You may know him as “that guy with the chainsaw for a hand,” or “the aging Elvis who fights a mummy in a retirement home,” or “the hammy actor with a killer chin.”
Or maybe you don't know him at all.
Bruce Campbell may not be a household name—well, he is in my house, but then, B-movies are a way of life in the Barry family. So, mostly he's not a household name.
Which is a shame. Because he should be.
Few actors are so willing to be covered in Karo-syrup blood and gooey viscera; not many can deliver absolutely ridiculous dialogue with such a perfectly straight face; and hardly any can see-saw between utter terror and ludicrous physical comedy at the drop of a hat like Campbell can.
I'd even go so far as to say that Campbell is one of the best physical actors in horror history—just watch the sequence in Evil Dead 2 where he has to fight his own possessed hand amidst shattering crockery and bladed weapons.
To those who adore schlocky, silly fun, Bruce Campbell is nothing short of a legend. He has a reputation of being absolutely wonderful with his fans, willing to sign (nearly) anything they hand him or pose for numerous pictures, and he's always ready to make a mockery of himself if it'll entertain someone else.
He's best known for the role that made him, well, if not famous, then infamous—a role he's played for thirty-five years: Ashley Williams of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series.
In the original Evil Dead, Ash is a sweet twenty-something who heads to a cabin in the woods (uh-oh) with his girlfriend, sister, and a couple of friends to party for the weekend. Naturally, they find a creepy book and play some old tapes, and before you can say “double uh-oh,” college kids are spewing blood, levitating, and getting a little too up close and personal with nature (triple uh-oh).
By the end credits, everyone has been possessed by Candarian demons known as Deadites, and poor Ash has been forced to kill most of them, including beloved girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker). In fact, by the end credits, it's somewhat unclear whether or not Ash actually escapes, as it looks as though he becomes possessed himself just as the screen fades to black.
Evil Dead 2 picks up pretty much where the first film left off, with some minor alterations (this time, Ash and Linda were at the cabin alone). Ash is possessed, but only momentarily, and has to face off against the Deadites anew when a new batch of characters/victims show up at the cabin, including the daughter of the previous owner—the archaeologist who uncovered the Necronomicon, the evil Book of the Dead—and a pair of redneck hillbillies.
The third installment, Army of Darkness, begins with Ash trapped in the Middle Ages, stuck in the role of “the hero who fell from the sky” as he battles more Deadites, including an evil version of himself, and woos fair maidens. Whereas the first film was framed as a straight horror, and the second was a mixture of horror and Three Stooges-esque comedy, Army is largely a comedy adventure, with only a few spooky flourishes.
And, most recently, Ash returned in the popular Starz series Ash vs Evil Dead. It's thirty years after the events of the original film, and Ash has never quite moved on with his life—or grown up. He's still working as a stockboy, still living out of a trailer, and still making really poor life choices: like getting high and reading passages of the Necronomicon aloud to a girl he picked up at a bar.
Naturally, the Deadites return again, and Ash finds himself leading a ragtag team that includes loyal Pablo (Ray Santiago), badass Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo), and the determined Detective Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones). The mysterious Ruby (Lucy Lawless) is also after the Necronimicon for unknown reasons…
The character of Ash has changed quite a bit over the last thirty years—or perhaps devolved is the better term. He went from being a kind and well-meaning victim in Evil Dead, to a slightly more battle-hardened and coarser badass in Evil Dead 2, to an outright chauvinist (albeit one with moments of sheer heroic awesomeness) in Army of Darkness. He's much the same, if sillier and stupider, in Ash vs Evil Dead.
The fact that Campbell has played each incarnation of his infamous character with equal amounts of verve and conviction is a testament to his talent. Even when Ash is doing unlikable or stupid things, you can't help but love the asshole—because he's still Bruce Campbell, and you still want to root for him.
All of that would be enough to make him “King of B-Movies.” But beyond the Evil Dead series, he's also starred in a number of other zany horror flicks.
In Bubba Ho-Tep, he plays none other than the King himself, Elvis Presley. In a twist worthy of the weirdest conspiracy theory, it turns out Elvis didn't die as we thought. Instead, he faked his death to escape the grind of celebrity and ended up in a nursing home alongside JFK (Ossie Davis), who was turned black to escape further assassination attempts (no, really). The pair of old coots find themselves facing off against a soul-sucking mummy who's stalking the halls and preying upon the more helpless retirees.
Aliens invade a snowbound airport in Terminal Invasion and begin assuming human forms; so it's essentially an extremely low-budget and not-nearly-as-scary riff on John Carpenter's The Thing. It's up to Campbell's Jack, a felon on the run, and a courageous female pilot to save the day in this surprisingly fun SyFy Original.
For Man With the Screaming Brain, Campbell pulled triple duty as lead actor, screenwriter, and director. The result is pure schlocky greatness in keeping with the spirit of Roger Corman's cheap double features—only fitting, given his familiarity with the genres.
Campbell's wealthy businessman has an affair with a murderous Romani maid and wakes up sharing brainspace with her other victim, a former KGB operative-turned-cab driver. There's mad science gone amok! Twisted love affairs and sewer chases! Multiple murders and Ted Raimi (brother of Sam) playing an Igor pastiche to the hilt!
Bruce even lampooned himself in the parody film My Name is Bruce; the folks of a rural town mistake him for his character Ash and he's forced to fight a real monster while wearing super loud Hawaiian shirts. It's not so much tongue-in-cheek as tongue sticking straight out.
Besides his film work—and multiple cameos in bigger budget fare, such as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series—Campbell has also lent his voice to multiple video games (Broken Helix, Tachyon: The Fringe, Pitfall 3-D, Call of Duty), written a pair of books (the autobiography If Chins Could Kill and the humorous novel Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way), and starred in several TV shows.
He was a dashing secret agent in Jack of All Trades, a historical fantasy series rife with innuendoes and puns, as well as the mustachioed rogue Autolycus (the so-called “King of Thieves”) in Hercules and Xena—all Rob Tapert projects, an old hometown buddy of Campbell's who made good alongside co-friend Sam Raimi.
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. may have been short-lived, but—like Firefly—that didn't prevent it from building a devoted cult fanbase. When you have steampunk science, cowboy action, and Bruce Campbell in chaps, it's a guaranteed good time. His turn as retired special agent Sam Axe in Burn Notice is both hysterical and badass. In fact, Sam was so beloved that he even got a made-for-TV standalone film.
X-Philes will remember him as a handsome devil who just wanted a white picket house and 2.5 normal kids, and he recently appeared in the Fargo series as none other than President Ronald Reagan himself (a fellow who hails from my own alma mater of Eureka College, so how's that for six degrees of separation?).
No matter how you slice, dice, or chainsaw it, Bruce Campbell's made a permanent mark on the B-movie and genre landscape. He's a charmer even when playing a chauvinist, a real gentleman with his fans, and always fun to watch in action.
If you haven't properly acquainted yourself with his body of work yet, I highly recommend picking up Evil Dead 2 this spooky season—it's not only the best of the Evil Dead films, it's Campbell at his finest.