Icon Of The Month: Bruce Campbell

That’s right, this month the legendary Bruce Campbell, is my icon of the month.

Bruce Lorne Campbell was born June 22, 1958 in Royal Oak, Michigan, the son of Joanne Louise (née Pickens), a home-maker, and Charles Newton Campbell, an amateur actor and travelling billboard inspector. He has an older brother, Don, and an older half-brother, Michael Rendine.

As a child, Bruce watched Lost in Space (1965) on TV, and ran around dressed as ‘Zorro’. He got the acting bug at age 8; his dad was performing in local community theatre. At 14, Bruce got to play the young prince in “The King and I” and even got to sing. He went on to appear in several community theatre productions, including “South Pacific”. However, he was also interested in directing, and shot super-8 flicks with a neighbourhood pal.

He met future director Sam Raimi  in 1975 in Wylie E. Groves High School, the two became very good friends. The pair soon indulged in their passion for slapstick humour – “The Three Stooges” being a particular favourite and low budget horror movies with a string of Super-8 films directed by Raimi and starring Campbell and Raimi’s brother Ted, who would also appear in many of Sam’s later productions, Bruce filmed about 50 super-8 movies

After graduation in 1976, Campbell attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo to study acting, but stayed in touch with Raimi while the aspiring actor apprenticed with a summer stock theatre company in northern Michigan at Traverse City’s Cherry County Playhouse. Bruce worked 18-hour days putting up sets, being assistant stage manager, doing errands, etc. No money, but it was a learning experience. He toiled for a while after dropping out of college as a production assistant at a production company in Detroit.  n the early part of 1979, with buddy Sam Raimi, he decided to become a pro film-maker. 

Looking for a way to jump-start his career, Campbell, Raimi and friend Robert Tapert partnered to make a 30-minute horror short entitled “Within The Woods (1978). This tiny, micro-budgeted effort did its job, in that it attracted just enough interest to allow Raimi to make his first feature film, with his buddy Campbell as its unlikely star. They raised $350,000 to make and in 1981 Campbell and Raimi got together with family and friends and began work on “The Evil Dead”. Campbell starred as Ash, the forthright hero of the film, which concerned a group of college friends whose weekend in a remote cabin is interrupted after they discover an ancient occult book and are assaulted by demonic spirits. Campbell also worked behind the camera, receiving a “co-executive producer” credit. Raimi wrote, directed and edited, while Rob Tapert was producer. Following an endorsement by horror writer Stephen King, the film slowly began to receive distribution.
Four years following its original release, it became the number one movie in the UK. It then received distribution in the U.S. Around this time, he married his first wife, Christine Deveau, and they had 2 kids. Campbell co-produced and appeared in a small role in Raimi’s next feature, “Crimewave” (1985), a broad slapstick comedy rife with the director’s signature visual flair, but off-screen conflicts with its producers kept it out of major distribution. Having made little profit from the original release of “Evil Dead,” Raimi and Campbell partnered again to essentially remake the film as the sequel “Evil Dead 2” (1987), they raised 10 times as much cash for the sequel.
Although this time the pair decided to tone down the first film’s relentless gore, going instead for a broad comic approach. Campbell, in particular, went after the laughs with a vengeance, transforming Ash from a well-meaning hero to a vain, empty-headed dolt who takes a cartoonish beating from the demons but refuses to back down. In one memorable scene, a bite from Ash’s possessed girlfriend causes Campbell’s hand to develop a fiendish life of its own, and the limb unleashes a room-wrecking salvo on him, complete with a full-body flip and numerous plates and other breakables to his head. 
Critics took note of Campbell’s turn and heaped praise upon his knack for physical comedy, as well as the wry tweak he gave to his own leading man looks. Though the picture only performed moderately at the box office, it too became a worldwide cult hit, and Campbell found himself hailed as a new horror movie hero.

For the next couple of years, Campbell acted exclusively in low-budget and independent genre films, but few of them were able to tap his particular brand of humour films like William Lustig’s “Maniac Cop” (1988) and the vampire parody “Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat” (1991). Campbell also partnered with Josh Becker, an associate and friend of Raimi’s for two pictures: the ultra-violent slasher film “Intruder” (1989) and a comic romance called “Lunatics: A Love Story” (1991). He was also seen briefly near the end of Raimi’s under-seen action picture “Darkman” (1990), prior to reuniting with Raimi as Ash once more for the second “Evil Dead” sequel “Army of Darkness” (1993). Also in 1989 he divorced his wife of 6 years Christine Deveau with whom he had 2 children (Rebecca and Andy).

Another broad comedy with splattery overtones, the film picked up where “Evil Dead 2” left off – with Ash sucked into a vortex of time and deposited in a medieval setting, where he is forced to once again fight off demons. This third film upped the slapstick even further, most notably in an impressive bit of early CGI in which Ash splits into a good and bad version of himself. As with the previous “Evil Dead” pictures, while the film failed to set box office records, it nonetheless elicited praise from horror fanatics and appreciation from fans of Campbell and Raimi’s growing body of work.

Following “Army Of Darknes”, Campbell’s profile began to rise in the mainstream market. He gave a note-perfect supporting turn as a 1940’s-era ace reporter in the Coen Brothers’ “Hudsucker Proxy” (1994) and turned up in small roles in Raimi’s Western “The Quick And The Dead” (1995) and the campy action, “Congo” (1995). Larger and recurring parts soon followed on television series like “Lois And Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman” (ABC, 1993-97) and “Homicide: Life On The Street” (NBC, 1993-99), which offered a rare dramatic turn for Campbell as a vengeful fire-fighter. 

Campbell’s shot at a series of his own came with “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” (Fox, 1993-94), a breezy Western about a Harvard-educated bounty hunter (Campbell) who uses his wits to track down villains. The show lasted just a single season, but as with almost everything Campbell touched during this period, it enjoyed a loyal cult following. Working constantly in parts both large and small, he was glimpsed briefly as a soap opera actor in the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” (1996) and gave an amusing turn as the freakishly rebuilt Surgeon General of Beverly Hills in John Carpenter’s “Escape from L.A.” (1997). He was also seen in a small turn as one of Tom Arnold’s sailors in the big-screen version of “McHale’s Navy” (1997), and turned up in several episodes of “Ellen” (ABC, 1994-98) as Ellen’s competitive nemesis at the book-store where she worked.

Television increasingly became the best medium to translate Campbell’s particular brand of old-school heroics and self-deprecating humour. He was charming as the new owner of Herbie, a.k.a “The Love Bug” (Disney Channel, 1997) in a TV remake, and had a rare shot at a romantic lead as a 19th-century adventurer in “Gold Rush: A Real Life Alaskan Adventurer” (ABC, 1998). His talents were perhaps served best on “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” (syndicated, 1995-99) and its spin-off, “Xena: Warrior Princess” (syndicated, 1995-2001), both of which were produced by his old Michigan pal, Robert Tapert. While filming Mindwarp (1992), he met his future second wife (costume designer Ida Gearon).

In his many guest appearances on the popular fantasy shows, he played Autoclytus, the vain, buffoonish King of Thieves, indulging in a great deal of slapstick, occasionally opposite “Xena” regular Ted Raimi. Campbell returned to series work with “Jack of All Trades” (syndicated, 2000-01), a short-lived period adventure from the “Hercules” and “Xena” producers about a roguish 19th century American spy and his masked alter ego. He also lent his distinctive voice and tongue-in-cheek delivery to numerous animated projects and video games, including a return engagement as Ash in “Evil Dead: Hail to the King” (THQ, 2000).

In the view of many, one of Campbell’s best performances came in “Bubba Ho-Tep” (2001), an offbeat comic horror film in which he played an amnesiac resident at a rest home who may (or may not) be Elvis Presley. Together with an elderly black man (Ossie Davis) who believes himself to be John F. Kennedy, he must fight a soul-stealing mummy preying on the home’s helpless patients. Despite the absurd tone of the project, Campbell gave a performance that touched on both the comic elements and the pathos of a man struggling for respect and recognition in an increasingly decrepit body. A cult hit almost immediately upon release, “Bubba Ho-Tep” earned Campbell nearly universal praise and an award from the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. 

The following year, the actor popped up briefly as a smarmy wrestling ring announcer in Raimi’s global smash hit “Spider-Man” (2002) – a surprise appearance which never failed to illicit applause from audiences familiar with the longtime relationship between actor and director. That year also saw the release of Campbell’s memoir “If Chins Could Kill – Confessions Of A B-Movie Actor”, an insightful, sardonic and self-deprecating look at Campbell’s career and the industry as a whole. Another much appreciated cameo came in Raimi’s even more successful superhero sequel “Spider-Man 2” (2004), in which Campbell appeared as an insufferable theatre usher.

In 2005, Campbell penned his second book, a comic novel – later adapted into a six-hour audio play – titled “Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way”, which took a fictional look at his own attempts to break into A-list features. He also took a turn directing with “The Man With The Screaming Brain” (2005), a long-gestating project about a crass American drug company CEO who becomes the unwilling recipient of a deceased KGB spy’s thoughts. A slapstick comedy in the vein of the “Evil Dead” pictures, it played in limited release in theatres and on television on the Syfy Channel. Campbell also contributed to a four-part comic book series based on the film. Meanwhile, he continued to travel between big-budget projects and indie fare, taking on a serious role in the atmospheric but little-seen supernatural feature “The Woods” (2006) and playing a 
domineering gym coach in Disney’s charming superhero comedy “Sky High” (2005).

Campbell enjoyed perhaps his greatest mainstream success as boozing ex-spy ‘Sam Axe’ in the clever espionage-themed dramedy-actioner “Burn Notice” (2007 onwards) in which he and his Hawaiian shirts routinely stole scenes from co-stars Jeffrey Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar. With the success of “Burn Notice,” he scored an ad campaign for Old Spice productions, playing up his onscreen persona in a series of amusing commercials which obliquely referenced his cult origins (a chainsaw on the mantelpiece of a “Playboy after Dark”-style den). He also directed his second feature, “My Name Is Bruce” (2007), a comic horror-adventure in which he played a dissolute version of himself as he is recruited by fans to fight a Chinese war god.

Maintaining his ties to Raimi, Campbell made yet another cameo as an over-eager ‘restaurant maître d” in “Spider-Man 3” (2007), which marked Tobey Maguire’s final turn as the web-slinging hero. In animation, he lent his voice to the role of the food-loving mayor of the island town of Swallow Falls in the hit animated feature “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs” (2009) and as suave American spy car ‘Rod “Torque” Redline in the Pixar sequel “Cars 2” (2011). Campbell later re-teamed with Raimi behind the scenes to co-produce the remake of “Evil Dead” (2013). 

Campbell has stated in interview that he wants to make an Expendables-esque Horror film:

“Yeah, The Expendables, or more like the It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World of horror. I want to get so many horror movie stars that people can’t possibly not see the movie. I want to give them other stuff to do. I want to have Kane Hodder be very particular about what he eats. I want Robert Englund to be a tough guy, like he knows tae kwon do or something. I want to find out the hidden sides of all these people. Some will play themselves, some will play alternate characters as well”.


“It seemed that my lot in life was to either have big parts in small films or small parts in big films.” – Bruce Campbell

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