The Behind-the-Scenes Drama of Moonlighting

In the pilot for the ABC series Moonlighting, a former model named Madelyn “Maddie” Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) goes bankrupt and decides to partner up with David Addison Jr. (Bruce Willis) and join one of her tax write-offs, the Blue Moon Detective Agency. The following 65 episodes were crafted as one hour movies that combined comedy and drama, with parodies and homages to everything from William Shakespeare to classic cinema.

Cybill Shepherd / Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd / Shepherd and Willis / Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd

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Today, the experimental and often fourth-wall-breaking show Moonlighting is regularly introduced to talk about “The Moonlighting Curse.” The term is used whenever a show loses some of its creative steam and viewership as soon as its leads consummate their relationship. The show’s official run had five abbreviated seasons because of Cybill Shepherd’s pregnancy, Bruce Willis’s flourishing career, the friction between castmates, and the network’s expenses and production delays.

The Showrunner Didn’t Want to Make a Detective Show

The creator didn’t even want to make a detective show. After the first two pilots in a three-pilot deal, ABC decided not to make the show. Instead, the president of the network, Glenn Gordon Caron, made it a detective show. Caron’s “eyes rolled to the top of my head,” he said.

Executive producer Glenn Gordon Caron attends the CBS fall preview party.

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“I think I said something to the effect of, ‘That’s what America needs, another detective show.’” When he met with the network again, Caron insisted that they added some romance to his version of a detective show. At least he got a say in the drama!

Influenced by Shakespeare

Caron explained that William Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew was actually “the emotional inspiration” behind Moonlighting. While he was in college, Caron watched his wife perform in a production of the play eight times, and it certainly left an impression on him.

Richard Burton holding ring next to Elizabeth Taylor in a scene from the film 'The Taming Of The Shrew,' 1967.

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“Moonlighting was sort of a rip-off of Taming of the Shew and always was,” Caron expressed. “I’ve been trying to keep that a secret, you know.” The play was specifically parodied in the third season episode, “Atomic Shakespeare.”

Maddie Was Written for Cybill Shepherd

50 pages into the pilot, Caron realized he was writing Maddie with Cybill Shepherd in mind. “I had to have somebody the public was fundamentally rooting against because the show was about the thawing of this beautiful ice queen,” Carol revealed in a 1986 interview with The New York Times.

Cybill Shepherd posing for a picture.

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“And I knew the public saw her as spoiled and bratty.” Caron and producer/director Jay Daniel met Shepherd at a Los Angeles restaurant to discuss the part. Daniel said that Caron was “very tongue-tied.”

Bruce Willis Was One of Thousands

Before 1985, Bruce Willis’s entire acting resume consisted of playing “Tony Amato” in an episode of Miami Vice. For his audition, he showed up with a “punk hairdo and earrings.” Shepherd recalled Willis wearing army fatigues and not going out of his way to flatter her – unlike all of the other men who auditioned that day.

Bruce Willis is looking off into the distance with sunglasses.

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He even avoided making eye contact with her and spent most of the time talking to Caron. As soon as he left the room, Shepherd told Caron that Willis needed to play David. However, Caron said the ABC executives “vigorously” didn’t want Willis. They even wanted to pay off Willis and Shepherd to “go away” because they believed the role of David was un-castable.

Big Man on Mulberry Street

Billy Joel wrote Big Man on Mulberry Street with the show in mind. After Caron heard it, he found a way to work it into an episode, which would be titled after Joel’s song. Always aiming to incorporate storytelling into dance, Caron called in film director Stanley Donen, who worked on hits like Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town.

Musician Billy Joel plays piano in his Manhattan apartment on May 28, 1976.

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He wanted Donen to get behind the camera for the dream sequence in the episode where Maddie imagines David’s relationship with his ex-wife. The song was officially featured on Joel’s 1986 album The Bridge.

Orson Welles’s Last Appearance

Orson Welles’s last on-screen appearance was on Moonlighting. Since ABC was worried about confusing audiences if they aired an episode in black and white, Caron asked Welles to introduce “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice.” He agreed after finding Caron’s written intro hilarious.

Orson Welles behind the lense of a film camera.

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The introduction was filmed on October 3, 1985. Sadly, Welles passed away the very next week. According to Jay Daniel, take one was “perfect,” but the iconic actor/writer/director insisted on a couple more takes just in case.

Willis and Shepherd Didn’t Get Along

Willis and Shepherd argued at work, and it affected the environment. “There was a discord on the set,” Caron revealed in 2008. “The show was really difficult to do, and they were in every frame. Bruce was at the beginning of his career, as was I – we were excited and enticed by the prospect [of doing the show].”

A close-up of Willis and Shepherd.

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He continued, “Cybill was a movie star and didn’t anticipate how difficult the show would be to do. When she became pregnant, it made it even harder. A lot of discord centered around that – working 14 to 15 hours a day, and the way I worked, pages came very late,” which led to even more tension between the show’s stars. Daniel said that Willis and Shepherd would receive ten pages of new dialogue just one hour before they had to perform it.

Filming Difficult Scenes

Bruce Willis broke his collarbone while Shepherd was pregnant, making filming challenging. In the episode, “I Am Curious… Maddie” – the episode where David and Maddie finally get together, there is a lengthy, underground garage scene featuring Willis, Shepherd, and Mark Harmon.

Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd are dancing close together.

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The scene was filmed ignoring the fact that, according to Daniel, “Never once were all three of those actors there together, never once. It was all doubles, trick shots, and somehow we had to go there three times to shoot one scene.” As audiences, we don’t always understand the difficulties of shooting a scene.

The Agnes DiPesto Episodes

The episodes starring Agnes DiPesto received lower ratings. Agnes DiPesto, played by Allyce Beasley, started off as the receptionist in the detective agency but eventually worked her way up and took on cases of her own in order to help Willis and Shepherd’s workloads.

Allyce Beasley playing Agnes DiPesto answers the phone in an episode of Moonlighting.

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It didn’t take long for the cast and crew to notice that the episodes featuring DiPesto and Herbert Viola (played by Curtis Armstrong) dropped in ratings for the second half-hour. Viewers tuned out when they realized the episodes weren’t going to include their dearest David and Maddie.

Shepherd Wasn’t Happy With Maddie’s Sudden Marriage

Shepherd wasn’t happy with her character’s sudden marriage. Maddie impulsively tied the knot with Walter Bishop (played by Dennis Dugan), a man she randomly met on a train. She just couldn’t picture her character acting like that.

Maddie, played by shepherd, marring Walter Bishop, played by Dennis Dugan.

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“When I strongly voiced my objection that the character we had created in Maddie would never do such a thing, Glenn [Gordon Caron] said words to the effect of ‘just shut up and do your job, you’re not producing the show,’” Shepherd revealed in her book, Cybill Disobedience. That’s a little harsh if you ask me.

There Was Almost a 3D Episode Sponsored by Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola is the most famous beverage company in the world. They spend a ton of money on promotion and advertising, to increase sales. That’s why it doesn’t come as such a surprise that there was supposed to be a 3D episode sponsored by Coca-Cola.

A poster promoting the 3D episode sponsored by Coca-Cola.

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The soda company produced 40 million pairs of glasses, but, unfortunately, a writer’s strike canceled the promotion. Coca-Cola ended up giving away 20 million pairs of those glasses during the Super Bowl halftime show in 1989. I wonder what they did with the other 20 million.

A Bickering Cast

As we mentioned, there was a lot of tension on the set of Moonlighting, specifically between the show’s stars Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. It only got worse towards the end of the show’s run, because the newcomer and leading actress didn’t really get along.

Willis and Shepherd buried in the sand up to their neck.

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By all accounts and reports from that time, when Bruce Willis shot to Die Hard fame, he no longer wanted to be second-billed to Cybill Shepherd especially, since she was usually the reason for all their delays in shooting.

Bruce Willis’s Die Hard Fame

Die Hard became a massive hit while Moonlighting was still running. If you don’t know, the 1988 classic action movie Die Hard was what propelled Brice Willis to international fame. It came out while Moonlighting was still going strong, and the video cassette was even released before the show finished.

Bruce Willis is crawling through the air vents in a still from Die Hard.

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It made Willis a household name, and they included a little nod to this. In one of the last episodes of Moonlighting, a man is featured ripping down a Die Hard poster in a video store as Bruce Willis’s character walks by.

Competing for the Lead Role

Bruce Willis snagged the role of David, but it wasn’t easy. When Moonlighting was first announced, it could have been a major gig for any aspiring Hollywood actor. As it turned out, 3,000 characters auditioned for the role before Willis even walked into the audition room.

Bruce Willing in a white tuxedo.

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Still, Willis made a great impression during his audition. He was actually the last to audition before getting cast as David Addison, Jr., head of the Blue Moon detective agency. What a lucky break! The world acknowledged his talent, and he has since become an A-list celebrity.

Season 3 Setbacks

The third season of Moonlighting wasn’t the best, and it comes as no surprise that Willis blamed Shepherd for all the setbacks. That’s right; the third season was filled with delays, and Willis said it was all his co-star’s fault.

US actor Bruce Willis and US actress Cybill Shepherd, both in formal evening wear, attending the 37th annual Emmy Awards.

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Apparently, a few filler episodes were made to make up for it. Unfortunately, these episodes strayed from the main storyline and story arcs, making Season Three the least popular season of Moonlighting. Since the two didn’t get along, it’s unclear how much of it was really because of Shepherd. I think there were a few other factors at play.

Shepherd’s Maddie Transformation

It took a lot of effort to make Cybill Shepherd look the way she did. It was no accident that the actress looked just like the leading ladies of the 1940s in Moonlighting. This was thanks to a wonderful and talented costume and makeup crew.

Model and actress Cybill Shepherd poses for a portrait in 1985 in Los Angeles, California.

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In order to get this effect, the costume department meticulously recreated the fashion of that time period. In addition, the scenes with Shepherd were usually filmed using a diffusion filter in order to flawlessly achieve the look of a 1940s detective drama. They did an amazing job.

It Took Nearly Two Weeks to Shoot One Episode

During that time, most of the shows that ran for an hour per episode would take around 5-7 days to film each. But that wasn’t the case for Moonlighting. Their various delays almost doubled filming time.

Shepherd pointing an accusing finger at Willis in a scene from Moonlighting.

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Instead of the usual one week to finish an episode, Moonlighting took closer to 12-14 days per episode. This was also a result of lengthening the scrips, making them double the length of ordinary, hour-long drama scripts. Some scenes were also written on the spot by showrunner Glenn Gordon Caron.

An Expensive Production

Not only did Moonlighting take a long time to shoot, but it was also one of the most expensive programs of its time. During the show’s run, episodes cost on average a whopping $1.6 million an episode.

Shepherd singing alongside Willis, who is playing the trumpet.

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That’s a lot of money for one episode, even in today’s terms. But back then, it cost twice as much as a normal hour-long episode of television. The cost didn’t seem to be a problem. In the end, the show’s success turned out to be worth it for the production company…

Money, Money, Money

ABC raked in a ton of money from the show. As you might imagine, there was a really good reason that the production company put so much extra money into Moonlighting: The network completely owned all rights to the show.

Shepherd asking Willis to blow on her dice while filming a scene in a casino.

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This meant that ABC made much more money from Moonlighting than they would have if it had been created by an outside production company, which was pretty common at the time. Despite all the behind-the-scenes drama, in Season Three, Moonlighting peaked as the 9th most popular show in America, and ABC made a ton in profits.

“Difficult to Work With”

As it turned out, Bruce Willis wasn’t the only person who found Cybill Shepherd difficult to work with. According to reports, other individuals on set also didn’t get along with her. Showrunner Glenn Gordon Caron left a different show about bickering detectives, Remington Steele, so that he could help produce and create Moonlighting.

Glenn Gordon Caron is filming behind the scenes.

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But Caron didn’t stick around for the entire run of the show and left after Season Three. Reportedly, the reason he parted ways was that the production was chaotic, and he would often find himself arguing with Cybill Shepherd.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Moonlighting liked to break the fourth wall. At particular times during the run of the show, you can see actors break character and talk directly to the camera, usually mentioning the production team and crew working on the set.

Willis and Shepherd in a still from the Shakespearian episode.

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In one episode at the end of Season Two, the actors left the set and started running around the studio, a strange thing to happen in a 1986 television show. There was even an episode made in a Shakespearean style, a Taming of the Shew-Esque one-off entitled Atomic Shakespeare.

The Most Expensive Primetime Series on TV

Even though the estimated cost per Moonlighting episode was $1.6 million, “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice” episode reportedly cost $2 million to make. Caron also revealed that he and Willis were hoping to do a Western-themed episode: “I think we always promised each other we’d do a Western, which we never really got around to doing.”

Shepherd is hiding behind a newspaper.

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Shepherd revealed that she was open to making a Moonlighting movie in 2013. In 2009, Willis revealed that he was open to the idea as long as Caron was involved. The showrunner was fired before the final season, allegedly because of Shepherd.

Caron Told Bruce Willis Not to Do Die Hard

Showrunner Glenn Gordon Caron advised Willis not to do Die Hard, but even he admitted that Willis is lucky he didn’t listen. “I pleaded with Bruce Willis not to do Die Hard,” Caron admitted in 1999. “Sometimes [actors] don’t listen to you, and it’s a good thing.”

Bruce Willis sitting at a desk while holding a basketball.

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Die Hard was ultimately Bruce Willis’s breakout role into a movie star when it was released in 1988. Since then, he has shown off his talents playing all types of characters in hit movies like The Kid, Pulp Fiction, Armageddon, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Split, to name just a few.

Bruce Willis as Jason Seaver

As we mentioned, Bruce Willis was one of the thousands hoping to get the part on Moonlighting. But during that time, the up-and-coming actor was also up for the role of Jason Seaver on the sitcom Growing Pains. Of course, the part went to Alan Thicke.

Alan Thicke on Growing Pains

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The sitcom was an ABC staple from 1985 to 1992, with a total of 166 episodes. Moonlighting, on the other hand, aired for five seasons with just 66 episodes. Still, it doesn’t seem like Willis is holding any grudges. If he had been on Growing Pains, there is no telling where his career would be.

Moonlighting’s Guest Stars

Moonlighting was no stranger to guest stars. People who appeared on the show included Tim Robbins, Dana Delany, Richard Belzer, Whoopi Goldberg, Judd Nelson, John Goodman, Terry O’Quinn Imogene Coca, and Demi Moore – who was Bruce Willis’s wife at the time. But those are just some of the recognizable featured on Moonlighting.

Burce Willis checking out Demi Moores character in the show Moonlighting.

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Other folks who appeared as themselves include model Cheryl Tiegs, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Mary Hart, gossip columnist Rona Barrett, the musical group The Temptations, and director Peter Bogdanovich – who directed The Last Picture Show and Daisy Miller, featuring Cybill Shepherd.

Before Moonlighting

Three years before Moonlighting even began, Allyce Beasley guest-starred as the coach’s daughter on the NBC show Cheers. Curtis Armstrong was known for movies like Revenge of the Nerds and Better Off Dead before joining the Moonlighting cast in Season Three and Beasley’s Miss DiPesto’s potential love interest.

Allyce Beasley in a still from Cheers.

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Mark Harmon finished his three-season run on NBC’s St. Elsewhere before appearing as Maddie’s love interest, Sam Crawford, in four Season Three episodes of Moonlighting. Pierce Brosnan also made a cameo as his Remington Steele character in an episode entitled, The Straight Poop.

Hard to Find Reruns

Most of the original network shows at the time produced 22 episodes per season. But due to the rapid dialogue and infamous production delays, Moonlighting only created 66 episodes throughout its entire run. And six of those episodes were in the abbreviated first season.

Willis and Shepherd in their office on the show Moonlighting.

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Most shows need about 100 episodes for off-network syndication, meaning reruns would get aired on different stations across the country. Since that wasn’t the case with Moonlighting, it was rarely watched after its original run. Nowadays, you can easily stream it, but it remains lesser known to newer generations.

The Lead Roles!

The role of Maddie on Moonlighting was written specifically for Cybill Shepherd. But the unknown Bruce Willis was the last to audition for David. Robert Blake, who was known for portraying Detective Tony Baretta in the 1970 crime drama Baretta, was also up for the role.

American actor Robert Blake talks on a pay telephone in a still from the film, 'In Cold Blood,'

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Image

Radio personality Rick Dees was also a probable contender for the role. Cybill Shepherd had opinions of her own and really hoped for an actor name Harley Venton to get it. In the end, Bruce Willis was exactly the man they were looking for and perfect for the part of David.

Life After Moonlighting

After Moonlighting came to an end, Cybill Shepherd headlined a CBS Chuck Lorre sitcom from 1995-1998 entitled Cybill. She went on to win the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy in 1996. She also earned three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in Comedy series.

Shepherd holding up her winning globe for the Best Actress in a television comedy series for her role in

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She also tried to syndicate a daytime talkshow as the host of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, between 2000 and 2001. The show unsuccessfully replaced siblings Donny and Marie Osmond.

Award-Winning Show

Another thing you may not know about Cybill Shepherd is that she had the opportunity to portray domestic doyenne Martha Stewart in not one but two movies: Martha, Inc: The Story of Martha Stewart (2003) and Martha: Behind Bars (2005).

Bruce Willis is holding his Golden Globe.

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Despite all the behind-the-scenes drama and filming, Moonlighting won six Emmy Awards. The 1987 Emmy award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series went to Bruce Willis. The show also won two Golden Globe Awards. Two of the Golden Globes went to Cybill Shepherd for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy.

He Had a Severe Stutter

As a child, Willis was very outgoing and outspoken. Although he was talkative, physically speaking wasn’t easy for him since he had struggled with a severe stutter until he was nine. The actor confessed to Reader’s Digest that he figured out a way to overcome his stutter by accident.

Bruce Willis and a young boy smiling.

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He tried out for his high school’s production of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and as soon as he took the stage, his stutter was suddenly gone. “When I stepped off the stage, I started again,” Willis explained. “And I went ‘This is a miracle. I’ve got to investigate this more.’”

Lost His Hearing While Shooting Die Hard

Moonlighting brought TV superstardom to Willis, and it earned him a shot at a movie career with Die Hard. Director John McTiernan wanted big bangs in this action movie and required the actors to use blanks that provided a louder sound on screen.

Behind the scene shot of Bruce Willis on the set of Die Hard

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As it turns out, in that famous “table scene” where McClane kills one of the bad guys, he shoots from underneath a long table, and it was so close to Willis’s ears that he lost two-thirds of his hearing in his left ear. But it also made him a movie star. You win some; you lose some.

Could Have Been Your Bartender

While auditioning for acting roles and landing the occasional break in 1977, Willis appeared in an off-Broadway play called Heaven and Earth. During that time, Willis was a bartender at Chelsea Central on the Upper West Side of New York City.

Actor Bruce Willis and Ritz Club barman Colin Field taste a cocktail

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Actor John Goodman was friends with Willis before either one of them got famous and said that he was just as notable back then: “Bruce was the best bartender in New York,” Goodman revealed back in 2017. “He kept an entire joint entertained all night. He just kept the show going. He was amazing.”

His Own Cartoon

Bruce Willis was lucky enough to get his own cartoon! Well, sort of. In 1996, he voiced Bruno the Kid, a syndicated animated series about an 11-year-old spy who manages to convince everyone he is really an adult. But the character was named Bruno for a reason.

A promotional poster for ‘Bruno the Kid’

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When Willis was growing up, Bruno was his nickname and his musical stage name. Back in 1987, Willis released an album, The Return of Bruno, that came along with a cable special! It lasted just one season, but it was a dream come true for the actor.