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The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Bruce Campbell
By Mother Brain
I will profess to the fact that I never watched any of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies until this summer on Netflix; however, I have been very aware of the insane fanbase for its badass star, Bruce Campbell. Best known for his role as Ash Williams in the Dead trilogy, Campbell has always been a presence in pulp-driven cinema which has made him one of the most popular cult actors in the film business. Even though most of his filmography consists of comedies, horrors, and cult action thriller, the thing that I admire most about Campbell is his physicality as well as his ability to juggle so many personalities as he did in the Dead sequels which is just not easy for any ordinary actor to do.
Campbell was a native of Royal Oak, Michigan whose father was an amateur actor who volunteered in community theater when he was not working his day job in advertising. Ironically, Campbell was born in the exact same hospital as his future Dead director, Sam Raimi! As a teenager, the pair would work together on a number of short super-8 movies while also apprenticing for no pay at a local theater where major television stars of the time would tour. He would drop out of college in the late 70s to work in Detroit-based production companies as a low level production assistant who learned how the technical side of the business worked.
Sam Raimi had interest in directing a horror film that would bring him and Campbell to the next phase of their careers. They shot a short in the woods for what would become The Evil Dead in an effort to attract producers to fund a $100,000 feature film. Through friends and contacts, they would get the film made with Campbell receiving a producer credit for his efforts. Their hearts and souls were put on screen for what appeared to be a low budget horror flick. While Raimi experimented with camera tricks and special effects, Campbell as Ash had to endure everything from leg injuries, demonic eye makeup, and tons of fake blood sticking on his skin. But Campbell remained committed all the way through reshoots and post-production.
The Evil Dead saw the light of day in 1981 and made eight times its money back thanks to a special screening at Cannes as well as a rave endorsement from the legendary Stephen King. Campbell’s career did not take off right away as he was still considered a local Michigan actor. Though appearances in the soap opera Generations and a local melodrama called Going Back did not lead to Hollywood calling, he remained a favorite for Raimi despite the latter’s battles to persuade studio executives to cast him in his films. Raimi had planned to cast Campbell as the star of his first major film, 1985’s Crimewave; however, producer Norman Lear forced him to audition and eventually passed on him in favor of a more established actor. Campbell took a smaller role as Renaldo the Heel and the rest of the production proved to be disastrous for all involved.
It was time to get evil again when Raimi decided to make a sequel to his first hit with Campbell back on board as Ash. 1987’s Evil Dead II would begin as a remake of the first film and continue on as a fresh new story. This was the moment Campbell would shine and make Ash into a cinematic icon. He plays up the comedic aspect of the story in ways that may seem to be perceived as overacting, but actually ends up being more genius than you can realize. The sequence where Ash’s hand is demonically possessed in played by Campbell in a way that reminded me of Leonardo DiCaprio’s overdose scene in The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s so physical and so chaotic that you have to exert so much as an actor to pull it off. Campbell takes bigger beatings in this film and yet he can still remain a cocky badass of a hero.
Evil Dead II gave Campbell the exposure he needed to go Hollywood. The following year, he landed the lead role as the hero cop taking on a psycho killer in uniform in Maniac Cop. He then did the sequel where he gets killed off early on as a tribute to Psycho. Campbell was pigeonholed into the exploitation genre as a result of Evil Dead and Maniac Cop. But as Raimi gained more success in Hollywood, he still remained close enough with Campbell to cast him whenever he could. Raimi tried hard to cast him as Darkman in 1990. Though Liam Neeson got the part and became a star, Campbell still managed to make it in for a cool end cameo.
1993 saw the release of the third Dead movie, Army of Darkness. With the success of Darkman giving Raimi more clout in Hollywood, the new Dead movie had the biggest budget of all the films and continued in the direction of the previous entry. Now Campbell was multitasking in front of the camera by playing both Ash and the film’s antagonist, Evil Ash, in full prosthetics. Adding to the intense workload were the ambitious special effects and battle sequences where Ash had to battle a skeleton army that would be done in stop motion for post-production. Campbell found himself frustrated by the shoot; however, he still gives his all in every shot. While not a hit at the box office, Army of Darkness pleased fans of the series and made new fans for itself and for Campbell.
The cult status that Campbell attained in cinema made him a working character actor in mainstream films: The ill-fated explorer in Congo, the deranged plastic surgeon in Escape from L.A., and parts in the Coen Brothers’ films The Hudsucker Proxy and Fargo. His manly confident voice landed him lots of voiceover parts, most notably Pitfall Harry in the Atari remake of the classic 80s video game of the same name. On television, his pal Raimi would produce the Hercules (and later Xena) series where Campbell played the recurring roll of the sly thief Autolycus.
In 1993, Campbell headlined his first network television role in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. It was a Fox series with a Wild Wild West-vibe that wound up being Campbell’s most favorite role since Ash. He plays an ex-lawyer-turned-bounty hunter with advanced age gadgets and encounters lots of supernatural elements. Like the Dead series, it had a cult following despite the ratings not reflecting that and it was canceled after one season. His next series, Jack of All Trades, did not catch on at all.
In the 2000s, Raimi would cast Campbell in three separate cameo appearances in the highly successful Spider-Man movies from Sony. He played the ring announcer who gives Spidey his name in one, an obnoxious usher at Mary Jane’s play in two, and a French waiter in three. Fans had hoped for Campbell to play a villain (rumored to be Mysterio) in a future entry, but was not meant to be after Sony decided to reboot the series. Fortunately, Campbell earned critical acclaim in this decade when he played Elvis (and his impersonator) in Don Coscarelli’s horror comedy Bubba Ho-Tep. He also dabbled in directing himself playing himself fighting a giant monster in My Name is Bruce.
Not every Campbell role was necessarily comedic. In the late 2000s, Campbell co-starred as a disgraced US Seal working as a PI on USA’s Burn Notice. The role was worlds away from anything Campbell had done, but still maintained his charming personality. He served as support and the voice of reason for the lead character of Michael Weston throughout the run. The part proved so popular with fans, he got his own prequel movie in 2011.
Though he still continues to work steadily in film and television, Campbell was still well aware of his fans clamoring for a new Dead movie. They were disappointed when he only appeared in a post-credit cameo in the critically panned 2013 remake. But now they won’t have to wait longer because he’ll be back as Ash Williams in a new cable series called Ash vs. Evil Dead this October. Raimi will direct the pilot episode (and potentially more if successful) with Campbell as the star and producer of the series. Early trailers look promising and Campbell, now close to 37 years in show business, looks just as badass as ever.