Everything you didn't know about 'Die Hard,' from the alternative McClanes to the most bonkers stunt

Bruce Willis
Bruce Willis, who was hardly in contention to play John McClane, became a breakout star following smash success of Die Hard (Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy of the Everett Collection)

Thirty years after its release, Die Hard is a stone-cold contemporary classic, the launching pad for Bruce Willis as an action hero, the debut film for the late, great Alan Rickman, and a stealth Christmas movie to boot. But if things had unfolded differently, the movie might have been titled The Detective and starred an elderly Frank Sinatra facing off against a villainous Sam Neill. Yippee-ki-nay.

Fortunately for us that alternative-universe version doesn’t exist; equally fortunately, the new book Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History is out soon and includes a treasure trove of little-known behind-the-scenes facts about the entire franchise. Here are some of the highlights, as told to Yahoo Entertainment by co-author James Mottram.

Die Hard could have been a Frank Sinatra vehicle

The source material for Die Hard was Roderick Thorp’s pulpy 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, which was a sequel to his 1966 book The Detective. Twentieth Century Fox adapted the latter title into a Frank Sinatra film, and once Fox acquired the rights to Nothing Lasts Forever, the studio had to first offer the role to the septuagenarian entertainer as a contractual courtesy. As expected, Sinatra passed, and the studio moved forward with plans to rework the film as a summer tentpole fronted by a bankable movie star.

“It started with producer Lawrence Gordon, who was tasked with adapting the book. His second-in-command, Lloyd Levin, hired the then fledgling screenwriter Jeb Stuart, who cracked the back of Roderick Thorp’s novel. It was he who decided to make the main character younger; in the book, he’s in his 60s,” explains Mottram.

“He also came up with the name ‘John McClane’ [called ‘Joe Leland’ in the book] and refashioned him as a blue-collar guy struggling with his marriage. This certainly planted the seeds for the McClane character and what would become the bedrock of the franchise. But there was a lot that came from the book, too — not least the idea that McClane is the lone figure fighting against the terrorists. Again, that — to some degree — became a staple element across the franchise. After Stuart’s draft, Gordon brought in fellow producer Joel Silver, who immediately hired the inimitable Steve de Souza to rewrite the script and further shape the Die Hard that we all know and love.”

The cover of <i>Nothing Lasts Forever</i> hints at what would become some key <i>Die Hard</i> plot points. (Image: W.W. Norton & Co.)
The cover of Nothing Lasts Forever hints at what would become some key Die Hard plot points. (Image: W.W. Norton & Co.)

Bruce Willis was not even close to the first choice to play John McClane

Aside from Sinatra, several other A-listers had a chance at the lead role, including Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, and Don Johnson. After a series of rejections, producers made the surprise casting of Bruce Willis, then known primarily for his role on TV’s Moonlighting.

“There was a lot of debate about the casting of John McClane. As you say, Willis was nowhere near first choice, with everyone from Al Pacino to Richard Gere approached before Willis came into the frame,” says Mottram.

Rare storyboards shows a deleted scene from <i>Die Hard.</i>
These rare storyboards shows a deleted scene from Die Hard in which McClane narrowly avoids an out-of-control elevator car that smashes into a stairway. (Image from Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History/Courtesy of Insight Editions)

“I think once he was settled upon — and that $5 million paycheck was cut [an amount usually reserved for only the biggest stars] — the studio and the producers were confident about his abilities to play McClane. It was everyone else in the industry that seemed to think Willis’s casting, or at least the money he was being paid, was ludicrous. If there were any concerns, they evaporated from the moment Willis stepped on set, and started playing McClane.”

Willis wasn’t the only wild-card casting

“The bigger concern was with Alan Rickman,” says Mottram. Rickman was making his feature-film debut in Die Hard, coming aboard after producers initially approached the likes of future Jurassic Park star Sam Neill.

“The early footage he shot did not go down well and it took some convincing of the studio heads not to fire him.”

Rickman needed bad-guy boot camp

While Rickman nailed all the accents and had classical training, he was pretty raw in the action department. “The casting director Jackie Burch said she had to teach him how to hold a gun properly when he first came into audition, because he’d never really held a weapon before,” says Mottram.

“Then, when he got to set, he crocked his knee on his first day shooting, for the scene where Hans Gruber is checking the explosives and jumps down from a ledge. He thought he might have torn a ligament, but fortunately, it was something minor and he was able to carry on. That day, he returned to work on crutches and can be seen leaning in a scene where Gruber meets McClane, as he couldn’t put any pressure on his leg.

“But maybe the best story is from when he shot the moment when Gruber falls from the Nakatomi building to his death. Rickman filmed that for real, falling 25 feet backwards onto an air mattress. The stunt coordinator Charlie Picerni told Rickman he’d get a countdown from three before releasing the cable he was hooked to. Instead, he released it on one. That look of surprise on Rickman’s face is for real.”

Watch Hans Gruber’s death scene:

The stunts were real and they were bonkers

“In terms of the original Die Hard,” says Mottram, “the most mind-blowing thing was probably the stunt work. Like the fact that Hans Gruber’s fall from the Nakatomi building was actually done for real by a stuntman, using a contraption to slow his fall.

“Also, Bruce Willis performing the stunt where McClane jumps off the Nakatomi rooftop with the firehouse around his waist; he jumped 25 feet off a parking lot roof into an airbag with a huge explosion set off behind him and fire-retardant gel on his back to ensure he didn’t burn. That’s pretty cool.”

storyboards from
The original storyboards for Bruce Willis’s classic firehose jump scene. (Image from Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History/Courtesy of Insight Editions)

“Some of the special effects were also very tricky — all done practically, of course, as Die Hard was in the era of filmmaking before computer-generated effects became the norm. Maybe the ultimate was the helicopters flying through Century City [the Los Angeles district where Nakatomi Plaza, aka Fox Plaza, is situated].

The ground-level
The ground-level crew watches an explosion atop Fox Plaza, aka Nakatomi Plaza. (Photo from Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History/Courtesy of Insight Editions)

“That took rigorous planning and months of negotiations with the authorities, and had to be captured in just a handful of takes in a couple of hours. Director John McTiernan says it was also the one time he bottled it. After shooting the first take, with the helicopter hovering above the rooftop, with all the extras playing the Nakatomi employees, he realized it was just too risky to do again, from a safety perspective. The end result, though, is incredible — one of the highlights of the film.”

Watch the entire rooftop-attack sequence:

Is Die Hard a Christmas movie or not?

For years, a debate has raged about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. While producer Joel Silver and screenwriter Joel de Souza have declared that the film is indeed a good way to mark the Yuletide, there has been one big dissenter: John McClane himself. During his Comedy Central roast in July, Willis said emphatically that “Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie.” But because it was a Comedy Central roast and all, we aren’t convinced. So we asked Mottram his opinion.

Nothing says the holidays like a terrorist attack, right? (Photo: 20th Century Fox)
Nothing says the holidays like a terrorist attack, right? (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

“Is this still up for debate? Die Hard is definitely a Christmas movie,” states Mottram “It’s set on Christmas Eve and it features a dead villain wearing a Santa hat and ‘Ho-Ho-Ho’ is scrawled across his sweatshirt! What more do you want from a Christmas movie? Perhaps the real debate should be: Is it the greatest Christmas movie of all time? Better than It’s a Wonderful Life? Now that might wind up a few Capra fans.”

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