By his own definition, Bruce Campbell is a “midgrade, kind of hammy actor”–a B-movie star, in other words, a man whose career unfolds, like a Swedish porn loop, on Cinemax in the wee small hours of the morning. When I mentioned to a handful of people I was writing about Bruce Campbell this week, they all responded with the dazed, blank-eyed look of the confused, disinterested and rather sleepy. Even after a brief recitation of his best-known cinematic highlights–he appeared as Ash in all three Evil Dead films, as the title character on Fox-TV’s short-lived The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and as Autolycus on both Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess–they showed no signs of recognition. “Sorry, never heard of him,” the formerly curious insisted before resuming their gardening chores, sheep-shearing or midafternoon naps, the latter no doubt induced by more mentions of things they might have seen Bruce Campbell in. Uh, well, he played Ed Billick on Ellen for most of a season. He was really good in a couple of episodes of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Homicide: Life on the Street. C’mon, what d’ya mean you’ve never seen Maniac Cop 2, Assault on Dome 4, Mindwarp and From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money? Dude, where ya been? Oh, having a life? Pardon. My mistake.It’s possible, I guess, to overrate Campbell as an actor, if only because he’s appeared in few things that allow him the chance to do more than kill or be killed. For a while there, he was merely an actor doused with fake blood, the ham-fisted-square-jawed hero wielding a chain saw as he fought off the undead armies of darkness. It was hard to judge his worth as an actor, because he did little more than lead with his prominent chin and hope the rest of the cast and crew followed. He was great in crap, even if it was brilliant crap (the Evil Dead movies, specifically, all directed by childhood pal Sam Raimi before Raimi got called to the bigs to make For Love of the Game and, now, Spider-Man), but so what? No one ever lauds Jenna Jameson for her excellent line readings in between dual-penetration scenes. No one gives out awards or hands out A-list leading roles for keeping your head above raw sewage.
But, for some reason, I will watch–sometimes for a few seconds, often for 93 excruciating minutes–anything in which he appears, be it a made-for-TV remake of The Love Bug, or Mindwarp, a so-called “post-apocalyptic Jeremiah Johnson” that shows up on Showtime in between screenings of Never Say Never Again and The Sexual Matrix. He’s more than just a low-rent George Clooney or Mel Gibson, more than a handsome guy willing to do anything at a quarter the price (or less, bless him). He is, in fact, the ultimate one-two punch in an industry full of actors who slap like little girls; Campbell’s the hardy hero with a comedian’s timing–Mad Max as played by Groucho Marx.
Yet he’s as versatile as a reversible windbreaker, far more than just a sardonic wink and a knowing smirk sitting atop a proud chin. His 1993 appearance on a two-part Homicide, on which he played a good cop seeking vigilante vengeance, suggested real violence after a decade of slashing his way through comic-book bloodshed. Yet, till now, his has been a career with more fits and starts than an Edsel: For every top-notch cameo (say, his very small part opposite Jim Carrey in director Frank Darabont’s forthcoming The Majestic or his expanded role as Elizabeth Hurley’s ex-husband in Servicing Sara, which just finished shooting in Dallas), there are a dozen bill-payers and called-in favors on his filmography to suggest a life forever spent on the fringes of the fringes.
Which is exactly the way Campbell wants it: He lives not in Los Angeles, but in a cabin in Oregon, which he shares with his second wife. The ex-Detroiter professes a distinct disdain for Hollywood and for the men and women who run that company town. He moved there in 1987, convinced it was necessary to live there to work there, then ran away as quickly as he could. “I’ve never dealt with more abrasive individuals in my entire life than in the film business, and I mean that from the business side,” says Campbell, who has documented his life in pictures in his just-published autobiography, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor. “They are some of the nastiest, cold-hearted, dead shark-eyed people you will ever meet in your life.”
His was a horrible experience from the get-go: In 1985, he and Raimi and their Detroit posse of filmmaking pals (along with Joel and Ethan Coen, credited as screenwriters) made their first studio film, the alleged comic-thriller Crimewave, their follow-up to the low-budget, homemade horror film Evil Dead. But what began for Campbell and Raimi as a hobby when they were kids in Michigan was immediately perverted by outside interference from union crews and executives at Norman Lear’s Embassy Pictures, which footed the $2.5-million budget. What they wound up with was a movie that was unwatchable and, finally, unreleaseable.
“On Crimewave, everyone made a mistake,” he says now. “That movie never should have been made in its present form because it was too confused. We just didn’t want to do another horror movie. That’s all we knew. Anything else would be perfect. The idea behind it was it was meant to be lighthearted, hardly any blood, no one dies–well, very few people die–the guy gets the girl, there was a music number, there was comedy, action, the whole bit. We were giving people everything, and it turned out to be kinda nothing.” After that, Campbell, Raimi and their cinema gang rushed off to make Evil Dead 2, hoping to wash out the bad taste of Hollywood with the familiar flavor of Karo Syrup and red food coloring.
Ah, but Campbell was going to be A Star once upon a time: In the fall of 1993, Sandy Grushow, then the head of development for the Fox network, vowed to eat his desk if the wild, wild western Brisco County didn’t make Campbell a household name. Grushow was convinced the show would be a hit, just as he was sure the other debuting series that followed it, The X-Files, wouldn’t last a season. He treated Chris Carter’s new sci-fi series as “an afterthought,” wrote Brian Lowry in his book The Truth is Out There, but 26 episodes later, Brisco County wasn’t thought of at all. It was axed before the start of the 1994-1995 season, and Campbell ended up taking small roles in the likes of Congo and a Twister TV rip-off titled Tornado! (Still, Brisco County lives on: TNT reruns the show every Saturday morning–“God bless ’em,” the actor says–and Columbia House is releasing the entire series on home video within the next two months. Campbell is writing liner notes to accompany each episode.)
One could easily gaze at his filmography and assume his has been a career of bad breaks and missed opportunities; you could easily mistake him for the leading man who follows only the money, which lands him in small piles of cash and large piles of shit. But, he insists, you would be mistaken. He will tell you you’re mistaken, simply because he would rather take small roles in big films or big roles in small films. He will tell you he has no interest in assuming the mantle of Big-Budget Leading Man, because he has little interest in making movies for Hollywood. Indeed, one of the films of which he’s most proud is a barely seen 1999 French production called La Patinoire, a film about the making of a hockey movie; he likens it to a “Woody Allen-Robert Altman mix,” though it was never released in the United States.
“Look, I live where I want to live. I live in Oregon, so I don’t have to play the L.A. game anymore, and that’s cool enough for me. The older I get, the less I want people telling me what to do. It’s amazing.” Campbell laughs. “Between casting people and producers and directors and studios, there’s an approach of, ‘We’re doing you a favor in giving you this role, because you can be in a Hollywood movie.’ After a while, I look back and think, ‘You know what? You’re not doing me any favors. I’m doing you a favor, because I’m going to be the only actor who shows up who’s not gonna freak out on you or not know his lines or whatever. I’m gonna be there, so you need to pay me even more, because you’re not gonna have a single hassle with me. I know what I’m doing. I’ll get in, get out. This can be really painless for everybody, and we can have fun.’
“I don’t mean to make this sound so clinical. It’s just as the years go by I take a little more of a businesslike approach to the whole thing. I evaluate projects based really on whether I’m going to have a good time, creatively and otherwise. And then the money, you work it out. You figure out a way to make your year.”
Campbell often sounds like a man with little to lose: During the course of an hour-long conversation, he damns the entirety of the industry in which he’s worked for two decades–lazy actors, corrupt studios and the audiences that lap up their second-rate offerings and Taco Bell tie-ins. He’s the link, perhaps, between the famous and the anonymous–a truth-teller among fictionmakers, a pesky minnow eluding the sharks. And maybe, in the end, that’s what makes Bruce Campbell such a likable, watchable guy in movies even the blind and deaf can’t sit through.
“What kills me is the industry’s certainly changing; society certainly has a need to be entertained, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad,” he says, and you can hear the shrug in his voice. “Here I am putting myself out of business, but it seems like we have to draw the line somewhere. Eventually, people have to stop seeking the highest ride and the fastest thing at the amusement park. Where does it end? Do you want your face to peel off before you feel alive? I think we get so desensitized to stuff that we need that to make us feel like we’re living, like our heart is actually pumping. And I’m not sure if that’s good.”