The real-life tower that made ‘Die Hard’

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It’s Christmas Eve. As most of Los Angeles is tucked in bed waiting for Santa, hundreds of FBI and Los Angeles Police Department officers swarm around the gleaming Nakatomi tower, a half-built example of 1980s power architecture at its finest. Suddenly, an explosion rips open the roof, and bloodied and barefoot New York Police Department officer John McClane propels down the building in a hail of glass and debris, falling past the sleek mirrored windows. The fire from the explosion lights up the LA skyline.

Of course, this isn’t reality, but the culminating scene in the 1988 Christmas-action Die Hard. And the man jumping off the building isn’t named John McClane, nor is it actor Bruce Willis, it is stuntman Ken Bates. And Nakatomi tower, well that’s really Fox Plaza in Century City, the building that became a star.

“There’s not an angle—literal or figurative—of the building that the movie doesn’t capitalize on, whether it’s the striking architecture standing tall relative to its Century City neighbors or the nooks and crannies of stairwells and elevator shafts,” says Alonso Duralde, film critic and author of Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas.

It’s not surprising that Fox Plaza was destined for celluloid glory. The very neighborhood it stands in was once the backlot of 20th Century Fox.

In 1959, Spyros Skouras, the head of the ailing Fox Studios, was looking for new ways to make money. It was decided that 176 acres of the studio’s extensive backlot would be developed by New York real estate dynamo William Zeckendorf. A modern “city within a city” was planned, and the groundbreaking was a star-studded event. According to the Los Angeles Times:

William Zeckendorf Sr., flanked by Mary Pickford and a bevy of politicians and press agents, gathered in front of a make-believe Western saloon for an old-fashioned ground- breaking. After a round of speeches in which Zeckendorf labeled the development “an oasis in the midst of a great city,” a bulldozer demolished the facade of a small shack on Tombstone Street. Then, according to one account, “Everyone went to lunch.”


The back lot of 20th Century-Fox Studio. This set stood approximately where the Century Plaza Hotel was built in Century City.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The project soon proved difficult, earning the derisive nickname “Century Silly.” Zeckendorf was forced to declare bankruptcy, and the development of Century City was saved primarily by the Aluminum Co. of America, which developed modern industrial parks and office complexes in the community, showcasing its sleek aluminum building materials.

While Century City had developed into a convenient, upscale commercial center by the 1980s, it still needed a signature architectural achievement. Enter the brash, larger than life billionaire Marvin “Mr. Wildcatter” Davis, who had purchased 20th Century Fox in 1981. In the early 1980s, he decided to build a signature skyscraper in Century City, which would perfectly encapsulate the bigger-is-better business ethos of the decade.

The failing firm of the prolific modernist architect William Pereira (designer of such iconic buildings as the TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) was tapped to design the massive tower. In increasingly ill-health, Pereira hired two young Harvard graduates—Scott Johnson and William Fain—and quickly gave them immense responsibilities. In a 1991 interview with the LA Times, Johnson recalled the chaos he encountered when he took the job in 1983:

The good news was that a month earlier the firm had won the commission to design a skyscraper in Century City for wealthy oilman Marvin Davis, then the owner of 20th Century Fox. The bad news was that the firm seemed to be sinking faster than Johnson had been told. He was not sure the firm would stay in business long enough to finish Fox Plaza for Davis.

Much to the consternation of older members of the firm, Johnson and Fain were handpicked by Pereira to lead it into the future. Plans for the tower began in earnest and continued after Pereira’s death in 1985. The 34-story high-rise was designed with executive egos in mind. According to USA Today, 16-corner offices were constructed on every floor, instead of the customary four.

When Fox Plaza debuted in the fall of 1987, the reviews were mixed. Sam Hall Kaplan of the LA Timespenned a piece titled “Nice Style, Poor Design,” and opened it with a compliment:

Not another boxy, boring building in the severe International style, the Fox Plaza is clad in pink-toned granite and gray tinted glass and tilted and angled at the upper floors to subtly reflect light. The building, styled by R. Scott Johnson of Pereira Associates in an updated Moderne fashion, looks good, especially at a distance and when compared to most of the other office towers in the area. Even the garage with its banded concrete block and arched entry is distinctive looking.

But Kaplan went on to decry the flash over function evident throughout the building, expressing his disappointment in the lobby, landscaping, and other public spaces. To another LA Timesjournalist, Leon Whitestone, it was “a brilliant but isolated act of architecture with its ambiguous connection to its surroundings. The building, some observers say, seems unable to decide whether its front door is on the street or at the back, facing the parking garage.”


Fox Plaza is wrapped in pink-toned granite and glass.
Shutterstock

But not every review has been so harsh. The tower has been compared to a church spire towering over a small village, a beacon of power and prestige. “The building is placed on axis with the middle of Olympic Boulevard, so that it become a giant obelisk or column at the end of a grand avenue,” writes design critic Aaron Betsky. “The parking garage is tucked into the hill, giving you the impression of a kind of rampart protecting Century City.”

It was the building’s looming, isolated presence, and the fact that it was brand new, and therefor still pretty empty, that made it the perfect location for Die Hard, which wasa 20th Century Fox production.

During filming, which started in the fall of 1987, director John McTiernan used every architectural and structural feature of the building for dramatic effect, including the air conditioning ducts, unfinished floors, elevator shafts, and the electrical closets—“the real guts of the building,” said studio spokesperson Sharon Holliday to the Toronto Star.

Filming consisted primarily of night shoots at Fox Plaza and on a nearby soundstage at Fox Studios. Many special effects were done using a meticulous 25-foot miniature of Fox Plaza. The streets of Century City were also used to great effect. “We could fly the helicopter down the main streets of Century City and then make a right turn, but we weren’t allowed to get within 200 feet of the building,” explained Richard Edlund, head of visual effects, to American Cinematographer.

“The building might, in some ways, be looked at as a generic 1980s skyscraper, but the movie finds a personality in its distinctive angles and sheer size,” says Duralde, the film critic. “Without the movie, this might become another LA building clearly tethered to a particular period or style of architecture, but it is now and forever Nakatomi Plaza.”

Die Hard opened in July 1988, and quickly became a runaway hit. The tower was so popular that new posters were designed giving it more or equal space with Willis. “[We] realized we had a kind of action epic on our hands—and that the building… was a star too,” 20th Century Fox marketing president Tom Sherak told the LA Times.

Die Hard, a tale of terrorists and murder, was a real-life nightmare for those protecting Fox Plaza’s most famous tenant. In 1988, out-going President Ronald Reagan’s good buddy Marvin Davis told him that prime penthouse office space was available in the new Fox Plaza. The president, who was planning on retiring nearby to a $2.5 million pink stucco estate in Bel-Air, declined the government’s drab office space at the Westwood Federal Office Tower, according to a 1989 article in Newsday.

Reagan had long been a fan of the Century Plaza Hotel, and Fox Plaza seemed a perfect fit for him, but not for the Secret Service. “Great, you just picked a building where there’s been a movie made about how terrorists can blow it up,” one agent quipped in The Hollywood Reporter.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation leased a 5,000-square-foot penthouse office suite for around $135,000 a month. Former First Lady Nancy Reagan also rented an office next door. As decorators descended on the penthouse to make it ready for the Reagans, they found black cartridges left over from the filming of Die Hard. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Reagan was an enthusiastic new tenant of Fox Plaza:

Reagan was so eager to start his new life that he showed up at the office on his first day back in California (where he was governor from 1967 to 1975). The phones didn’t work properly, and he ended up playing receptionist to the surprise of incoming callers: “Ronald Reagan’s office, Ronald Reagan speaking.”

Reagan settled into a new routine. Every day the Secret Service drove him to the penthouse, where he worked on his memoirs and the design of his presidential library. He also met with guests, including President George Bush, Lew Wasserman, Tom Cruise, Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Billy Graham, and Margaret Thatcher. According to one staffer, quoted in The Hollywood Reporter, Reagan loved the offices’ amazing views: “Every day when he came in, he would look to the west to see if the fog had burned off and if he could see the ocean.”


A movie still from Die Hard. Bruce Willis, covered in blood and sweat, propels down a building. City lights sprawl out in the background.
Die Hard director John McTiernan used every architectural and structural feature of still under-construction Fox Plaza for dramatic effect, including the air conditioning ducts, unfinished floors, elevator shafts, and the electrical closets.
20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection

By May 1989, USA Today was calling Fox Plaza a “power address” with the highest per-square-foot price in all of Los Angeles. “You’ve got corporate raiders—oil billionaire Marvin Davis and Alfred Checchi are two floors apart,” reported USA Today. “The two are rivals for Northwest Airlines. You’ve got politicos—Ronald Reagan is on the top floor. You’ve got big-wig L.A. law firms, and of course, you’ve got 20th Century Fox, the building’s namesake.

There was a real-life bomb scare at Fox Plaza in 1994, when a suspicious package, labeled “this is a bomb threat,” was delivered to the building. Seven floors were evacuated before it was discovered the package was actually a screen play about a human bomb, which an unthinking screenwriter had sent to tenant Davis Entertainment.

Fox Plaza continued as a power address throughout the 1990s, even as Reagan, its most famous resident, slipped into the fog of Alzheimer’s. In 1997, Davis came back into the picture when he repurchased Fox Plaza for $253 million. Davis had kept offices in the building since its opening. In a 2005 issue of Vanity Fair, a reporter reflecting on Davis’s death recalled meeting with “Mr. Wildcatter” in the office in 2000:

He sat elevated above me behind a massive desk on a pedestal in his vast, peach-colored chandelier-lit office in Fox Plaza, the 34-story office building on the Avenue of the Stars in Century City, California. Davis’s desk was a replica of the Denver oil baron Blake Carrington’s on Dynasty, the 1980s TV series, which was said to have been inspired by Davis back when he dominated Rocky Mountain oil. Davis had built Fox Plaza—which was featured in Die Hard, the 1988 Bruce Willis movie—later sold it for a $50 million profit, then bought it back for $253 million, only to sell it again for an $80 million profit.

The buyer was the Irvine Co., headed by Donald Bren.In 2001, it was announced that the Reagan Foundation would not renew its lease. “There’s a lot of history here. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have such a large space when he doesn’t come here anymore,” chief of staff Joanne Drake said in the Chicago Tribune, explaining the former president had not been to his office in more than a year.

Today, Fox Plaza continues to be a power address with political ties. Former California Gov. Pete Wilson now has an office there. Goldman Sachs is there, as is the Broad Foundation, Fox Sports, and Fox Entertainment Group. It has also become a mecca for fans of Die Hard, which spawned four sequels and made Bruce Willis a star.

“When you walk into the actual building, it’s a little surprising how familiar so much of it is, from the circular driveway to the elevator banks,” Duralde says. “And when you’re on the Fox lot, it’s impossible not to look up and see the mighty building towering above you without thinking of Die Hard.”

In 2013, at a 25th anniversary celebration of the movie, Willis looked up at the Fox Plaza while talking to a USA Todayreporter. “It all started over here. It was cold out, like now. And I spent a lot of time on that roof,” he said. “Filming went by so quickly, not unlike the last 25 years. We made a great movie out of a building.”

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