IN "HITCH," Will Smith played a successful matchmaker. In real life, it turns out he's pretty good at break-ups, too.

Bruce Willis credits homeboy Will with counseling him when he was in what he calls a "dark place" after his split with Demi Moore.

"We're just friends. I just know him, I guess cause we're both from back here. And he just reached out to me," said Willis, the South Jersey native in town recently to hype "Live Free or Die Hard." Willis, doing a ton of press for the new movie, is the subject of a lengthy piece in "Playboy" in which he made Smith sound like Dr. Phil.

But it's no B.S, Willis says. Will Smith really did help him out.

"We were just talking in general terms, and the topic of kids came up, and Will was very eloquent on the subject of making sure the kids are put first," he recalled. "When a relationship comes undone, people retreat. Everyone does this. People retreat to a neutral corner, licking their wounds. They're still angry, still resentful, and it's so easy to get trapped into thinking that the break-up is something that only is happening to you. Really, it's the kids who are the most important. Will Smith reminded me of that, and it was a good reminder, at a time when I really needed to hear it."

Willis evidently took the advice to heart. Photos of Willis, Moore and her beau Ashton Kutcher frolicking as a nontraditional happy family have made Willis the virtual poster boy for patchwork, post-divorce arrangements.

"People don't get it," Willis said. " 'How does this work?' they always ask me. 'How are you able to get along?' Well, [Ashton] makes me laugh, I make him laugh. I think we would be friends anyway, under different circumstances, in a different space, if we didn't both have the same woman in our life. I get a lot of credit for making it work, but I had nothing to say about it. Demi just picked a really good guy, and everybody benefitted from that choice."

Willis said it helps that he's a more mellow fellow. He admits to being a bit of a hard case early in his career, sometimes tough on friends, fans and colleagues. A few decades of ups and downs in the fickle movie business have changed his perspective.

"I just find that at this point in my life, I'm not worried about that much. I'm not stressing out about things, the whole acting racket. I mean, I take it seriously when I do work, but I don't take being famous seriously anymore. It's all horsebleep anyway," he said.

Horsebleep, he confesses, is a word that might apply to a few of his film choices.

"Once in a while I catch a good role, but I've made a lot of mistakes. I've done a lot of films I probably shouldn't have done, which I take responsibility for. But I've made some good ones, too. One thing I've learned, history is the real judge, the real critic. If one of your films is still around in 20 years, you know you've made a good one."

Like the original "Die Hard."

Finding some way to recapture the magic of the original was the reason for the "Live Free or Die Hard," he said.

"In having the luxury of looking back at the first three, the original is clearly the stand-out. And I didn't have to do a fourth. I could have retired undefeated. But I wanted a chance specifically to come as close to the quality of the first film as we could, make it hang on for 20 or 22 years," he said.

Director Len Wiseman sold Willis on returning to the old-school ethos of the original - avoiding the trap of trying to make a sequel more spectacular by jazzing it up with a lot of computer effects.

"I'd say that 75 percent of our stunts are real. We flew a real car into a real helicopter. In the film you see me almost get smashed by a car that flips 20 times in the air. That's a real car, on cables. The reality is important. I think there's no drama if the audience doesn't think there's a chance a character could lose or get hurt," he said.

There's a great deal at stake, commercially, for Willis in "Live Free or Die Hard." It's a competitive summer, a crowded slate, and the fourth "Die Hard" will to a large extent be a referendum on the Willis brand.

Even so, he's not a guy who's fixated on blockbusters. Willis likes to loan himself out to smaller, independent movies - Richard Linklater's "Fast Food Nation," a goofy bit part in "Grindhouse." You can even see him as himself in "Nancy Drew."

And of course "Live Free" proves he has nothing against sequels. In fact, he said he wouldn't mind working with M. Night Shyamalan again for a sequel to "Unbreakable."

"I do some on-line chats on sites like Ain't It Cool News, and so many times I get asked about working with Night. When we did 'Unbreakable,' it was conceived as part of a trilogy. In the comic book world, the story we told was the origins story of my character, and how Sam Jackson's character became Mr. Glass. Just as a film fan, I'd like to see Sam Jackson and I in a second film, battling it out," he said.

Willis said he hasn't broached the subject with Shyamalan, but was about to place a call to him, just to shoot the breeze.

"I think he's terrific, and a rarity in Hollywood. He just sits at home and writes, doesn't tell anybody about it, just turns it into a script, and tells great stories," he said.

He still recalls being floored at his first read-through of "The Sixth Sense."

"I said yes the next day. I remember turning from page 106 to 107 and saying, get the [heck] out of here. Are you kidding me? I read scripts all the time, and I didn't see that coming."

Scripts like that don't come along every day, or even every 20 years. As a battled-hardened Hollywood veteran, Willis is thinking about posterity, about doing the kinds of movies that will stand the test of time. He talked about his admiration for John Wayne, about trying to find a project that would rank in his own career the way "The Searchers" ranks for Wayne.

And he threw out another name.

"There's a movie I watch three or four times a year. 'Lawrence of Arabia.' I think that was Peter O'Toole's first film. He was like, 22. You see him in that, and then you see him at the end of his life in "Venus," and you look at both of those films, and it's an amazing thing," Willis said. "To have those kinds of colors. To have those kinds of cards in your deck, to be able to lay them out at the end of your career, that's really what I think it's all about." *