“I was walking along the path at Wilde Lake in Columbia [Md.] and saw a guy sitting on a bench. I said, ‘That’s Bruce Willis,’” says Michael Oberman, a local author and wildlife photographer, remembering a 2013 stroll. It was Buarque, but you can easily forgive him for the mistake. Oberman told him, “You are a dead ringer” for Willis.
It wasn’t the first time Buarque had heard that. Not even close. Perhaps through a tear in the fabric of spacetime, perhaps via strange dumb luck, Willis and Buarque happen to look nearly alike. Buarque’s eyes are more piercing, his chin slightly more pinched. But the human brain is only so capable of noticing such subtle nuances, a fact known to anyone who’s ever thrown a magazine across the room in frustration while trying a “spot the difference between these two photos.” Buarque is stopped and asked for photographs so often he just gives them now (with, of course, the caveat of “I’m not him.”). No autographs — that would be a step too far — but “if it made their day, it made me happy.”
It’s also led him to work as Willis’s stand-in double in 13 movies and 20 commercials. Buarque sees it all as God’s plan — or at least God’s blessing.
Last week, Willis announced that he’s stepping away from acting after being diagnosed with the language disorder aphasia. During the past few years, according to the Los Angeles Times, he has increasingly relied on stunt and body doubles as his ability to work long days on the set reportedly declined.
Understanding aphasia, the disorder cited in Bruce Willis’s retirement
To be clear, this is not that story. Buarque agreed to talk with The Washington Post only about his own unlikely journey to becoming a famous movie star’s double, because, he says, it might inspire others. (What others, you ask? All kinds of others. Somewhere out there, someone looks a whole lot like Channing Tatum, or Oscar Isaac, and they too have a dream.) Whatever happens now to Bruce Willis is Bruce Willis’s business. Buarque is protective of their relationship — loyal, grateful and humble.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” he says. “Just a real blessing.” Is that ride now over? Who can really say?
About 23 years ago, Buarque, who lives in Ellicott City with his wife, Jenn, became intimately acquainted with the phrase, “Hey, you look like Bruce Willis.” He couldn’t leave the house without hearing it. Once when he was standing outside a 7-Eleven in a tank top — “standing out there, trying to be Mr. Tough Guy” — a dude walked out and said, “’You’re not gonna blow up the store up, are you? You’re looking like John McClane out here!’”
It was kind of a thrill. Willis was his favorite actor, and the “Die Hard” movies sit at the top of his list. Buarque worked as a landscaper (he now runs his own landscaping company) and never much felt the pull of Hollywood. But everywhere he went, people said he should double for Willis, which “stoked a fire.”
From 2005: Bruce Willis’s Tragic Mask
As luck (or destiny) would have it — it’s best to decide now which you believe in, because this story will soon become a series of increasingly implausible coincidences — his next-door neighbor was a government photographer and offered to snap a few 8- by-10s. Why not? He pulled out the Yellow Pages, looked up “acting” and mailed the photos to the addresses listed there, circa 1999.
A year passed. Then the phone rang — a local modeling agency on the other end, with promises of an audition.
“Immediately, I just went through the roof with excitement. This might be my big break,” Buarque remembers, his excitement only growing when he got an audition for M. Night Shyamalan’s Willis-starring superhero movie “Unbreakable.”
“I was scared to death,” he says. It turned out to be “the first taste of rejection. And it sucked. But that was kind of the beginning of the 20-plus year journey I’ve been on.”
As would become a chorus for years to come, “It wasn’t my time.”
But luck (or destiny) was on his side, because there he met Joel Gibbs, a self-dubbed “writer/producer/director/hyphenate, whatever you want to call it.”
“I’m sitting in the lobby, and it was very weird and freaky because Bruce Willis is sitting next to me,” Gibbs says. “My head was spinning.” He took a closer look and had to introduce himself. When Buarque turned toward him, “I could see that he was not really Bruce Willis, but it was as close as you could possibly get.”
Gibbs knew he needed to work with him, and a year later cast him in a car dealership commercial spoofing “The Sixth Sense” across from a Haley Joel Osment look-alike who sees “classic people” (as in classic cars). The commercial put him on the map. “It was a smash,” Gibbs remembers. “The reaction we got was, ‘How in bloody hell did you get Bruce Willis to be in one of these commercials?’”
The Razzies dissed Bruce Willis. After aphasia diagnosis, they took it back.
For the next few years, Buarque received occasional calls to appear in local TV and film productions, gaining parts like “Longshoreman” in the second season of “The Wire” or “Bar Patron” in “Shot in the Heart.” Someone always made the comment: “Hey, you look like …” While Buarque was playing “Wedding Guest” in the 2014 Joaquin Phoenix movie “Ladder 49,” John Travolta cut to the chase and just nicknamed him “Willis.”
At that point, Buarque might have been the only landscaper in Maryland with a subscription to the Hollywood Reporter, tracking any productions involving Willis. Without an agent — he’s never had one — he would personally mail his photo to casting directors. In 2004, he got a bite, so he flew to Los Angeles hoping to get cast as Willis’s double in a film called “Hostage.”
First he got a “yes.” Then he got a “no.” Then he decided to give up. But even with a trash can filled with Hollywood Reporter back issues, he kept hearing it everywhere he went. “Hey, you look like…”
And finally, it happened. Bruce Willis came to Baltimore in 2006 to film the fourth “Die Hard” movie, “Live Free or Die Hard.” It marked the first time Buarque doubled for Willis, and the first time he made the news, landing a story in the Baltimore Sun.
The job entailed literally standing in for Willis while scenes were set up and shots are planned. In one scene, for example, Willis’s McClane jumps onto his car to see what’s happening down the road — so Buarque did it first. Baltimore came out that day to watch the shoot, and “the fans, the place was going nuts … TV news cameras were everywhere, helicopters flying around.” Here he was, standing on top of a car in the middle of Baltimore as John McClane, Willis’s most important character and Buarque’s favorite. It was the “highlight of my career,” he says now, remembering how badly he wished his mom — his biggest fan, who had passed away a few years earlier — had been around to see him on top of that car. After the movie wrapped, he had the chance to come out to LA and continue doubling.
But luck (or destiny) had a different path in mind. A divorce left him with custody of his children. He tried splitting time between the coasts, but it didn’t work. He had to do the hard thing, the right thing for his children. “I had to pack my bag and come home,” he says. “It wasn’t my time.”
Ten years passed, as Buarque saw his kids through school. By now, he read the Hollywood Reporter online and had a Facebook account — which he used to reconnect with Willis’s team. It was time.
“I see it as a blessing from the Lord that he opened that door again when the time was right to fully commit,” Buarque said. “It’s turned out to be so much more than I ever thought it would be. I’ve been to Spain. I’ve been to Canada, Mexico. I’ve flown a couple of times on the private jet with [Willis]. It has just been a heck of a ride for me.”
“Eric’s a real loyal, trustworthy, honest person, who is a hard worker,” says Oklahoma State University head football coach Mike Gundy. The two of them struck up an unlikely friendship years ago when Gundy coached at the University of Maryland. Buarque tended to landscaping in Gundy’s neighborhood, where Gundy and his wife Kristen noticed him.
“We said, ‘Obviously, Bruce is not gonna be mowing lawns in our neighborhood,’” Gundy said. One day, they struck up a conversation. “I’m a big landscaping guy. We just kind of got to know each other just talking about flowers and grass and shrubs, things like that.”
‘Die Hard’ isn’t just a Christmas movie — it’s the best ever, according to its Hollywood distributor
After Gundy moved to Stillwater, Okla., the pair stayed in touch. Once or twice a year, Buarque visits Gundy to catch a game or watch a practice. He brings along Jade Roberts, a Sylvester Stallone look-alike who lives in Dallas. This will make perfect sense if you’ll just give us a chance to explain it. Buarque and Roberts have visited Oklahoma enough that “most of our players know them” and “most of the people around here in Stillwater know who they are,” Gundy says. But, from time to time, he’ll catch people doing double-takes in public, sometimes approaching him later to ask if he was hobnobbing with movie stars.
“It is a strange life,” Roberts says over the phone, during a conversation in which he occasionally (okay, maybe more than occasionally) slips in a Rocky Balboa-like “Absuhlootly.” “We’ve had different experiences in the business but at the same time our desires have always been to portray the character.”
Roberts and Buarque put on the set of 2013′s “The Starving Games,” a goofy spoof movie that includes a few scenes with “The Expendables” look-alikes. (For those without basic cable and empty Saturday afternoons, “The Expendables” is an action franchise written by Stallone — the real one — that stars a Who’s Who of 30 years of action movies, from Dolph Lundgren to Jet Li, with cameos by the likes of Harrison Ford and Wesley Snipes.) The strange Six Degrees of Bruce Willis phenomenon is also at play here. About 26 years before Roberts met Buarque—and 20 years before Buarque met Willis—Roberts had a split-second cameo in Willis’s breakout TV hit, “Moonlighting,” playing Rocky Balboa.
Soon enough, as if in some Bizarro World, our Willis look-alike was also friends with an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike, a Jason Statham look-alike, a … you get the point. But he grew closest with Roberts, who dubs him “good as gold as a friend” and a “blood brother.”
They both grapple with the perception that “some people think that we think that we’re them,” Roberts says. (Wrap your head around that.) And both men are uncomfortably familiar with perhaps the strangest part of looking like a famous movie star: When people argue that you of which look like a famous movie star. “It’s kind of a subjective thing,” Roberts adds. “You put yourself out there, and people will find flaws.”
Both Roberts and Gundy admire Buarque’s humility. “He’s not ego-driven,” says Roberts. “He was excited to be working with Bruce, but it wasn’t like he would go and tell everyone, ‘Look what I do.’ He’s just not that way.”
Of course, without any more Willis movies, there’s no longer much need for a Willis look-alike. But the football coach in Gundy likes Buarque’s commitment to putting in the reps, whether he’s continuing to run his landscaping company or attempting to further his film career. Buarque and Roberts have a few ideas floating around — maybe a reality show, maybe getting the look-alike “Expendables” back together for a feature film, maybe something else entirely.
“Things work out not always how we think they’re going to work out, and most of it is timing,” Buarque says. “When I look back, I feel like the Lord opened those doors for me. And when the time was right, the door was open.”