Bruce Campbell Will Never Die, But You Will
The iconic cult actor is starring in a new <i>Evil Dead</i> show and is playing Ronald Reagan in <i>Fargo</i>, but he's still not famous enough for people to go through his trash.
Last Saturday, the 12,000-square-foot Hammerstein Ballroom was at standing room only capacity for a screening of Starz's new horror series Ash vs. Evil Dead, a continuation of the series of three classic Evil Dead movies from the '80s and '90s (along with an ambiguously connected quasi-reboot from 2013). The half-hour show's jokes and gore–often combined to ridiculous effect–come at a rapid pace, so the crowd was cheering more or less constantly the whole time.
Afterward the lights came up and Kevin Smith—wearing a hockey jersey with his own face on the front—introduced the cast and crew for a fan Q&A. Smith, who by all rights seems to be a massive Evil Dead fan, asked Campbell to appear in his Mallrats sequel. Bruce Campbell, being Bruce Campbell, said yes.
Despite what its title may imply, Ash vs. Evil Dead is more of an ensemble deal than the earlier Evil Dead movies, where Bruce Campbell's headstrong hero Ash Williams is pretty much the sole focus of the films. But despite the fact that the whole cast, including Xena: Warrior Princess's Lucy Lawless, and the films' legendary director Sam Raimi were sitting in on the panel, nearly every question was directed at Campbell. Several of the people asking them were cosplaying as his most iconic character.
Campbell is the king of the nerds, or at least a particular kind of gore-loving nerd that's slightly more self-aware than most. Whether he's playing Ash in the Evil Dead series, a mummy-hunting retirement-age Elvis Presley in Bubba Ho Tep, thief-king Autolycus in Xena and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, or even the P.I. sidekick Sam Axe in USA's upbeat procedural Burn Notice, Campbell's outsize personality and unapologetically hammy presence have a way of slyly breaking the fourth wall to remind viewers that at its core, acting is all just a fun old game of make believe. His audience love to wink along with him.
He brought that same energy to the Comic Con panel, affectionately bullying the fans who had lined up to ask him questions, as if to point out how ridiculous it is that they lined up to ask some schmuck about pretending to be a cool guy who kills undead creatures with a shotgun and a chainsaw duct taped to the nub where his hand once was. One who brought up Evil Dead's debt to the Three Stooges' physical comedy got lightly harangued for not actually knowing the Three Stooges' work. Another asked for dating advice and Campbell responded, "Do you have any karate moves?" No one laughed harder than the guys getting roasted.
The day before, I met Campbell for lunch at a Midtown restaurant full of executive types, and I found him just as ridiculously charismatic one-on-one. Then again he's not afraid to admit that on some level, the Bruce Campbell at conventions and interviews is just another character he plays. "If they knew Bruce Campbell," he explained, "they would know the Bruce Campbell they think is Bruce Campbell is nowhere. I know how different I am from every single one of these characters. But people have their perceptions, and I'm not gonna mess with that. You can think of me as whoever you want, whoever you think I am."
Campbell's commitment to not messing with his fans—outside of a good-natured "making fun of you in front of thousands of people" way—has a lot to do with why they're so insanely committed. That quality comes from being a fan himself. "When I was a kid I wanted to meet Shatner," he told me. "Where the hell was I going to meet him? Nowhere!"
And unlike Shatner, who for a long time would loudly, publicly complain about only being known for being Captain Kirk, cult celebrity suits Campbell perfectly. "I'm actually grateful that I'm well enough known to work," he said, "but not well enough known that people are going through my trash. I burn my trash anyway. I'm in southern Oregon. I'm in the woods. You have trash, you've got a burn pit."
Campbell also has none of the reluctance that some actors have to giving his fans what they want. Ash vs. Evil Dead is packed with fan service, from Ash's catchphrases (the first episode contains a prominently placed "Groovy") to Raimi's beloved 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88, which has followed Ash from his first fateful trip to a demonically possessed Michigan cabin to medieval times, and back to the present day.
One of the reasons why Evil Dead has resonated with fans as strongly as it has, for long as it has, is because it's never been ashamed of being a straight-up horror flick. It wears its B-movie roots proudly, with its frequent on-screen kills, flying buckets of blood, and complete disinterest in probing its hero's psychology, simply establishing that he is, as Campbell puts it, "mostly an idiot who rises to the occasion."
"Relatability," he said, is Ash's number one quality. "There's no steely-eyed this or steely-eyed that. He's the one who's responsible for all this happening again! I mean he's directly responsible!"
Which is totally true. After unleashing an invasion of undead ghouls in Army of Darkness by blanking on an important spell he's supposed to recite, in Ash vs. Evil Dead he lets loose yet another demon horde on rural Michigan after wastedly reading aloud a passage from the cursed Necronomicon Ex-Mortis in order to impress a chick who likes poetry. Everything that goes wrong in Ash vs. Evil Dead is literally all Ash's fault.
"How many directors would do that with their lead guy?" Campbell asked proudly. "Anyone who dies in any of the Evil Dead movies is directly because of the lead character!" He's even fought the network to make sure they didn't make Ash seem more competent than he's supposed to be. "We got a note from Starz about Ash's tactics. He made a mistake with a gun," not lowering it when passing the barrel by someone on his side. "We were like, wait a minute, there's no mistake. He doesn't know what he's doing. He was trained at S-Mart in the sporting goods department! What does he know about that?"
As excited as Campbell is to be playing Ash again, the role's slapstick physicality has become "worse" with age, as he put it bluntly. "The recovery time's longer. The ability to get hurt is more random. I got injured on Burn Notice. I kicked a stunt guy in the face and I wasn't stretching, and I blew my hamstring. Try blowing your hamstring sometime. You literally can't walk. It's amazing. You're hamstrung."
Campbell, who helped the Coen Brothers shoot the short film that would eventually be turned into their debut Blood Simple, is also the only cast member from the film Fargo to also appear in the TV version, where he takes on the challenging task of playing Ronald Reagan during his campaign for president without sliding into caricature. "You gotta be a little careful with Ronald Reagan," he said. "The trick is, you just make him like a real guy. I had to drop the Johnny Carson imitation and just make him a character. Just a guy running for office who believed what he said."
During his Comic Con panel, Campbell jokingly expressed a bit of pessimism about his track record as a TV star. "Every time I star in a series it lasts one season," he said, referencing his runs on the short-lived The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and Jack of All Trades, both of which were action-adventure series featuring a steampunk influence. Meanwhile, Campbell said, "Every time I'm second fiddle it goes on for fucking ever."
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But maybe Ash vs. Evil Dead will be the one to break that streak. If nothing else, he and Raimi will go out on their own terms. He said that he and Raimi extracted promises from Starz that the network wouldn't mess with the tone that the Ash vs. Evil Dead carries over from the movies. "We told Starz, don't go promoting this like 'serious horror is here.' No. Horror is here, and you'll get plenty of it, but let's not take this quite so seriously." The show also has all the abundant amounts of blood spatter that fans have come to expect out of the Evil Dead franchise. "The gore the merrier!" Campbell exclaimed over his salad.
Besides, Campbell knows not to let the whims of "Bruce Campbell" dictate those of Ash Williams. "I heard a funny story about Burt Reynolds," he told me, "from a guy who directed one of his later movies in the '80s." During a scene after his character's been shot, he said, "Burt's supposed to be wounded, but after the director calls action Burt is like running through the woods. The director calls cut and goes over there. He has to run 200 yards over to him and he goes, 'Burt, OK, that was good but you know you've been shot, so I think we need a little more of that.' OK, action. Burt goes just tromping through the woods. Cut.
"The director goes running all the way over there and he goes, 'Burt, I thought we were gonna do it a little more–' and Burt goes, 'Would Clint Eastwood be limping along? Would John Wayne go limping along? Burt had gotten bigger than the character. You have to be careful of that. The character still has to rule the persona. When the character says you're dying, you better fucking die."
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