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Actor-writer-producer Bruce Campbell not only received his start in B-movies, but embraced and exploited his niche in the medium to become one of the more beloved figures in genre films and television. Campbell first garnered attention as the sole surviving character in Sam Raimi's blood-soaked debut feature, "The Evil Dead" (1981). His and Raimi's love of slapstick comedy was put to good use with the follow-ups "Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn" (1987) and "Army of Darkness" (1993), while the short-lived series "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr." (Fox, 1993-94) attempted to capitalize on his growing cult following. Campbell picked up some of his best notices as an aging Elvis in Don Coscarelli's bizarre comedy-horror feature "Bubba Ho-Tep" (2001) and became a best-selling author with his memoir If Chins Could Kill - Confessions of a B-Movie Actor in 2002. Other notable work included a cameo in Raimi's big-budget adaptation of "Spider-Man" (2002) and its two sequels, as well as the scene-stealing role of ex-spy Sam Axe on the popular spy series "Burn Notice" (USA Network, 2007-13). The multi-faceted talent also lent his voice to such hit films as "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" (2009) and continued...
Actor-writer-producer Bruce Campbell not only received his start in B-movies, but embraced and exploited his niche in the medium to become one of the more beloved figures in genre films and television. Campbell first garnered attention as the sole surviving character in Sam Raimi's blood-soaked debut feature, "The Evil Dead" (1981). His and Raimi's love of slapstick comedy was put to good use with the follow-ups "Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn" (1987) and "Army of Darkness" (1993), while the short-lived series "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr." (Fox, 1993-94) attempted to capitalize on his growing cult following. Campbell picked up some of his best notices as an aging Elvis in Don Coscarelli's bizarre comedy-horror feature "Bubba Ho-Tep" (2001) and became a best-selling author with his memoir If Chins Could Kill - Confessions of a B-Movie Actor in 2002. Other notable work included a cameo in Raimi's big-budget adaptation of "Spider-Man" (2002) and its two sequels, as well as the scene-stealing role of ex-spy Sam Axe on the popular spy series "Burn Notice" (USA Network, 2007-13). The multi-faceted talent also lent his voice to such hit films as "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" (2009) and continued his involvement with the franchise that started it all as a producer on the "Evil Dead" (2013) remake. Hard-working and gregarious, Campbell created enough goodwill to make him a fan-favorite among pop-culture connoisseurs, as well as a welcome face with mainstream audiences.
Born Bruce Lorne Campbell on July 22, 1958 in Royal Oak, MI, he developed an interest in acting at a young age, partly through observing his father's performances in local community theater productions. The young Campbell befriended future director Sam Raimi while in a high school drama class; the pair soon indulged in their passion for slapstick humor - The Three Stooges being a particular favorite - 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. After graduation, 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 theater company and toiled for a while - after dropping out of college - as a production assistant at a production company in Detroit. Looking for a way to jumpstart 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.
Through the help of friends, family and local investors, Raimi acquired the funding to expand the short into a feature film, which was eventually retitled "The Evil Dead" (1981). 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. Over the course of the film's running time, Ash is forced to not only kill, but also disembowel his friends and girlfriend in order to stop the spirits, undergoing considerable agony in his attempts to do so. Due to the rural filming locations and the fact that Raimi and his friends had a difficult time getting crew members to stay with the project, Campbell - in addition to his physically demanding role, which frequently called for him to be covered from head to toe in stage blood - worked behind the scenes on the film, earning him a co-executive producer credit. Initially "The Evil Dead" struggled to find a U.S. distributor, until a small but vocal audience in Europe - along with a rave review from author Stephen King - attracted enough attention for it to be picked up by New Line Pictures. Slowly, the bizarre, gory yet highly stylized low-budget shocker gained popularity as a cult favorite. However, it would take Campbell and Raimi some time to reap the full benefits of the film's growing reputation.
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), 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 toiled exclusively in low-budget and independent genre films, but few of them were able to tap his particular brand of humor - though there were moments for fans to savor in films like William Lustig's "Maniac Cop" (1988) and the amusing vampire parody "Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat" (1991). Campbell also partnered with Josh Becker, an associate and friend of Raimi's for two pictures: ultra-violent slasher film "Intruder" (1989) and a comic romance of sorts 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). 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 Darkness," Campbell's profile began to rise in the mainstream market. He gave a note-perfect supporting turn as a 1940s-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 actioner, "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 firefighter. 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 bookstore where she worked.
Television increasingly became the best medium to translate Campbell's particular brand of old-school heroics and self-deprecating humor. 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. 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, Campbell's best performance 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 theater 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 theaters 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" (USA Network, 2007-13) 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 reteamed with Raimi behind the scenes to co-produce the remake of "Evil Dead" (2013). Die-hard fans of the franchise remained skeptical when it was revealed that Campbell's character of Ash would not appear in the film, which, while still revolving around the demonic text known as The Necronomicon, would differ from the original shocker in most other respects.
By Bryce Coleman
Filmographyclose complete filmography
CAST: (feature film)
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