland’s debut story. The Detective had been filmed in 1968, starring none other than “Ol’ Blue Eyes” himself. This gritty police thriller, which tackled sensitive topics such as homosexuality, was a high point on Sinatra’s CV.

His acting chops were tested in this and other movies like The Man With The Golden Arm (1955), The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Von Ryan’s Express (1965).

Why he didn’t get the part

Headshot of Frank Sinatra.
Frank Sinatra in 1988, the year that Die Hard was released. (Photo Credit: Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty Images)

There was one major factor that prevented Sinatra’s involvement was time. Die Hard began to take shape two decades after The Detective, and while Joe Leland had reached retirement age in the novel, the smooth crooner himself was way past that. At 73 he just wouldn’t have cut it.

Whether he’d have been required to run around in a vest, crawl through ventilation shafts, and use foul language is unclear. Plus, accounts of why exactly the Sinatra version didn’t happen vary. One source claimed that “Because the movie was technically a sequel, they were contractually obligated to offer Frank Sinatra the leading role. He was 73 years old at the time and gracefully turned the offer down.” The Independent says, “Producers had hoped Sinatra would return as Leland for the sequel.” Either way, the swinging “Chairman of the Board” put the brakes on.

The part went to Willis

Bruce Willis looking through broken glass.
Bruce Willis as John McClane in Die Hard. (Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox / murraymomo / MovieStillsDB)

Ultimately, Joe Leland switched his name to John McClane. Arnold Schwarzenegger was also approached for the role in what might surely have been the most radical actor replacement in film history, as well as Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, and even Clint Eastwood. However, finally, it was Willis who got the gig. Now, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the part.

More from us: The FBI Files and Mob Ties of Frank Sinatra

A Die Hard with Frank Sinatra would have been an unusual affair. Yet the prospect of him asking Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber to “Come fly with me” before his death plunge is an entertaining idea indeed!