By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
For Willis, the party was clearly winding down, if not over. For Hailey, it was confusing. While residents found these developments alarming, they didn't know exactly how to address them. Were the Valley Entertainment businesses really closed for slack? Or had Willis abandoned them, and if so, what in the world had they done to offend him? Bemusement gave way to amazement at the level of hostility Willis clearly felt.
"If you're worth a billion dollars, why on God's green earth leave behind a trail of tears and fights over unpaid bills?" asks Lee Schlender. "And there was a rudeness to his leaving, an 'I don't like you guys anymore.' It ã became very personal." Schlender has sued Willis on behalf of two clients, including heating contractor Jim Lovey, who filed against Valley Entertainment after the company allegedly refused to pay for work Lovey's company had already completed on the E.G. Willis Building. Willis denied owing Lovey any money.
"Bruce Willis said to me he never walked out of the house with less than $10,000 in his wallet," says Lovey, a soft-spoken man who's lived in Hailey for 11 years. "I'm eating macaroni and cheese for two years, and working two jobs to pay off my debt -- we had a $54,000 debt to our suppliers -- and he's bragging to me that he carries $10,000 around in his pocket. He owes us $120,000, and we went to court, but taking on Bruce Willis in court is like taking on a giant, it's almost impossible to do. I mean, how do you do it?"
Adding insult to injury, says Lovey, was Valley Entertainment's attitude that the contractor "should be honored to be working for Willis at all."
"We're not starstruck, we're in business to make money. And I don't make a lot of it. I made that point very clear to them in court: You don't see a Mercedes-Benz in my garage, nor do I own a garage. I was just asking for a living."
Not only did Lovey lose his initial case (an appeal is now before the Idaho Supreme Court), but he was made to feel small, something he attributes to Willis' juvenile refusal to be held accountable.
"Bruce showed up and acted like an idiot -- laughed, giggled, smirked, disrupted the whole deposition. He acted like a clown, and he proved to me that day what he really is. My feeling was, let's act like adults. I had a $54,000 debt to pay off, and it's a big joke to him."
Having been in Hailey 31 years, and represented "just about everybody in the Valley at one time or another," Schlender doesn't regard Willis' presence as incongruous to the area. "I used to represent Steve McQueen when he lived up here, and the craziness -- the spending money and buying ranches and stuff -- everyone loved it! They love it if you bring money and glamour, and they want celebrities to build the biggest houses and be the most riotous people they can possibly be. People are drawn like magnets by the thousands to see where these people go and how they live."
Schlender claims to have a problem with none of this. "Hailey was eager to have some of that identification, with someone of his name identification . . . and everybody was so proud Willis lived up here. But when the thing went to hell, the shakeout was not what you would expect from your classy actor or actress. It came to an end in a rather nasty way, in that he just disappeared, things closed, his new restaurant in effect ran most of the other restaurants out of business, now they're all gone and there's no place to eat. [Note: Last month, Shorty's reopened under lease to a former Ketchum restaurateur.]
"And the way he acted in my office [during the Lovey deposition], I was rather appalled. He sat down and glared at everybody and made snide remarks . . . he kept making strange noises and glaring at everybody, and I thought, good Lord, he's acting like it's a scene in a movie."
Well, wasn't it? Hadn't Willis already given Hailey 10 years of his life and millions of dollars? Hadn't he in effect created the location, and weren't all these people just extras? Didn't they realize who was in charge? The lawsuits and public devaluation of his image smacked of betrayal and, far worse, rejection, something that simply wasn't scripted in a Willis drama. As producer of this saga, he would exit how and when he pleased. And if reality wasn't going to give Willis his usual down-to-the-wire third-act victory, he wasn't going to ã stay around to see it.
Fin. The End. But unlike the letting of cinematic blood, the hurt in Hailey was real. People were out of work -- construction jobs that had been counted on were lost, the hundred-plus service jobs in Willis' establishments were gone, and the tourists were no longer stopping. And though many held out hopes for a year that Bruce, the last action hero, would return to pull off an 11th-hour miracle, it didn't happen.
The town's official reaction was to poke the corpse for a while, in hopes of coaxing a sustained interest if not an actual presence. "The Chamber of Commerce wrote him a letter of support late last year," says Sallie Hansen. "A letter to say that we do appreciate what you've done -- the fireworks, the streetlight. We wanted to let him know that we appreciated him, though I think it was too late at that point."