Actor Spotlight: Bruce Campbell

Thanks to MrsLangdonAlger for edits

“My agent and manager always hated when I went down to New Zealand. To them, I was wasting my time working on a syndicated “guilty pleasure” — out of touch, out of sight and most certainly out of the mind of Hollywood. Frankly, I can never be far enough from Hollywood. What my representatives failed to understand, being infested with deadly spores, was that New Zealand represented a place where we could be free from studio interference, politics, parties, and misguided ambition. Hard as I tried, I could never fully explain that I had grown weary of chasing that elusive Fame Train and was far more interested in revisiting those childhood summers of Super-8 films, when it wasn’t about money or status. I wasn’t working on Herc and Xena to advance my career — I was doing it to have fun.”

If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor

 

“Groovy.” – Ash Williams, Evil Dead 2

The childhood of Bruce Campbell feels almost comically fitting for the consummate B-movie actor of our times. A son of an actor/billboard inspector growing up in the suburbs of postwar Detroit is the actor version of the log cabin-born president, and Campbell spent his high school years playing with an 8mm camera and a cadre of friends. The most important of them: a young Sam Raimi, whose friendship with Campbell has been both lifelong and filled with comical, one-sided abuse, from repeatedly poking Campbell’s leg injury on the Evil Dead set to driving him through a row of thick tree branches while making its sequel. Campbell, Raimi, Scott Spiegel, and Rob Tapert continued making movies into young adulthood – It’s Murder!, Attack of the Helping Hand – but making it a living seemed impossible. Deciding to go into horror for its easy entry level, the team made a short, Within the Woods, in a bid to convince prospective producers to collectively pony up $100,000 (of which they got $90,000) for their largest and riskiest project by far.

Campbell - Evil Dead Poster

Production on The Evil Dead – the self-described “ultimate experience in grueling terror” – went comically awry. The crew got lost in the woods and Campbell’s brother fell off a cliff on the first day, the lack of easy medical care in rural Tennessee meant serious injuries were hard to treat, and special effects like thick glass placed over actors’ eyes were harmful. These only compounded the problem as the shoot went from six weeks to a miserable twelve; the creative leaders had to double as “fake Shemps’ (in honor of The Three Stooges, a recurring influence) because most of the actors left in frustration, and people burned furniture in the last five days to stave off a winter so cold it froze their camera. As for Campbell, he did perfectly serviceable work as the lead, a generic horror lunkhead named Ash Williams. Ash, his sister Cheryl and girlfriend Linda, and a couple other idiots spend the night in a cabin, only for them to be beset upon by the eponymous “evil dead” and the Neconomicon ex Mortis, a tome “bound in human flesh,” “inked in blood,” and with a goofy face on the cover. As derivative as the plot was, Raimi more than made up for it with both innovative cinematic techniques and copious amounts of blood that got the movie banned in several countries. Good direction, a visceral intensity few films at the time dared approach, and a Stephen King endorsement led to it becoming a sleeper hit in 1981. Evil Dead and its storied legacy elevated Raimi and Campbell; it also wound up partially defining the latter’s image as one tied to perennial physical abuse and gallons upon gallons of fake blood made from Karo syrup.

Of course, the film’s success meant little for Campbell’s security in the entertainment industry. He met his first wife, Christine Deveau, as supporting characters in the barely alive Detroit soap opera Generations. Another team up with Raimi and Tapert for a new film (Crimewave, initially titled Relentless, then The XYX Murders) with script revisions by Joel and Ethan Coen – the former of whom had been an assistant editor for Evil Dead – collapsed on every level to the point where it only opened in Kansas and Alaska. To recoup their failure, the three men decided to make a sequel to Evil Dead, and Stephen King, saving the franchise once again, introduced them to legendary producer Dino De Laurentis. With far more sizable funding than before, they set to work on a 1987 sequel that was also a slightly bizarre remake, about Ash dealing with even more terrors mere hours after surviving a severely cut down version of the first film’s demonic attack. Production went along well enough – despite Campbell having to be pulled through a car windshield with a garrote, and Raimi’s brother Ted wearing a costume and working in heat so intense the crew had to pour out his sweat via Dixie cups.

Bruce Campbell - Evil Dead 2

Evil Dead 2 was even more inventive than its predecessor and showcased incredible camerawork, special effects, and a mastery of demented, Stooges-inspired slapstick. It was also something of a turning point for Campbell’s persona. Between the first two films, he wasn’t sure what kind of actor he should, or even could, be. The sequel partially answered that: he was a physical performer skilled in selling action sequences, grotesque mutilation, or comical pain. When he throws himself over his head in a hilarious fight against his possessed, murderous hand, it’s believable. When he later slices it off with a chainsaw, or gets sprayed with fifty-five gallons of blood in seconds, or falls into madness from the trials of the night, it all works. Evil Dead 2 is a masterwork, one of the best horror films of the past fifty years. And while Raimi’s camera and the cast and crew were all instrumental in that, Campbell – and Ash Williams – represented that most overtly. When at the end of the film Ash, having finally had enough, replaces his severed hand with a chainsaw, saws off his shotgun, and starts spouting one-liners at the monsters like a makeshift action hero, it feels earned, even symbolic of the film’s transformative power.

After Evil Dead II, Campbell managed to get a decent string of work on even less reputable B-movies: Maniac Cop, Moontrap, Sundown, Lunatics: a Love Story, Mindwarp (the latter two were of particular importance; his divorce happened during Lunatics, and he met his second wife, costume designer Ida Gearon, on the Mindwarp set). Meanwhile, he teamed with Raimi twice more. The latter managed to finagle a deal with Universal for an original superhero movie, the gleefully demented Darkman, and Campbell got work on the other end of the camera for the first time since Evil Dead, as a “temp sound guy” helping with the audio in post (one of his ad-libs for star Liam Neeson is still in the final film). But while Darkman did decently and helped lead to Raimi’s evolution into a box office success, their real collaboration came from the conclusion to the Evil Dead trilogy.

If Evil Dead II was about pushing the horror of Evil Dead I into more bizarre places, 1993’s Army of Darkness was about throwing everything “conventional” about the series out the window. It was a fantasy adventure with a budget 22.8 times that of the first film, and Ash, having been sent back to the Middle Ages via the last film’s cliffhanger ending, took the action hero role to the point of being an caricature of dopey, macho, always in over its head goofiness (both his litany of one-liners and Campbell’s hilarious performance have been imitated countless times, to limited effect). The over the top machismo is also central to Campbell’s acting persona, whether from Ash complaining that the “primitive screw heads” of 1300 AD don’t understand molecular constructs, firing away at the series’ evil “Deadites” with his shotgun, and blowing up his evil half with a catapult. Ash’s undeserved but weirdly endearing confidence is central to how wonderful it is, a lovably crude mishmash of Evil Dead‘s sensibilities (demented horror, The Three Stooges, strong cinematography) and the kind of production that could spend money to teach its star how to ride a horse, sword fight, and battle an army of skeletons in Sam Raimi’s omnipresent, barely functional Oldsmobile Delta 88.

Bruce Campbell - Brisco County Jr

The Evil Dead films became lucrative cult classics, with Ash Williams a beloved horror icon. Army in particular also signaled an evolution to Campbell’s career as something of an all-purpose actor who could be slotted into any vaguely masculine role. Case in point: The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., a 1993 FOX show starring him (after repeatedly wowing executives with that “flipping himself over his head” trick from Evil Dead, an experience he found painful and demeaning enough to give up auditioning altogether) as an 1899 lawyer turned bounty hunter on the trail of both the outlaw gang who murdered his father and the 20th century progress just on the horizon. I’m not sure how well it holds up, but Campbell’s charm, the pleasingly low-key vibe, and a fun supporting cast led by The Last Dragon’s Julius Carry III as Brisco’s rival turned partner make it fun. Unfortunately, and probably unsurprisingly, the show struggled during its only season. Its retro optimism didn’t fit in with television or westerns of the time, and it languished while its partner show, The X-Files (on which Campbell would appear as a Season 6 “monster of the week”), began to soar; FOX’s investment became so small that one of Campbell’s promotional appearances was in a Reno pawnshop. Co-creator Carlton Cuse went on to showrunner royalty with Lost, while Bruce was somewhat released into the wind.

This isn’t to say that Campbell’s future work was necessarily dire – well, occasionally – but since Brisco he fell into and continues to enjoy a weird place: almost too iconic for all but his worst projects, but not really able to hit leading film roles. Parts both good (Tony Stark, Jim Garrison in JFK) and bad (The Phantom) got away from him, an inevitable consequence of abandoning auditions, so he mostly works in smaller roles or odder movies. He’s had the chance to work with a veritable army of A-list actors and directors of the big and small screen – no reasonably sized list would do it justice – but most of his work is in just livening up otherwise forgettable flops. It’s telling that his roles in 2002 included a cameo in Raimi’s Spider-Man (he had one in all three films, each delightful), an elderly Elvis opposite Ossie Davis in the indie horror-drama Bubba Ho-Tep, a supporting part in the long forgotten Matthew Perry film Serving Sarah, and the lead in Terminal Invasion, a no-budget made for TV ripoff of The Thing.

Really, it’s the shlock for which the “Bruce Campbell” persona is known: Icebreaker, McHale’s Navy, Escape from L.A., The Majestic, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Timequest, Assault on Dome 4, The Color of Time. He may have lost out on the male lead role in the absurd, stupid Congo to get a minor supporting part, but the film’s shooting schedule let him spend weeks in Costa Rica on the dime of Paramount Pictures. On the opposite end of the scale (of production, not class), he directed mediocre, mid-2000s passion projects Man with the Screaming Brain and My Name is Bruce. He’s done good voice work (his narration over the video game versions of Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and reprisal as Ash in various Evil Dead games were far more memorable than that sounds) and has become a far more talented performer, but as a rule, he’ll be in front of the camera, and rarely in a salvageable product. Partially it was his physique – his iconic huge chin only furthered his image as a masculine pastiche – and the lack of broad marketability, but a lot of it is that in general, he’s happily disinterested in working in most Hollywood productions. He’s dismissive and critical of the trappings of celebrity culture, and he generally finds the less rigorous structure of “lower” work to be more comfortable.

Bruce Campbell - Reagan

Despite Evil Dead’s cinematic iconography, the difficulty working in the film world and his own disinterest in stardom has made him incredibly well suited to the chimerical arena of television, which ever since Brisco has been his true home. He spent two seasons as in the title role of Jack of All Trades, a largely forgotten and historically confusing two season show as a Revolutionary-era secret agent undermining Napoleon. On the Fargo TV series he played Ronald Reagan, two decades after the Coens used one of his scenes from Generations as a cameo in their original film. More likely, though, most people today know as Sam Axe of USA’s inescapable Burn Notice, the kind of boozing, womanizing ex-Navy SEAL character he can play in his sleep. It wasn’t necessarily a particularly challenging role, but he was probably the show’s most compelling element. Similarly, he spent time in Hercules: the Legendary Journeys and the spinoff that eclipsed it Xena: Warrior Princess as both the caddish “Prince of Thieves” Autolycus and, for the first time, a director. It seems there’s always a show that could use his charms, whether it’s playing Santa Claus in The Librarians, the male lead in Alien Apocalypse, or a piano rendition of “Hungry Like the Wolf” for an Old Spice ad. Plus, doesn’t hurt that most of those shoot away from L.A., often in New Zealand.

It’s probably fitting, then, that the icon Bruce embodied would get his last hurrah in the medium in which he’s found his most success. Campbell and Rob Tapert teamed with Chuck and Workaholics writer Craig DiGregorio to develop an Evil Dead TV show (Raimi directed the pilot), imagining Ash thirty-five years after first entering that cabin. And it’s to their credit (along with Mark Verheiden, who helmed the somewhat shakier third season after DiGregorio left due to creative differences) that Ash vs. Evil Dead honored its pedigree with just as much inventiveness, creativity, and earnestness as the films it followed. What could have so easily been a cheap cash-in became a story equally silly, scary, and sad about a man long past his prime haunted by monsters he can’t escape. Ash and his actor will be 61 this June, and Campbell shows all his age, physicality, and skill with an unvarnished, unostentatious seriousness. But he’s also at the top of his game as a comic actor, whether presenting Ash’s most doltish behavior without a shred of ironic distance, trying to escape a possessed rectum, or dueling barbs with Lucy Lawless as his new archenemy. Perhaps most surprisingly, his impromptu family members of hero worshipper Pablo, wrathful Deadite slayer Kelly, and estranged daughter Brandy were actually compelling in their own right, not satellites to drive the plot or boost Ash’s ego. When Ash sends them away from certain doom, confronts his inner (and actual) demons, and is given an appropriate bizarre reward in its finale – one Bruce has stated will be his last time portraying the character – there’s an incredible power in Campbell’s performance no one could’ve predicted from those Eighties projects.

Campbell - Ash vs Evil Dead

Throughout his history, Campbell has remained this lovable figure of genre and B-movie work, a large chinned engine of charisma. In his autobiography If Chins Could Kill, he recounts seeing fans line up at a Brisco promotional event: ten-year-olds in cowboy outfits on one end, college-aged horror fetishists on the other. His comfort in most kinds of productions, especially as the years have gone by and his skills as a performer have grown, has led to him being loved by a surprisingly wide number of audiences, a king in many small realms if not the kingdom. Beyond an underrated talent, I think his secret might be in an ability, maybe a comfort, in portraying a far wider range of stock masculine caricatures than most actors. Stars typically find one, maybe two niches, but he’s equally comfortably portraying men who are heroic (Brisco), buffoonish (Hercules and Xena), avuncular (Sky High), lackadaisical (Burn Notice), toxic (the homophobic boss on Ellen), groundlessly confident (Fargo), and tragic (Bubba Ho-Tep). And Ash, the character with whom he is inseparable, has flitted between all of these, evolving with his performer to the point where both have long transcended that young man with a Super 8, running from that spooky something in the woods.