Essential California: The story behind the story on Bruce Willis’ aphasia diagnosis

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, April 1. I’m Benjamin Oreskesyour former newsletter cruise director, subbing in for Justin Ray and writing from a gray Los Angeles.

On Wednesday, The Times published a stunning exclusive about a household name — actor Bruce Willis — whose condition has deteriorated so much that he can no longer work. In their report, reporters Amy Kaufman and Meg James detailed how Willis had been struggling to perform for years because of a cognitive disorder. The star of “Die Hard” has aphasia, his family announced this week, a condition that affects a person’s ability to communicate and often develops in individuals who have suffered strokes.

Kaufman and James describe how people who worked on set with Willis had worried about him and picked up signs of a problem far earlier than the public was aware. The two spoke with me about how they reported this story and what it says about Hollywood today. They said they had been following up on information regarding on-set concerns about Willis’ ability to perform but were taken by surprise when the family announced his diagnosis.

BO: Tell me a little about how this reporting began and the process for getting it into the paper. There’s been some suggestion online that the family was trying to get out in front of your reporting. Tell me how the story came together.

MJ: We had been calling around to people who have worked on Bruce Willis films for a couple of weeks now. And so, while the word might have gotten back to them, there was a lot of other online chatter about Bruce and his condition. So it may have been just sort of the weight of the interest.

AK: We were as surprised as anyone to see that announcement [on Wednesday]. We did not know it was coming and had not been planning to publish our story that day.

MJ: It was good that the family made the announcement in their own words, because we always wanted to handle this subject with dignity that Bruce or anyone else in his situation deserves.

BO: You had said this was something you had heard on movie sets. Was Willis’ condition sort of an open secret? How widespread was the knowledge?

AK: “Open secret” is how some people actually phrased it when speaking to us. When we were talking to people on film sets, it started to come up in casual conversation that Bruce was having this cognitive decline, and people were referring to it as if it was something widely known. We were very surprised by that information.

When we started talking to more crew members and filmmakers, it was honestly amazed to me that after making something like 22 films in the last four years, only now were rumblings about the situation starting to emerge on message boards like Reddit. I think significantly because people wanted to be respectful to Bruce and allow him to deal with his condition the way he wanted to. But obviously, the story also raises the question of whether people keep their concerns to themselves this long was the right thing to do.

MJ: I think that it was well-known in a certain segment of Hollywood, but not all of Hollywood. Because he is such an icon and people have so much admiration and respect for him, I believe that was another reason why this news really hadn’t bubbled out.

BO: I came away from reading your reporting wondering why Willis continued to act. Was it his real desire to keep working? Was he in denial? How much did sustaining his financial success factor into it?

AK: I think that’s really at the crux of all of this. It’s a really tricky thing to answer, and not something we know the answer to. A lot of people on set were not told about the situation until they got there and had to sort of observe it on their own and sometimes were never really told what was going on. If you’re going to be in a workplace with someone who has this condition, I think it’s fair to expect to at least be informed of the situation.

MJ: The answer is, we don’t know. People want to keep working, they want to be relevant, and perhaps someone in Bruce’s situation drew a therapeutic benefit from working. We wanted to be very clear that this is a situation that people were concerned about, and that really guided our reporting and, I think, the framing of the story.

AK: I did speak to an elder abuse and gerontology expert at USC, and she took the diagnosis out of it and said there are plenty of people who experience these kinds of issues and still can work. But the question is whether or not they can do the job at hand, and what people in the story were expressing to us was there was trouble with Bruce executing his job. So that raises some issues.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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LA STORIES

Cliff pushed: In a boon for Californians who had fallen behind on rent during the pandemic, lawmakers on Thursday approved an emergency bill to extend the state’s eviction moratorium until June 30. This gives government officials three more months to disburse rent relief payments for tenants who have experienced financial hardship over the last two years. Los Angeles Times

Oscars aftermath: On Thursday, one day after the motion picture academy announced it was launching disciplinary proceedings against Will Smith after he slapped Chris Rock during Sunday’s Oscars, questions swirled around what happened inside the Dolby Theater in the fraught moments after the altercation. The academy, which has faced criticism over its handling of the incident, attempted in a statement to shift some of the responsibility to Smith, suggesting he had refused a request to leave. Los Angeles Times

Not showing up: Kids in the largest school district west of the Mississippi are in dire lines these days. Nearly half of Los Angeles Unified students — more than 200,000 children — have been chronically absent this school year, meaning they have missed at least 9% of the academic year, according to data provided to The Times. That’s more than a twofold increase from pre-pandemic years. Los Angeles Times

Plus: US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona was in Koreatown this week hearing from parents about how the pandemic has changed their children. Los Angeles Times

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Nomination problems: Mayor Eric Garcetti’s nomination as US ambassador to India has touched off a pitched battle in the US Capitol, with more senators concerns about his handling of sexual harassment allegations against a former top advisor and Garcetti and his aides stepping up their defense. Los Angeles Times

Reporting’s impact: The airline industry would be forced to adopt new measures to protect passengers and crew members from toxic fumes on airplanes under a bill introduced in Congress this week. The move comes after a Los Angeles Times investigation found that dangerous vapors contaminate the air supply on planes with alarming frequency, sometimes sickening and crew and incapac pilots during flights. Los Angeles Times

Spring break! California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his family are heading out of the country on a vacation. Newsom’s office didn’t specify exactly where they were going but said it was Central and South America. Sacramento Bee

Stepping in: And in Newsom’s absence, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis was left to act as governor, signing the emergency bill to extend renter protections. That made her the first woman in California’s 171-year history to sign a state bill into law. Associated Press

CRIME AND OLDOURTS

What do you do? The slow pace of developing a plan to close the decrepit Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles has led to dependence from activists and others advocating for people who are incarcerated, and underscores the challenges that would come with such a massive undertaking. Los Angeles Times

A city’s struggle: The Los Angeles neighborhood of Wilmington is best by the twin challenges of gun violence and pollution. The death of Daniel “Channy” Felipe Delgado, 19, touches on both of these crises. The Guardian

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Uh-oh: With about 93% of the state in a severe or extreme drought, officials are bracing for yet another horrid fire season. Scientific American

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Meeting prospective dates avec bebe: Adam Zemel moved into his friends’ guest house when COVID-19 broke out. Now their baby is his dating sidekick. How to negotiate a path forward with baby in tow has been tricky. Los Angeles Times

Rumble on the river: The time to book your whitewater rafting trip is now. Here are California’s eight best rivers. Los Angeles Times

Yum: Wine country isn’t known for tacos, but it should be. Here are 7 spots to try. San Francisco Chronicle

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: Partly cloudy, 70 . San Diego: Partly cloudy, 65. San Francisco: Sunny, 65. San Jose: Sunny, 74. Fresno: Sunny, 80. Sacramento: Sunny, 78.

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AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from David Rogers:

I live in North Carolina now but grew up literally in the oilfields of Kern County. We were among the last leases to have wooden or steel derricks, so we were chosen as a location for filming some of [the 1971 western] “JW Coop.” A highlight of my college summers was eating a steak dinner with Cliff Robertson, Cristina Ferrare and crew at 3 am before having to start work in the oilfields myself a couple of hours later (to pay for college!). I met 90-year-old Cliff before he passed at a fundraiser in NC and relived those moments. He remembers my father.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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