Published: February 27, 2013
What is it about Bruce Campbell that makes him such a compelling actor? When he makes an appearance in a movie or TV show, it’s impossible to turn away and yet — let’s be absolutely fair and clear — when the lists of the great actors in history are made, Campbell isn’t going to be up there with the likes of Jeremy Irons and Daniel Day Lewis. He certainly has an “ingredient X,” an attractive quality and old-school cool. The man may have limited ability, yet he has mastered the art of milking every last bit of it.
So, again, what makes him so damned watchable? Is it that distinctive and admittedly impressive square chin? Perhaps, in part. Is it the fact that people of a certain age remember his performances as Ash in the Evil Dead movies with nostalgic glee and all else from then on is forgiven? That has a lot to do with it. But the truth is, sometimes hammy is fun and, because everyone around metro Detroit knows that Campbell is one of our own, there’s a feeling that we’re watching an old friend doing well every time we see Campbell on such TV shows as Burn Notice and Xena: Warrior Princess, or a movie like Sky High, even if we’ve never met him. It’s kind of like watching a relative doing community theater, just on a bigger scale. Appropriately enough, that’s where Campbell’s story begins.
Bruce Campbell’s dad was a member of the St. Dunstan’s Theatre Guild in Cranbrook, and it was while watching his father tread the boards that young Campbell caught the bug. “He joined because he was in the ad business but he felt that he wanted more of a creative outlet,” says Campbell, on the phone from L.A. “I think I saw him in a play around 1966 when I was about 8. I think it was Brigadoon. He was singing, dancing and acting goofy, and people were applauding. I was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ It left a big impression. Then I got older and during the summer they’d do plays outdoors in a beautiful Greek theater that they had there. They’d need kids for extras, so I got in my first play in my formative years when I was about 12. You had to be 18 to join, so I joined when I was 18. Then I could do what they called the ‘indoor shows’, which was where the real theater was going on. Outdoor shows were like The King and I, South Pacific, the classic musicals. With the indoor shows, you could do drama, and they had some farces that were really fun. It was a great proving ground, and my dad opened that world to me.”
Campbell, a warm and funny but no-nonsense man in conversation, was raised in Royal Oak, a city that he says bears little resemblance now to the one in which he spent his early years. “Oh, c’mon, in my day when I was there living near the railroad tracks, you got flat-top haircuts there,” he says. “This was not hip. Nothing was happening. You went to the Main Theatre, which is still there I guess. But there was nothing going on in Royal Oak. But it’s nice to see the town that you spent a lot of time in get better and better instead of worse and worse. Even fashionable Ferndale, when we had our offices there at Nine Mile and Woodward, I won’t call it a shithole but there was nothing fancy about it. Now Ferndale is getting all hipster on us. That’s better than watching it go down the toilet like a lot of our small towns.”
The story at that point was one that has been told a thousand times; the disenchanted and bored kid gets to high school and meets some other disenchanted and bored kids who have a similar interest in cinema, acting and making movies. In Campbell’s case, the first person he met was Josh Becker and the two would go on to make a short film called Oedipus Rex.
“My buddy Josh Becker, who I still work with [Becker is best known for his work on shows like Xena and B-movies with names like Harpies], was doing some Regular 8 movies (not even Super 8) for school, and we had both been in a school play in about 8th grade, The Lottery,” Campbell says. “He grew a beard by then so he got the adult role — he stole the adult role from me. I always hold that over him. He was making this movie and he knew I was an actor so he said, ‘Hey, can you get a toga?’ I said yeah, so I impressed him with my professionalism early on. I played King Creon. This was really like cutting to a title card with what everyone says. It was pretty primitive.”
Perhaps Campbell’s most significant school-time meeting came in the 8th grade, even if it didn’t stick right away. “Sam Raimi I saw in 8th grade dressed as Sherlock Holmes, sitting on the floor of our junior high school playing with dolls,” he says. “That was my first introduction. I specifically remember going way around him in the hallway, thinking, ‘This guy’s a first class weirdo.’ I never really met him in 8thgrade, I met him properly in 10th grade, during a radio speech class. We started performing announcements together, and we had a radio show that we would do. I found out that he was sort of doing little movies in his neighborhood, I was doing little movies in my neighborhood, and one other guy at Segal was doing movies in his neighborhood. High school is when all of the junior highs collide, so a bunch of us met and started to combine equipment, ideas, stories and just manpower. It became quite a little industry. We did about 50 of these movies that are all tucked away somewhere in various stages. But there were some really good little bits that came out of them that worked better than some of the movies, when we finally got to remake stuff into an actual movie. That was our proving ground: in high school. That was where we got everything started.”
The idea that there is a closet full of Raimi-Campbell collaborations locked away somewhere is mouthwatering, to say the least. The pair graduated in 1976, and in 1979 they made a short movie called Within the Woods, the seed of a much bigger idea. “Within the Woods was a Super 8 movie, and by then we were very good at making Super 8 movies. We had good cameras, the projectors were better, as was the sound. Within the Woods was what we used to raise money for The Evil Dead. We would show it to investors. It was a half hour movie, and we wanted to show people we could make something scary and effective. There wasn’t much in the way of sales tools. We were very skeptical to give them any kind of numbers of how well the movie would do, because we didn’t know. We used a visual tool to show them that we thought we knew what we were doing.”
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