‘Moonlighting’ creator, Cybill Shepherd on ‘brilliant’ Bruce Willis: We ‘fought’ for him

“Moonlighting” is back.

ABC’s groundbreaking romantic comedy series starring Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis arrives Oct. 10 on Hulu in its streaming debut, 34 years after its final fadeout.

“We tried to get the show on Disney+ when it was first announced and when the Hulu situation developed we explored that,” series creator Glenn Gordon Caron told The Post. “About a year ago my agent reached out to Hulu and that really got the ball rolling. It’s taken years for us to get the resources together and it was a big effort and I’m extraordinarily grateful.”

Moonlighting,” in which Shepherd and Willis played quirky private detectives Madolyn “Maddie” Hayes (a former fashion model) and David Addison Jr., premiered in March 1985 as a midseason replacement — but, as viewers soon discovered, it was anything but a “burnoff” series.

David (Bruce Willis) and Maddie (Cybill Shepherd) find themselves in the 1985 pilot episode of “Moonlighting.”
ABC via Getty Images

Inspired by the screwball comedy movies of Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks, “Moonlighting” shattered primetime conventions with its noir-ish texture, breaking of the “fourth wall” (characters speaking directly to the viewers … very meta), lengthy soliloquies and rapid-fire dialogue (among many other taboo-busting elements).

The chemistry between Shepherd and Willis was obvious from the get-go and it paid off handsomely: “Moonlighting” rocketed a previously unknown Willis into stardom (pre-“Die Hard”) and confirmed Shepherd’s star power in her first-ever regular series role after a string of hit movies in the 1970s (“The Last Picture Show,” “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Taxi Driver”).

Allyce Beasley played rhyming receptionist Agnes DiPesto and Curtis Armstrong played her love interest, Herbert Viola.

When it signed off in May 1989 after 67 episodes (all available on Hulu), “Moonlighting” had amassed 41 Emmy nominations (including Shepherd and Beasley) and a 1987 statuette for Willis.

Allyce Beasley and Curtis Armstrong as Agnes and Herbert.
©ABC/Courtesy Everett Collection

Caron, Shepherd and Beasley spoke to The Post separately about the impact of “Moonlighting,” Willis, and their memories of working on the series.

(In March 2022, Willis, 68, was diagnosed with aphasia and retired from acting. In February, his family revealed that his condition progressed and he’s been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia.)

Caron: I brought Bruce in 11 times and he was the only one I brought in [for the role]. The problem with Bruce is that he didn’t look like an ABC leading man to [network execs], but I wasn’t interested in doing a show with an ABC leading man. Thank goodness there was a woman there named Ann Daniel, one of the very few women [network] executives at the time — the rest of the room were men. And Ann, in her own way, sort of set them straight. She said, “I don’t know if Bruce Willis is a leading man or an ABC leading man but he sure looks like fun to me.” It froze the room and they reconsidered and we were able to get Bruce the part, which meant the world to him and to me.

Shepherd: I met Bruce in an office with Glenn and my temperature went up at least 10 degrees and I thought, “This guy is the one.” I always knew not to act on it; we came close, Bruce and I, because we were both very attracted to each other, but we managed to just stop and not to fulfill that, and it had a huge amount to do with the success of the show. We fought for Bruce to be in the show; he had to do a screen test and they wanted me to be in it and I said no — what if they decide they don’t want me? Bruce was funny, brilliant, sarcastic and real and we couldn’t have chosen a greater co-star.

Bruce Willis in Season 2 of “Moonlighting.”
ABC via Getty Images

Caron: ABC was so convinced that Bruce made no sense next to Cybill that, when they finally gave it the OK, they said, “You can use him, but don’t let the two of them get romantically involved. No one will ever believe it.” So I said, “OK,” and, of course, in the pilot they get romantically involved. I used to take Bruce to ABC and we would walk down the hall and the female assistants would just swoon. But the people making the [casting] choices were 30- and 40-year-old men so they didn’t have the same perspective.

Beasley: The first thing that comes to my mind when thinking about Bruce was a very subliminal connection from the pilot. The main scene we had together was when we thought they were going to close [the detective agency] and there’s a really sad scene toward the end of the day where I’m saying goodbye to him and I just remember that feeling in that scene and the feeling I got from him — there was just a real connection.

Caron: There were two things about Bruce. One was that he reminded me of the people I grew up with; Bruce and I are virtually the same age. I grew up on Long Island and he in Delaware. He seemed like a real guy and there were not a lot of real guys on television then — everyone was very polite and well-groomed. The other thing he did, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for this, was that he was amazing with language. I was writing all this dialogue — soliloquies pages and pages long — and he’d look at one and in 20 minutes had it all memorized. He understood meter and understood everything was musical. He’d call me from the soundstage and say [in a Bruce Willis voice], “Glenn, you better come down here, they’re messing with your stuff.” They would get off meter, didn’t understand meter and didn’t respect meter.

Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis as Maddie and David. They had instant chemistry, Shepherd said.
©ABC/Courtesy Everett Collection

Beasley: Right from the get-go Bruce took off and was so huge. I remember my manager and I were going to a screening of the pilot together and he said, “Wow, I can’t wait to see this. I hear that Bruce Willis is the next big thing.” The buzz was already out there.

Shepherd: We broke all the walls. There wasn’t a wall that we left unbroken. It was just an extraordinary combination of the right casting and a brilliant creator. A lot of times people don’t want to give the creator credit anymore — you might think of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel — but in this case it was Glenn. He was not afraid to break the rules any way he could to make the show great so that’s part of his genius that you can’t deny.

Caron: The big thing we took from Howard Hawks was speed. If you watch the shows in terms of how quickly the dialogue is delivered, how quickly the stories move … for some people it was incomprehensible but for people who cared about it, it made perfect sense. We got that from Hawks, from “His Girl Friday,” trying to see how quick we could rev it up. We got so much credit for breaking the fourth wall and I was baffled by that. When I was a kid I watched George Burns and Gracie Allen and they broke the fourth wall all the time, as did Abbott and Costello and the Hope/Crosby “Road” movies, so the idea of breaking the fourth wall wasn’t all that radical to me — but clearly it was radical to broadcast television at that moment.

Series creator Glenn Gordon Caron in the early days of the show.
Getty Images

Beasley: During the pilot Bruce and I were walking across the 20th Century lot. I knew he had just come out from New York and I had been in California about a year-and-a-half. I said to him, “Can I help you? Do you need a place to go? Are there people you’re staying with?” I had no idea where he was coming from at all. I was trying to be Upper West Side-friendly with him and he was really nice and funny about it. I knew the places where he used to bartend [in New York City] — they were my hangouts, too. We knew of the same haunts back in the day. He even studied with somebody who was my mentor and a father figure to me, a good teacher and theater guy named Wynn Handman. He’d been in Wynn’s class for about a month before he came out to California.

Caron: Bruce and I understood each other. We had a lot of the same references — silly references, but they were ours: The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, The Bowery Boys, Laurel & Hardy. I loved Frank Capra and Bruce said to me one day, “Have you ever heard of Preston Sturges?” He turned me on to him. Cybill, of course, was a great cinephile because she lived for a long time with [filmmaker/film historian] Peter Bogdanovich. So the three of us — we had our differences — but aesthetically we admired the same things and wanted to reach for the same things.

Willis, Shepherd and Beasley as David, Maddie and Agnes DiPesto in the pilot episode of ‘Moonlighting.”
©ABC/Courtesy Everett Collection

Beasley: When I came back to work on “Moonlighting” (1987) after … two weeks maternity leave … I remember Bruce coming to my trailer, unannounced, because he couldn’t believe that I was actually back at work so quickly and wanted to see it with his own eyes. [Beasley was married at the time to actor Vincent Schiavelli.] He was really complimentary and amazed about what a cute baby [son] Andréa was and said something like, “Geez, with you two as parents, this is such a good-looking kid!” He meant it and I didn’t take offense. Bruce was always … Bruce.

Shepherd: People are going to laugh [when they see “Moonlighting”] and they’re going to get the dramatic parts between everybody in the show and then the great chemistry between Bruce and I. The brilliant writing of Glenn Gordon Caron with the comedy and the drama and everything all pulled together. ABC didn’t believe in this show enough to let us try to get away with it — and we did.

All five seasons of “Moonlighting” are now available on Hulu.

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