The sitcom "Moonlighting" debuted on ABC on March 3, 1985, and it was unlike any TV show previously seen. It had the quick banter of a 1940s screwball comedy and crazy sexual tension between stars Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd as detective David Addison and former model-turned-detective, Maddy Hayes. "Moonlighting" broke the fourth wall long before "She-Hulk" and "Deadpool" did it on screen, employed a cold open before it was standard, and often showed sets and production staff on camera. The detective agency dramedy series broke with what viewers were used to fairly often, including an episode based on William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," entitled, "Atomic Shakespeare."
In the episode, Willis appears as Petruchio, a man who marries Katherina, played by Shepherd. If Petruchio can make her a docile wife, he gets her dowry. Look, no one ever said that Shakespeare's sensibilities would work for the 21st century. Still, the episode — which was the most expensive TV episode to date — had a more modern ending and got a lot of kids into Shakespeare when teachers used this episode in classrooms.
For Willis, this was a big departure, according to the book "Moonlighting: An Oral History" by Scott Ryan. Ryan wrote an article for Vanity Fair in 2021 about the Shakespeare episode that had quotes from his book from the cast and crew. I recently spoke to him as well for some more insight into the episode and how it all came together for Willis and Shepherd.
'Bruce Willis Was Not A Superstar When They Were Filming'
According to the Vanity Fair article, the only main cast member who had done Shakespeare before was Curtis Armstrong, who played Herbert Viola/Lucentio. (Armstrong added that Ken McMillan, who played Katherina's father, Baptista, and Colm Meaney, who plays a small role, had done some as well.) That meant there were three leads — Bruce Willis, Cybill Shepherd, and Allyce Beasley, who plays Agnes DiPesto/Bianca — who hadn't worked with the words of the Bard.
In Ryan's book, episode director Will Mackenzie said, "Bruce took to that rhyming and iambic pentameter so easily." This was not a given, though. In our chat, Ryan told me:
"Bruce Willis was not a superstar when they were filming 'Atomic Shakespeare.' In fact, he was two years out from 'Die Hard,' but it is all on display in that episode. He is hilarious in the comic scenes, sexy in the bedroom scenes with Cybill Shepherd, and the future action hero as he fights some townsfolk, a few Shakespearean soldiers, and ninjas, because this is 'Moonlighting' after all."
Willis managed it beautifully, something I thought when it aired live (please don't do the math — I was little), and while rewatching the episode on YouTube. Mackenzie said in the article that the most difficult part was getting the stars comfortable with the dialogue:
"I think we all left there thinking, 'This is going to be either the worst show we've ever done or one of the best.' They worked hard. They learned their lines. They came in prepared. I don't have any bad memories."
Shakespeare's iambic pentameter cadence can be daunting for newcomers, but they nailed every line like pros. Willis even has the line, "Didn't think I could pull it off, did ya?" in his opening scene.
'No One Knew For Sure How This Episode Was Going To Turn Out'
Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd weren't confident about the episode at first. Ryan told me:
"Several of the interviewees for my book mentioned that Bruce and Cybill were nervous filming the first scene. No one knew for sure how this episode was going to turn out. Now it is a television classic, but you have to remember that they were trying to film this amazing complex episode entirely written in iambic pentameter in just a few days. It could have come out really poorly, but it didn't."
Not only that, but when Willis' Petruchio sang "Good Lovin'," he had a "terrible flu" and a high fever, according to Curtis Armstrong's quote in the Vanity Fair article. People go to acting school for years and study Shakespeare for a lifetime to get it right, making this all doubly impressive. Sadly, despite the episode's current legendary status, the ratings weren't very good. As Ryan told me, it aired on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and it wasn't a hit.
'His Influence On How Men Were Written For Television And Film Was Felt For Years'
Ratings aside, "Atomic Shakespeare" saw Will Mackenzie get an award nomination for direction and Ron Osborn and Jeff Reno for writing. In fact, Mackenzie won a Directors Guild of America award for Dramatic Series for the episode. Willis also won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for "Moonlighting." Ryan had nothing but praise for Willis during my discussion with him as well:
"Bruce Willis burst onto the screen and into pop culture playing David Addison from 1985-1989, and this episode is a microcosm of all that he was capable of as an actor. He had a flexibility to play any beat of a scene from moody to silly. His influence on how men were written for television and film was felt for years after the series and his work in 'Die Hard.' It is sad he had to give up acting due to his illness. He has always been one of my favorite actors from the '80s and '90s. He was in 'Pulp Fiction' for goodness sake. You can't do better than that."
The series has yet to appear on a streaming service, and it isn't on Blu-ray. However, if you want to remind yourself how good this particular episode was, "Atomic Shakespeare" is on YouTube at the time of this writing.
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The post Moonlighting's Most Ambitious Episode Was A Total Departure For Bruce Willis appeared first on /Film.