The Other Big Actor Payday of 1989

Jack Nicholson's Batman deal made him over $50 million for one film role. But Bruce Willis made a bundle on Look Who's Talking.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

No actor in the 1980s managed to bag as good a deal for a single movie role as Jack Nicholson. In agreeing to sign up to play The Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 movie Batman, he cut his up front fee from $10m to $6m. In exchange for the $4m price cut, Nicholson took a cut of the film’s earnings, its merchandise sales, and earnings from future sequels. Even though he wasn’t on screen for a second after the first Batman film, he continued to take a cut from the likes of Batman Returns and Batman Forever too.

I’d assume that Nicholson’s earning from the deal was brought to an end before Christopher Nolan rebooted Batman with Batman Begins (and, subsequently, before Zack Snyder introduced the new DC Extended Universe). But still: Nicholson is believed to at least pocketed $60m for one film role. Whilst actors have made more from back end deals since – Sandra Bullock, for one, was said to have earned north of $70m from Gravity – at the time, it was unheard of.

But Nicholson wasn’t the only one who took home a windfall of note for a 1989 movie. Bruce Willis too managed to snag himself a fair whack of change for the comedy Look Who’s Talking. And what’s more, he didn’t have to appear on screen once.

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The film has recently been doing the rounds again on Netflix, but if you need a refresher, it’s the one where John Travolta and Kirstie Alley’s characters have a baby, and that baby duly arrived with the inner-voice of Willis. It’s a movie that was inspired by writer-director Amy Heckerling and her husband, writer Neal Israel, imagining what their newborn would say if said child could talk.

Heckerling duly took the film to Disney and pitched it there, where it was turned down for being too sexual. Other studios subsequently passed on it, before TriStar agreed to stump up the required $7m to make the film. The modest sum spent on the film – appreciating that $7m went a lot further in the late 1980s than it tends to do now – gives you an impression as to what expectations were for the film. At best, a modest, profitable comedy hit was the realistic target. Don’t forget too that Travolta at this stage hadn’t had a hit movie since 1983’s Staying Alive.

Still, Willis offered some star power insulation. At this stage in his career, he’d hit big with Die Hard the year before, and was in possible Oscar contender In Country already in 1989 (although the box office failure of that film would pave the way to Oscar gold for Driving Miss Daisy). However, he only got the Look Who’s Talking gig after Robin Williams turned the opportunity down. Williams was interested, but he came with a price tag that would have pretty much doubled the required investment. TriStar declined.

But it ended up paying out more. Willis, who would do in all around four days of voice recording work for Look Who’s Talking, took a modest up-front fee. But his agents negotiated one of the most generous back-end deals in memory for such a small amount of actual work. His deal apparently, according to Premiere magazine back in April 1990, entitled him to around eight to ten percent of the first dollar gross of the film.

First dollar gross deals are now very rare, and primarily because they’re weighted so heavily towards the recipient (studios, increasingly, grew frustrated with paying hefty salaries and a first dollar cut). It basically meant in this case that Willis would take his share from receipts, before any other expenses, debts or taxes were paid on the money. Even if Look Who’s Talking had taken, say, $20m at the box office, Willis would have thus banked around $2m for his troubles. As it happened, it became the surprise comedy smash hit of 1989.

By the end of its US run – and it’s impossible to ascertain whether Willis’ deal covered international grosses too (unlikely, given that baby Mikey was voiced by different famous people in different countries) – the film had hit $140m in the US. Willis would make at the very least double what he’d earned for Die Hard, and likely a good chunk of change more.

That’s before he got to the sequel, too. The breathlessly-fast turnaround of the not-very-good Look Who’s Talking Too – that followed just over a year later – saw Willis back voicing Mikey (although it’d be a fair guess that his deal was nowhere near as generous second time around), this time with Roseanne Barr lending her tones to baby sister Julie. That said, for the pet-themed Look Who’s Talking Now, Willis was nowhere to be heard.

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Willis would hit the jackpot again on a back-end deal, reportedly taking home as much as $100m for The Sixth Sense when that became a surprise monster hit a decade later. But it’s still worth remember that, thanks to some savvy negotiating and a surprise comedy hit, he probably earned as much money Look Who’s Talking as he did the first two Die Hard films put together. Maybe not at Jack Nicholson levels, but really not bad for less than a week’s work…