Bruce Campbell - the man, the myth, the chin

Chronicling the rise of hometown hero

What is it about Bruce Campbell that makes him such a compelling actor? When he makes an appearance in a movie or TV show, it’s impossible to turn away and yet — let’s be absolutely fair and clear — when the lists of the great actors in history are made, Campbell isn’t going to be up there with the likes of Jeremy Irons and Daniel Day Lewis. He certainly has an “ingredient X,” an attractive quality and old-school cool. The man may have limited ability, yet he has mastered the art of milking every last bit of it.

So, again, what makes him so damned watchable? Is it that distinctive and admittedly impressive square chin? Perhaps, in part. Is it the fact that people of a certain age remember his performances as Ash in the Evil Dead movies with nostalgic glee and all else from then on is forgiven? That has a lot to do with it. But the truth is, sometimes hammy is fun and, because everyone around metro Detroit knows that Campbell is one of our own, there’s a feeling that we’re watching an old friend doing well every time we see Campbell on such TV shows as Burn Notice and Xena: Warrior Princess, or a movie like Sky High, even if we’ve never met him. It’s kind of like watching a relative doing community theater, just on a bigger scale. Appropriately enough, that’s where Campbell’s story begins.

Bruce Campbell’s dad was a member of the St. Dunstan’s Theatre Guild in Cranbrook, and it was while watching his father tread the boards that young Campbell caught the bug. “He joined because he was in the ad business but he felt that he wanted more of a creative outlet,” says Campbell, on the phone from L.A. “I think I saw him in a play around 1966 when I was about 8. I think it was Brigadoon. He was singing, dancing and acting goofy, and people were applauding. I was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ It left a big impression. Then I got older and during the summer they’d do plays outdoors in a beautiful Greek theater that they had there. They’d need kids for extras, so I got in my first play in my formative years when I was about 12. You had to be 18 to join, so I joined when I was 18. Then I could do what they called the ‘indoor shows’, which was where the real theater was going on. Outdoor shows were like The King and I, South Pacific, the classic musicals. With the indoor shows, you could do drama, and they had some farces that were really fun. It was a great proving ground, and my dad opened that world to me.”

Campbell, a warm and funny but no-nonsense man in conversation, was raised in Royal Oak, a city that he says bears little resemblance now to the one in which he spent his early years. “Oh, c’mon, in my day when I was there living near the railroad tracks, you got flat-top haircuts there,” he says. “This was not hip. Nothing was happening. You went to the Main Theatre, which is still there I guess. But there was nothing going on in Royal Oak. But it’s nice to see the town that you spent a lot of time in get better and better instead of worse and worse. Even fashionable Ferndale, when we had our offices there at Nine Mile and Woodward, I won’t call it a shithole but there was nothing fancy about it. Now Ferndale is getting all hipster on us. That’s better than watching it go down the toilet like a lot of our small towns.”

The story at that point was one that has been told a thousand times; the disenchanted and bored kid gets to high school and meets some other disenchanted and bored kids who have a similar interest in cinema, acting and making movies. In Campbell’s case, the first person he met was Josh Becker and the two would go on to make a short film called Oedipus Rex.

“My buddy Josh Becker, who I still work with [Becker is best known for his work on shows like Xena and B-movies with names like Harpies], was doing some Regular 8 movies (not even Super 8) for school, and we had both been in a school play in about 8th grade, The Lottery,” Campbell says. “He grew a beard by then so he got the adult role — he stole the adult role from me. I always hold that over him. He was making this movie and he knew I was an actor so he said, ‘Hey, can you get a toga?’ I said yeah, so I impressed him with my professionalism early on. I played King Creon. This was really like cutting to a title card with what everyone says. It was pretty primitive.”

Perhaps Campbell’s most significant school-time meeting came in the 8th grade, even if it didn’t stick right away. “Sam Raimi I saw in 8th grade dressed as Sherlock Holmes, sitting on the floor of our junior high school playing with dolls,” he says. “That was my first introduction. I specifically remember going way around him in the hallway, thinking, ‘This guy’s a first class weirdo.’ I never really met him in 8thgrade, I met him properly in 10th grade, during a radio speech class. We started performing announcements together, and we had a radio show that we would do. I found out that he was sort of doing little movies in his neighborhood, I was doing little movies in my neighborhood, and one other guy at Segal was doing movies in his neighborhood. High school is when all of the junior highs collide, so a bunch of us met and started to combine equipment, ideas, stories and just manpower. It became quite a little industry. We did about 50 of these movies that are all tucked away somewhere in various stages. But there were some really good little bits that came out of them that worked better than some of the movies, when we finally got to remake stuff into an actual movie. That was our proving ground: in high school. That was where we got everything started.”

The idea that there is a closet full of Raimi-Campbell collaborations locked away somewhere is mouthwatering, to say the least. The pair graduated in 1976, and in 1979 they made a short movie called Within the Woods, the seed of a much bigger idea. “Within the Woods was a Super 8 movie, and by then we were very good at making Super 8 movies. We had good cameras, the projectors were better, as was the sound. Within the Woods was what we used to raise money for The Evil Dead. We would show it to investors. It was a half hour movie, and we wanted to show people we could make something scary and effective. There wasn’t much in the way of sales tools. We were very skeptical to give them any kind of numbers of how well the movie would do, because we didn’t know. We used a visual tool to show them that we thought we knew what we were doing.”

What came next would be talked about by horror movie fans right up to the present day. In 1981, Campbell, Raimi and friends scraped together enough money (thanks to Within the Woods) to create The Evil Dead, a now-legendary horror movie about a group of college students who go off to a cabin in the middle of the woods to do whatever it is that college students do. They discover the Necronomicon, the Book of the Dead, in the basement, along with an old tape player. When the tape is played, words are recited that summon evil spirits. From that point on, chaos ensues. People are possessed, trees rape, and blood spews by the gallon. Campbell plays Ash Williams, employee of S-Mart and future horror icon. Thanks to the crazy amount of gore and some clunky dialogue, the movie is both horrific and hilarious, as well as genuinely magnificent. Campbell says that the humor is unintentional.

“We were not comfortable using humor in the first Evil Dead,” he says. “That’s the melodrama. That one’s only funny by mistake, and in its excess. When somebody’s getting jabbed over and over again, sometimes stuff that’s over-the-top makes you laugh as well. We didn’t officially introduce comedy until Evil Dead 2, when we felt a little more comfortable manipulating the audience, and we felt more involved putting stuff in that we liked. That wasn’t always there, and that’s why people are hesitant about the fact that the current Evil Dead remake doesn’t seem funny. It’s not funny at all. The first one wasn’t either. Obviously if you have inexperienced actors, lousy dialogue, some things are going to come across as being less than ideal.”

Over in England, The Evil Dead was banned, lumped in with the likes of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Driller Killer as “video nasties.” Campbell remembers that whole incident as being nothing but beneficial. “We were right in the middle of it,” he says. “It was awesome, how it all played out. By the time it got re-released, everyone was so fascinated to see why it was a video nasty that it became the No. 1 video in the UK. My favorite list to look at is the top videos of 1983. The Shining is No. 8 and we’re No. 1. I’m like, ‘Eat it Stanley.’ Those are the times when you really feel like, ‘OK, we’re really playing this game. We’re swimming with the sharks now.’ It’s awesome to be able to beat your idols.”

The original Evil Dead movie spawned two sequels — ’87’s Evil Dead 2 and ’92’s Army of Darkness. Evil Dead 2 managed to confuse nearly everyone by opening with a reshot recap of the first movie. It seems like an odd move, to try to re-create scenes from the original film using Campbell and a bunch of new actors, but that’s what they did. “We made it seem like this guy was stupid enough to come back to the cabin with new friends,” Campbell says. “He had so much fun the first time, let’s go back and have a ball. That was an error on our part. It was prompted by the fact that we didn’t own the rights to our own footage from the first film, so we couldn’t do a recap with that footage. We had to shoot fake footage as a recap, and it confused people. Technically it’s a sequel, though I can see how people might think it’s a remake. What would really make the most sense is if the evil force comes up to Ash at the end of Evil Dead, and then you cut right to the evil force in Evil Dead 2. He lands in the puddle, the movie continues, he’s hailed as a king at the end of Evil Dead 2, and it goes right into that sequence in Army of Darkness. If you cut all the bullshit recaps out of it, the trilogy would make perfect sense. Each film was made by a completely different company. We have different legalities, different ownership, different pettiness between the companies about whether they’re going to cooperate or not. We felt cornered into how to retell a story that we couldn’t get the footage to. It’s pretty convoluted. Also, I’m dead at the end of the first movie. We wanted to do a better Evil Dead movie, so suddenly I’m still alive. These things evolve, not in some overarching design. I hate to say it, but it needs a fan edit. Then people would know what I’m talking about.”

Between the first two Evil Dead movies, Campbell worked with Raimi on a big-studio project called Crimewave, written by Raimi and the Coen Brothers. The movie tells the story of a hapless exterminator framed for murder, telling his story from the electric chair. Campbell’s memories are far from fond. “Crimewave was an unmitigated disaster,” he says. “I’m about to do the DVD commentary on it about 10 days from now, and I can’t wait. That movie was insane. Everything about it was ridiculous, so there are a lot of stories to tell. It’s not like there was one bad guy or good guy, it was just our first experience making a Hollywood movie rather than an independent movie. You’re dealing with unions, actors in the Screen Actors Guild, we went way over budget, the film was retouched. After having complete control on the first Evil Dead, we had zero control on Crimewave. It was a great wake-up call. We had executives giving us notes, we had rewrites in the script if they weren’t happy. Everyone asks for the ‘director’s cut’ of Evil Dead, but there is no director’s version because what you’re seeing is the director’s version. There’s only one version of Evil Dead and there will only be one version because we now own the copyrights for that. We own the negatives.”

At this point, Campbell was still living in Michigan, though not for long. “I think by the ’87, that’s when I moved out,” he says. “We were just traveling too much for business. It seemed like the writing was on the wall that, in order to stay active in the business, to make a living, we had to finally get out of Detroit. We did three movies based out of there and that was a lot. We wanted to get serious and get in the film business. The only way to really do it was to spend some time in L.A., so I did.”

Just a few movies into his career, Campbell certainly didn’t leave town because he was getting harassed by local super-fans. “I’d go into a comic book store and some guy would say, ‘Man, you look like Bruce Campbell’s brother,’” he says. “They couldn’t put it together. The first Evil Dead had more success overseas, Crimewave nobody saw. Evil Dead 2, by the time we left, that movie did OK but it wasn’t a wide release. It was unrated, so it bicycled around the country in different markets. It wasn’t a national release. The only way people recognize you is when you get your butt on television. You come into their living rooms every single week. Movies are different. So I had pretty good anonymity.”

Before Campbell would step back onto an Evil Dead set to fight deadites once again in Army of Darkness, he would enter a whole other horror franchise with a loyal fanbase — Maniac Cop. “That was fine,” Campbell says. “I was interested because I had heard of Bill Lustig and he had done movies like Vigilante [Lustig also directed the classic slasher flick Maniac]. He was a good, solid genre director. He called me to ask if I wanted to be in the movie, and it was my first non-Sam Raimi movie. It wound up doing well, so they did another one and I only make it five minutes into the second one.”

Another project featuring Campbell during this period is gloriously entitled Lunatics: A Love Story. “That was a fun little experience,” he says. “It was just before Army of Darkness. It was only made for a couple of hundred thousand dollars, so we had complete control over it. Structurally, it’s one of the best screenplays I’ve ever worked on. I’ve never seen a screenplay to equal that amount of consistent themes and structure, and storytelling. I would use that script to teach a class.”

And then came Army of Darkness — the third and, until this year, final Evil Dead movie — in which Ash finds himself in medieval times, facing all manner of witches and creatures. This one saw the horror toned down and the comedy boosted up, though there is still enough blood to satisfy the most ravenous gore hound. “It only made as much as the budget,” Campbell says. “It cost $13 million and I think it made $13 million. Now it’s on American Movie Classics with Ben-Hur. There are 14 different versions on DVD and it plays all the time everywhere. People think it was a hit movie, but it was absolutely not. The first was a hit, the second we were in the process before we even started making the movie, and the third one failed. That’s the other thing too. There was a lot of pressure to make another Evil Dead, but if you follow that formula, the first movie was $350,000, the second was $3.5 million, the third was $13 million, the fourth one will be $100 million, and the third didn’t make money. In our mind, there wasn’t a big call from the industry to make another. There was from the fans, but not from the box office.”

Thanks to a résumé that includes the likes of Evil Dead, Maniac Cop and, yes, Crimewave, it’s not surprising that people tag Campbell a “cult hero”. The man himself doesn’t mind that at all. “You can’t stop it,” he says. “Even if I wasn’t comfortable, there’d be nothing I could do about it. I just embrace it. I didn’t come up with it. I just see myself as a working actor. I’ve stopped worrying about what people are into. At one time, I wondered why people only wanted to talk about the Evil Dead movies, but if that person’s a horror fan, they wouldn’t have seen much of my other work. They might have seen Bubba Ho-Tep. But I’m actually more stereotyped by my fans than I am within the industry. I did Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, G-rated movies. I’ve been in a French film, and I’ve done a lot of weird stuff. But if that’s not what you’re into, the horror movie lover will really only know me for that. They’re not going to watch Burn Notice, or all these other things. I’ve stopped worrying about it. The Evil Dead fans are fabulous though. I have a collection on my phone of like 130 photographs of Evil Dead-type tattoos. It’s a great collection. It’s a slow-growing weed. None of this happened overnight. There was no Taco Bell tie-in type advertising. This was all pretty much word of mouth, DVDs. Anchor Bay is the company in Michigan that sublicenses Army of Darkness, and they were the first ones to say, ‘Fans want more.’ They want behind-the-scenes footage, they want ‘the making of,’ they want deleted scenes, they want to see storyboards and interviews. It’s DVD companies like Anchor Bay that really got people interested again and they revisited the thing. The remake is the only worldwide release we ever had. We never thought about releasing any of this nationally. Army of Darkness was the closest we got. I’m excited to see what something like this can do when you release it all at the same time.”

The mid- to late ’90s saw Campbell get more mainstream work, including, importantly, recurring roles on major TV shows. He played the detestable Bill Church Jr. on Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Ed Billik on Ellen, and Autolycus on both Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. More recently, he has starred as Sam Axe on the hit show Burn Notice. “That’s just what you want to do,” he says. “You want to get out there and get at it, get going. TV is the most active thing because you really get to hone your character over a long period of time. With a feature, you really want to throw out the first couple of weeks of shooting because usually you don’t know what the hell’s going on, what your character is and how something’s supposed to play. With TV you have literally years to hone it. The writers start to learn what you’re good at and they write more of that. They learn what you suck at and they write less of that. You can start forming relationships with directors, writers and producers. It can be a very family-like experience. With Burn Notice, we’re on our seventh season coming up in March and I’ll be back down to Miami. After that’s over, it’ll be seven seasons and 100-something episodes of that show, and I won’t see most of those people ever again, that’s the crazy thing. Some I will, but most I won’t.”

In 2002, Campbell re-entered the world of cult cinema thanks to the frankly incredible Bubba Ho-Tep, which tells the story of an Egyptian mummy terrorizing a bunch of old people in a retirement home. Campbell plays a man who believes he’s Elvis Presley, while the late Ossie Davis played a man (a black man, no less) who believes he’s JFK. Whether they are who they think they are is open to interpretation. Somehow, the movie isn’t at all ludicrous, despite that premise. “It was one of the weirdest scripts I’d ever read, but I found it oddly touching because it’s ultimately a story about two old guys in a rest home and what becomes of old people,” Campbell says. “There are weird, underlying themes with that and — oh, yeah — there’s also a mummy. … I’ve seen a lot of movies like Bubba Ho-Tep that are trying to be funny, and Bubba succeeds because everyone is dead serious in that movie. That’s why it works. If it was too campy, then it’d be like Transylvania6-5000 or something, where it’s a wacky story with wacky characters. I think because of Joe Lansdale’s tone, the way he wrote it, he made it seem like it was really happening, and that’s what saved it. Don Coscarelli deserves props too for being a very stubborn independent filmmaker. Ossie Davis was great as JFK. I think it was one of his last roles. He was 83 when he did it.”

Campbellhas also found success in kid’s cinema, thanks to parts in such movies as Sky High, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Love Bug and The Ant Bully. The man relishes the opportunities. “I enjoy doing it, only because it’s just another thing that’s completely different,” he says. “Any actor would like to come in and play a goofy character where anyone can watch it. When an actor starts doing kids’ movies, that’s when they had children. The same thing changes in their brain. Ten years ago, they’ll say “I wouldn’t do some stupid kids’ movie.’ Ten years later, they’ve got a little 3-year-old kid and they say, ‘I should do more kids’ movies.’ I don’t look for them; it’s just another weird opportunity that comes up. I talk to a lot of fans, and some of them didn’t get along with their parents, but the one thing they had in common with their dad was Evil Dead. I’m glad to help families all across the world.”

April will see the release of a whole new Evil Dead movie, a remake reunites the original production team (including Campbell and Raimi), though it’s directed by first-timer Fede Alvarez. Fans have been understandably petrified, though not for the right reasons. Some classic horror franchises — from A Nightmare on Elm Street to Friday the 13th — have been subjected to painfully inept and lazy remakes. The Evil Dead is hallowed ground (so to speak), and fans won’t stand for a similarly bad reinterpretation. Campbell isn’t worried. “I fucking love the new movie,” he says. “I’m impressed as hell with it. I saw an early version when I was working on Burn Notice in Miami, and I just got on the phone and said, ‘Guys, I think we dodged a bullet on this one.’ Fede Alvarez is going to be a very busy young man. He just brought a really neat sensibility to the movie, and it’s stylish without being masturbatory. It’s not stylish for the sake of being stylish, it tells you this weird story that’s unfolding. I think he did a great job, and the score is just over-the-top. Roque Baños is the guy that did it, and it’s fantastic. If you have a good score, your movie’s halfway there. We’re big lovers of sound, so I just spent a month with Fede mixing this movie word by word, line by line. I think it’s going to have some serious impact. We’ve seen it several times with an audience. I cannot wait for South by Southwest. There are certain screenings I would never miss, and that will be one of them. Austin is a fabulous horror city. There are more tattooed freaks in that city than just about anywhere. It’s perfect. I want to see the first Evil Dead tattoo from the new movie. I’ll sign that one special.”

Judging by the intense red band trailer that has been doing the rounds online, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic and even excited about this movie. The intensity has been kicked up a notch, but the elements that made the originals so great are present, from chainsaw self-mutilation to living trees to the creepy girl in the basement. “Fede took little bits from all of [the original movies],” Campbell says. “You’ll find some little homages that are good for the DVD commentary. We pulled some original sounds from the original movies, because we had a bunch of our sounds remastered and redigitized. We throw a few of those zingers in there to remind people that we’re still thinking about them. I’m one of the producers of this movie and I have to promote it, but I can either want to promote it or not want to. This one, I’m good promoting it because I think the general fans are very sensitive. They’re very vocal and sure in their opinion, which is fabulous. We’ve done everything we can to not piss them off. That’s why I’m excited: I think we’ve succeeded in not pissing them off, and I think we succeeded beyond that in that I think they’ll actually get excited about it. When Evil Dead fans get excited, they will embrace it. It’s just about trying to encourage them to get past their fears. Don’t worry about it; we’re all involved. This is not some no-name, cigar-chomping producer who randomly bought the rights to this series. This is us. This is the movie that got me into the film business, so I’m not gonna fuck around with it. We’re gonna make sure this thing is everything that we think we need it to be. I’m excited because they moved it up a week, it’s now April 5. They’re trying to position us well and give us a good opening launch. I think we’re between GI Joe and Oblivion. Bring it.”

Probably wisely, Alvarez and the guys decided not to bring back the character of Ash in the new movie, saving fans the genuine horror of watching somebody else try to fill Campbell’s boots. “Bringing Ash back was always off the table, because Sam wanted to be able to do more movies with the original partners,” says Campbell. “That’s why he was eliminated, to keep this world open to two sets of movies. Our ideal world would be to have the original movies, and then three of the new ones. … I didn’t want some other schmo playing Ash; you don’t want to put some weird pressure on them, like, ‘Well he sort of did it but he didn’t really do it. He didn’t look like him.’ You can go all day with that crap, so why bother? We did all-new kids, familiar evil book, creepy cabin — the elements are the same. The beauty is, we wanted to make a version where you can’t see the green garden hose spewing the fake blood. We wanted to be able to bring the same sense of horror and fantastical things happening in a more realistic way. Fede brings a really interesting sensibility to this. He actually brings a very mature sensibility. We were so relieved when we first saw the first cut of this movie. Like, ‘Oh, thank God, this guy gets it.’ It’s only 90 minutes. The original was 87 minutes. It’s a short, crazy ride, which is what it should be.”

The release of the remake is still a couple of months away. This weekend, however, Campbell will be at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, in his old home town, for An Evening with Bruce Campbell. “Expect the unexpected,” he says. “It’s not like a Charlie Sheen thing where I’m going to be on stage trying to entertain you. This is going to be a very active Q&A, then I’ll be introducing a screening of Army of Darkness. I won’t be sitting down and telling fascinating stories. It’ll be more interacting with fans in that venue.”

After that, Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful hits the big screen on March 8. As one would expect from a Raimi movie (see Spider-man), Campbell has a small part to play. “I’m in it, although with these big movies you never know what’s going to happen,” he says. “I have a pivotal role, let’s say that. If I was not in this movie, certain things would not transpire. That’s all I have to say.”

Between his live performances, Oz and the Evil Dead, plus the return of Burn Notice in June, Campbell is a busy man, but he wouldn’t want it any other way. Still, no matter what character Campbell portrays and no matter how much success he has elsewhere, he will always be firmly linked to the Evil Dead in the minds of many. It’s his cross to bear, but, to his credit, he embraces the fact and his excitement towards the remake is genuine. “It’s been 22 years since anyone’s ever set foot on an Evil Dead set, so that’s a full generation,” he says. “It’s time to let people have it with the power that modern-day film making can bring. Better sound, better images, better focus, better actors — we’ve got better everything in this movie. I’m jealous. I’m extremely involved, but still jealous.”

Don’t worry, Bruce. No one could ever replace you.


Bruce Campbell appears at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 3, at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-399-2980.


Brett Callwood is a staff writer at Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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