John McClane's character is based on the fictional Detective John Leland from Roderick Thorp's novel Nothing Lasts Forever and Frank Malone from Walter Wager's novel 58 Minutes (the plot is adapted into Die Hard 2). He was played by Bruce Willis.
In the fourth Die Hard movie, the chief antagonist Thomas Gabriel declares that on John's tombstone it will say "Always at the wrong place at the wrong time". This is perhaps an accurate description of John's law enforcement career because, unlike many protagonists in other action franchises, John embarks on his death-daring, defiant adventures not from his own intention. These incidents repeatedly cause friction in his relationship with his family, to the point which his own wife no longer wants to live with him (although she never filed divorce) and his daughter uses her mother's maiden name instead of his surname.
In the third movie, aside from being a chain smoker, John is revealed to have turned to alcohol for his depression. Inspector Cobb describes him as "two steps from being an alcoholic", to which John jokingly tells him he's only one step from it.
Fictional character biography
Die Hard: Year One
A comic which details John's first adventure as a rookie ten years prior to the first movie.
The Nakatomi Incident
For more details see: Die Hard
John has recently separated from his wife Holly Gennaro after eleven years in the NYPD. She has left for Los Angeles to pursue a career in the Nakatomi Company, while John remained in New York to work on open cases, He secretly hopes that Holly will relent and return to the east coast. She is also in custody of their two children, Lucy and John.
Upon Christmas Eve, John is off-duty and visiting Holly in her workplace at Nakatomi Plaza, Los Angeles. Unfortunately for him, their night was interrupted by a criminal group, led by Hans Gruber. They plan to steal $640 million in bearer bonds from Nakatomi through an elaborate plan: take hostages, pose as terrorists to distract the police, and later destroy the building in an explosion to fake their deaths.
John manages to hide from them long enough and sneak through the building, contacting LAPD Sgt. Al Powell and befriending him in the process. He eliminates Gruber's men one by one while relaying much of the information gained to Powell. He eventually confronts Gruber in a final showdown and kills him, saving his wife, who Hans was using as a human shield.
With the danger gone, McClane and his wife reconcile, and McClane agrees to change coasts and get a job with the LAPD to be close to his family
The Attack at Dulles Airport
For more details, see: Die Hard 2
Two years after the Nakatomi Incident, the McClane family heads to Washington, D.C. to spend the holidays with McClane's in-laws. Because she was busy with work, Holly took a later flight. After dropping the kids off with their grandparents, McClane returned to snowy Dulles airport to wait for her to land. While entertaining himself, McClane sees a group of suspicious men, one of which he recognizes as disgraced colonel, William Stuart. They were planning to free General Esperanza, a corrupt foreign military leader who was being extradited through Dulles.
McClane followed two of the men into a restricted baggage area. Spooked, they opened fire on McClane, forcing McClane to kill them. This got the attention of head of airport security, Carmine Lorenzo, and lead air traffic controller, Ed Trudeau. McClane tried to explain his suspicions, but they didn't believe him until Stuart and his platoon took control of the airport's communications from a nearby abandoned church on airport grounds. Using the circling planes running out of fuel as hostages, Stuart coerces the the airport to land Esperanza's plane.
McClane continued to work clandestinely, including using torches to get the attention of a landing plane that was being tricked by a fake altimeter reading. When the plane crashed, Lorenzo called in a SWAT team, but they were plants for Stuart. They freed Esperanza and jumped on their own escape plane. With no other options, McClane jumped from a news helicopter to the wing of the plane. Still grounded and speeding up to its departure, McClane was forced to fight Stuart, who was well beyond McClane's ability.
While being kicked from the plane, McClane was able to hit the fuel release. As the plane continued down the runway and started its descent, it left a long trail of jet fuel that McClane lit with his zippo. The fire reached the plane and exploded, killing Esperanza and all the terrorists. The circling planes, including the one with Holly on board, were able to use the flaming line of fuel as runway lights and safely land.
The Simon Says Bomber
For more details, see Die Hard: With a Vengeance
Five years after the Attack on Dulles Airport, McClane had once again become estranged from his wife and moved back to New York. While nursing a hangover on suspension, McClane was targeted by a serial bomber that already blew up a department store. If McClane doesn't follow his very specific demands and answer his convoluted riddles, "Simon" (as in "Simon Says") threatens to bomb another location.
While performing a racially-charged stunt, McClane is helped by Zeus (played by Samuel L. Jackson), a Good Samaritan, who Simon decides to include in future punishments. While trying to follow the demands, McClane also looks for a clever way to stop him, including locating and disposing of bombs himself, never failing to shock Zeus with his recklessness.
Simon turns out to be Simon Peter Gruber, brother of Hans Gruber, killed by McClane during the Nakatomi Incident. Although, he is delighted in torturing McClane for the death of his brother, he is using the bombs as diversions for the police to break into the Federal Reserve and steal $140 billion in gold bricks. He even uses one of the successful bombs to gain access to the bank.
After the FBI clue McClane into Simon's true identity, McClane starts to devise the real plan. Just like his brother, McClane believes that Simon is hiding his criminal behavior and follows a hunch that leads him to the dump trucks full of gold. They follow them to a tanker ship that explodes, that convinces everyone else that the gold and the terrorists were gone. However, when McClane noticed a bottle of aspirin given to him by Simon was purchased in Canada, he was able to track Simon and his team to a warehouse on the border. Simon attempted to flee in the raid, but McClane stopped him by shooting a power line that fell into Simon's helicopter.
The 2007 U.S. Fire Sale
For more details, see: Live Free or Die Hard
After a fight with his daughter, Lucy, about her taste in boyfriends, McClane is given a crap detail by his commanding officer to head to New Jersey and pick up Matthew Farrell, a hacker who is a person of interest to the FBI. Matt had been writing program for a security outfit that turned out to be cyber-terrorists led by disgraced D.O.D. cyber-security agent, Thomas Gabriel. McClane made it to Matt just in time to save him from Gabriel's assassins taking out loose ends. The two hit the road for D.C., evading Gabriel's enforcers along the way.
Meanwhile, Gabriel uses his new program to hack into transportation grids, the stock market, and public broadcast systems to create a panic. Farrell recognizes it as a "fire sale," a hypothetical cyber attack that would shut down a nation's infrastructure, leaving it vulnerable. With the help of one of Farrell's hacker contacts in Baltimore, they track Gabriel to a server farm in Maryland. It was an NSA backup of the nation's financial records that was created by Gabriel. He intends to steal them for himself.
McClane and Farrell head for the server farm, where Farrell is able to encrypt the data that Gabriel is downloading. Sick of McClane's interference, Gabriel had already kidnapped Lucy to keep McClane pacified. Now with leverage, Gabriel also kidnaps Farrell to force him to decrypt his data. This angers McClane who chased him down with an 18-wheeler, narrowly avoiding a firefight with a fighter jet.
He tracked them to a airplane hanger where he took out Gabriel and his men before Farrell could finish his decryption.
007 of Plainfield, New Jersey
For more details, see: A Good Day to Die Hard
McClane finds out that his estranged son, Jack, has been arrested in Russia for attempted murder and heads to the country to support him during his hearing. When he gets there, he sees Jack escaping custody with a government whistleblower, Yuri Komarov. Following him to a CIA safehouse, McClane finds out Jack is a spy and has been undercover for the last three years. They are interested in files incriminating a corrupt Russian official, Viktor Chagarin.
Chagarin sent a wetworks team to take out the CIA safehouse, killing Jack's partner and attempting to kidnap Yuri. This forces the McClanes to shoot their way out and meet up with Yuri's daughter to find his stashed safe deposit box key where he subsequently stashed the files. Yuri's daughter, however, betrayed them to Chagarin's men for a large sum of money. They kidnap Yuri but fail to stop the McClanes.
Knowing they were headed for the Chernobyl section of Ukraine, Jack and McClane gear up and steal a car to meet Chagarin's men there. Yuri's daughter reveals that her betrayal was a plan to get herself and Yuri to Chernobyl. Yuri's key wasn't to files but 1 million euros worth of weapons-grade uranium. McClane and his son show up to stop Yuri and his daughter from escaping Chernobyl.