Quentin Tarantino opens up about how he cast Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction. Now a cult classic, Pulp Fiction was originally released in 1994. Willis played Butch Coolidge, a runaway boxer, in the film. Unlike other Pulp Fiction characters, Butch is not a big talker, but nonetheless his demeanor and few lines remain an iconic part of the film.
The Reservoir Dogs director reveals how Willis was cast in Pulp Fiction on 2 Bears, 1 Cave with Tom Segura. Tarantino originally wrote the role of Butch for Matt Dillon. Instead of Butch, Dillon wanted to play Vincent. This posed a challenge for Tarantino, as Pulp Fiction’s green light hinged on the casting of one of Miramax’s approved actors that would draw audiences to the film. Dillon ultimately declined the role, and Tarantino was without a Butch. After a surprise meeting with Willis at actor Harvey Keitel’s home, Willis was eventually cast in the role. Check out the whole saga as told by Tarantino himself:
“I’ve never met him before. And it turns out, he is a HUGE fan of Reservoir Dogs. I mean HUGE fan. He goes like if I had read Reservoir Dogs, I would have been in Reservoir Dogs, I would have agreed to do it, you know. And he goes, oh, it’s one of my favorite, me and my buddies, we watch it all the time. We know the dialogue by heart. We do the dialogue with each other. Wow, that’s really amazing. And I think it was one of those situations where he told Harvey that, you know, sometime earlier. Sometime a couple days earlier, and he goes, ‘well, you know, you should look, Quentin’s got a new script out there, there’s something you might like in it. And he’s going to be coming by on Sunday, to hang out, so if you want to say hello to him, that would be a good time. So that’s exactly what Bruce did. So Bruce called his agent and said ‘hey, get me that damn Tarantino script, I want to read it.’ So little did I know, he had already read Pulp Fiction by the time I show up at Harvey’s house that Sunday. And so we’re all having a good time, and we’re all talking. And he goes ‘hey Quentin, take a walk with me. I’m gonna take you to my house, I want to introduce you to Demi. Let’s take a walk to my place.’ So we’re taking a nice walk along the beach. And he said, ‘so look, I read your script.’ ‘What Reservoir Dogs?’ He said, ‘no no no, the new one, Pulp Fiction.’ Wow, I mean that blew my mind. And he goes, ‘yeah, so, I want to play Vincent.’ He says ‘I want to play Vincent.’ I say ‘Well, I kind of have John Travolta set up for Vincent.’ And so, he goes ‘well John’s great, John’s terrific! John’s good, John’s good.’ So we keep talking a little bit more and he goes, ‘okay, well here’s the deal then. John is a good Vincent, and I wouldn’t want to fuck him over, alright?’ So, okay. His agent later tried to throw John Travolta under the bus, but he didn’t. I think even, I even remember what his agent said, he said ‘okay Quentin, I just want to put this out to you, that when your movie comes out, the last movie that Bruce Willis will have done that will be released.’ And he names some big Bruce Willis movie that like grossed $300 million or something. ‘That will be the last movie Bruce Willis will have done when your movie comes out. The last movie the star of your movie John Travolta will have done, will be Look Who’s Talking 3. I’m just saying.’ So, so then all of a sudden Bruce goes, ‘okay well how bout this? What if I play Jules?’ And I go, ‘well, obviously, I know he’s Black.’ He goes ‘look, I know the character is Black, but it’s more like just, you know he could just be a hipster dude. You know, he could just be be a hipster dude, you know? I could do that dialogue because it’s just the way me and my friends talk with each other. So you could make him a white guy, and I could just be this hipster dude with John, and I’m telling ya, the, you know, that’s the way Bruno talks. Bruno talks like that.’ Okay, so. And that was the real hard decision. And it’s like, okay so I’ve already said no once before to push somebody else, and now he’s offering me one more bite of the apple to get his full attention, and his full attention to this movie. And I mean, the movie needs it, it’s like winning the fucking lottery, getting Bruce. But it’s not right! It’s just not right. You know. And I told him, that you know, ‘look, the part that would be fantastic for you is Butch.’ I let him know. So then finally, I go ‘you know, that would be a big big change. Let me think about it. Let me think about it, and I’ll call you tomorrow.’ So I think about it all night long and I realize, finally, you know I just can’t make, I just can’t do it. So I call him up, and I tell him, you know, how it’s not gonna work. And he goes ‘hey, Quentin, it’s all okay, let me take you off the hook. I get it. I understand. You wrote the character for a Black guy. I get it, I get it.’ I go ‘okay, but you know Bruce, yes. But I think you should be in this movie. You understand it. You get the script, you get my sense of humor. I think you should be in the movie. Now, you were naturally attracted to the Vincent character, and you were naturally attracted to the Jules character. There is a third lead here, that I think you would be perfect for. And one of the reasons I think you would be perfect for Butch is I see him as like a 50s leading man. I mean he could be a star from a 50s movie. And, the actors that I think of when I think of when I think of the character of Butch, it’s more like actors from the 50s, like a Ralph Meeker or an Aldo Ray, or a Brian Keith or somebody like that. I would ask, you’ve had your mind set on other characters. I would just ask you to read the script one more time with the idea of you playing Butch. And if you don’t respond. But I would just ask you to read it with the other characters out of your head and that character on you mind. And if you don’t respond, you don’t respond.’ And he goes ‘okay, I’ll do that, I can do that. I’ll do that tonight. Call me tomorrow.’ And so he did that, and then he called me the next day. And he said ‘Quentin. The shortest sentence in the bible is, ‘Jesus wept.’ The shortest sentence in Hollywood is ‘I’m in. And I’m in.’”
How Pulp Fiction Reignited Bruce Willis’ Career
Told with an ostentatious demeanor that only a Hollywood storyteller–and even more so one that is known for his hyper-exaggerations in language–could do, Tarantino’s story reads as somewhat of an epic saga. Casting Willis brought its fair share of heartbreak, drama, conflict, and at last, a resolution. It is hard to imagine Pulp Fiction without Willis as the noir-like character of Butch Coolidge. But, as hyperbolized as it may be, Tarantino’s story indicates that the Pulp Fiction audiences know and love now may not have seen the iconic actor playing Butch at all. In fact, if Tarantino had not gotten one of his approved big-name guys, there is a chance that there could have been no Pulp Fiction at all.
Not only did Willis do wonders for the success of Pulp Fiction, but Pulp Fiction in turn had an immense effect on Willis’ career. By the time he had done Pulp Fiction, Willis was already a star. He was already known as John McClane, as Die Hard was released in 1988, and even its sequel Die Hard 2 had come and gone in 1990. Pulp Fiction, however, showed the world that Willis was more than just a John McClane. Instead, Willis was a far more versatile actor who could play more subdued yet interesting roles. Die Hard was certainly iconic, but John McClane may not have been the most nuanced role. In Pulp Fiction, Willis could show a better display of what he could do when in the right role.
Where Bruce Willis’ Career Went After
From there, Willis went on to star in a number of notable films, including 12 Monkeys, The Fifth Element, Unbreakable, and The Sixth Sense. He even was noticed by other auteur directors, acting in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom in 2012. Reflecting on Willis’ bold career during and after Pulp Fiction has a bittersweetness now, as Willis has now retired from acting after an aphasia diagnosis earlier this year. Nonetheless, the tireless efforts by Tarantino, and at times Willis himself, to get the actor to star in Pulp Fiction are still fascinating to understand given what is now known about the success of both Pulp Fiction and Willis’ career.
Source: 2 Bears, 1 Cave with Tom Segura