Chin Up

Bruce Campbell knows why bad movies happen to great actors

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 Deadfilms, as the title character on Fox-TV's short-lived The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.and as Autolycus on both Herculesand 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 mighthave seen Bruce Campbell in. Uh, well, he played Ed Billick on Ellenfor most of a season. He was really goodin a couple of episodes of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Supermanand Homicide: Life on the Street.C'mon, what d'ya mean you've never seen Maniac Cop 2, Assault on Dome 4, Mindwarpand 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 Deadmovies, specifically, all directed by childhood pal Sam Raimi before Raimi got called to the bigs to make For Love of the Gameand, 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 Againand 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.

Kick Ash: Bruce Campbell’s revered among the cult for his role in Sam Raimi’s three Evil Dead films.
Kick Ash: Bruce Campbell’s revered among the cult for his role in Sam Raimi’s three Evil Dead films.

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 Majesticor 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.

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