Pop Culture

Die Hard: 30 Years Later

Die Hard turns 30 this month. Betchya didn’t know this much about the classic action film…

Die Hard Turns 30

One of the most enduring action movies of the 80s, turns 30 this month. Die Hard opened in theatres on July 15, 1988. The movie became the breakout role for then TV star Bruce Willis, and introduced Alan Rickman in his first feature film.

The film redefined the action movie genre that by the mid 80s had become almost unbelievable with endless bullet clips and heroes that never seemed to get hurt. Bruce Willis’ performance introduced a more human action star, who did not want to be the hero. Never the less his character John McClane rose to the challenge and did what needed to be done and had the cuts, scars, and wounds to show for it.


You felt it when he ran across the glass and then dragged himself to safety. Or when he hit himself against the building in the exciting climax.

The film wasn’t without its critics, Roger Ebert gave it only 2 out of 5 stars when it was first released. It too had its share of cheese and unbelievable segments. In the end, however, Willis’ charm, whit, and the exciting action have made it an enduring classic for 30 years. It has gone on to become a significant franchise spanning 4 sequels to date.

The Detective

Die Hard had been in development for almost nine years in Hollywood before it was released. The movie was inspired by the book, Nothing Lasts Forever written by Roderick Thorp. This novel itself was a sequel to his early work The Detective. This original novel became the 1968 Frank Sinatra film The Detective with Sinatra playing what would become the John McClane character.

Frank Sinatra had the first right of refusal over the role on any sequels. By the time the 1979 novel was making its rounds as a sequel film, Sinatra was already in his 70s. Once Sinatra declined the lead role in the follow-up film, the filmmakers were free to recast the now iconic part to other actors. Bruce Willis who was more known as a comedic actor who had not had a significant film hit was not the producer’s first choice for the role.

Most of the leading action stars of the 80s had been considered for the role – including, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, and Burt Reynolds. Even then 58-year-old Clint Eastwood was considered for the part.

The screenwriters, reworked the Thorp novel so that the story was no longer a sequel to the now dated Sinatra film The Detective keeping only the core story elements of the original novel.

Today it is hard to imagine anyone but Bruce Willis in the role, or the film ever being a vehicle for the late Frank Sinatra.

80s Theatres

When the film opened in the summer of 1988, Toronto still featured a number of the grand old movie houses that moviegoers could see big summer blockbusters. There was the University Theatre at Bay and Bloor, or the Downtown Theatre at 285 Yonge St. Other favorites included the Imperial Six, or the Odeon at Yonge at Carlton.

For fans – like myself – of action movies or science fiction movies choosing where to see the latest summer blockbuster became part of the movie-going experience with few standout action blockbusters in the summer of ’88 to choose from. Choosing a theatre to see Die Hard would be even more important.

While like most at the time, I knew little about the movie before it opened. I knew enough that I liked Bruce Willis from Moonlighting and Blind Date from the summer before. Given the few action movie choices, I had to choose my cinema wisely to see the big date movie of the summer. The theatre I decided to see Die Hard in was the then newly restored and renovated Pantages Theatre (Now known as the Ed Mirvish Theatre).

The Pantages

The Pantages, theatre with its (then) newly installed surround sound system, its big-for-the-time screen, and the theatre’s grand old design became as much a part of the experience as the movie itself.

The explosions resonated with deep booms through the entire auditorium, while the glow of the film reflected back against the decorative features of the grand old house.

It was a great movie, seen in an opulent venue to become the stuff of memories. Die Hard would be the last film to screen at the Toronto Pantages Theatre, before undergoing further renovations to become the home of the live musical Phantom of the Opera

Check out this link for more history of our now lost movie houses in Toronto.

If you want a small taste of what it was like to see a film in a large 1,500 grand old theatre check out the annual TIFF showing at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre.

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