A Real Shemp
Genre legend Bruce Campbell may be the most accessible celebrity on the internet. His home page, http://www.bruce-campbell.com, contains enough trivia, news, art, and sound clips to keep the most ardent fan busy for weeks. He admits that his e-mail address (BCACT@aol.com) is "the worst kept secret on the web," and confesses that he'll answer any non-ludicrous query.
When I contacted him about doing an interview, he agreed to answer questions as long as he hadn't already covered them in "The Bruce Campbell Manifesto," an online document containing everything from his philosophy of filmmaking to descriptions of his hobbies, plus a rant about autographs and suggestions for aspiring actors. It's not easy to get a new angle on the guy!
Campbell, who exudes the same sarcastic sense of humor as many of his characters, comes across as direct, loyal, and private in spite of his vast public network - I can tell you the names of all his characters, yet I can't tell you the names of his two children. He remains close with many of the people he worked with as a young man. Sam Raimi has been a friend since high school, while Rob Tapert was a college roommate of Sam's brother Ivan and has been a colleague of both men for almost twenty years.
Currently visible on Raimi and Tapert's Hercules and Xena as Autolycus, Campbell has two films scheduled for 1998 release as well as a TV movie. Though his career has spanned both mainstream and cult film and television, including a recurring stint on Ellen and the still-popular-in-syndication sci-fi Western Adventures of Brisco County Jr., Campbell will undoubtedly be remembered forever as demonically beleaguered Ash from the Evil Dead movies. As a producer as well as actor in the films, the question he gets e-mailed most often by fans is, "Will there be an Evil Dead 4?" (Current answer: no, though Campbell hints that if Raimi were willing to direct, he'd be willing to return again.)
The Michigan native enjoys the cunning of Autolycus, King of Thieves, but notes that the character has a "dopey quality" that keeps him from seeming arrogant. "At the end of the day, he's a decent guy - the moron with a heart of gold." Campbell's favorite episodes include "Royal Couple of Thieves" - directed by John Cameron, another friend from high school - and "The Quest," in which Xena took over Autolycus's body, "so I really had to get in touch with my feminine side." The latter contains one of the most famous scenes in the Xenaverse, in which Xena kissed Gabrielle, using Autolycus as a conduit. "The hammier, the better," he notes of the role, which he saw as an Errol Flynn type. He liked that the character was not a hero.
Though his appearance in drag in the Marilyn Monroe-parody episode "Men in Pink" went over very well, Campbell insists that we shouldn't expect to see him in drag again any time soon. "Not on your life! It was really hard! Women are crazy to put themselves through all that." In another departure from his usual role on the series, the actor portrayed executive producer Tapert in the recent episode "Yes, Virginia, There Really Is a Hercules." Was he worried about offending his old friend? "He approved the script and I stuck to the script, so he couldn't really complain too much," Campbell admitted when asked. "I did, however, insist on [having] red hair, because he used to have very red hair as a kid."
In general, the roles of villains, thieves, jerks, and misfits have appealed to Campbell. "I like the fact that they don't have to be 'perfect' and that the roles can be more interesting than 'leading man' roles," he said by way of explanation. "On several occasions, I have turned down the leading role because the villain was a much better part." On his web site, he said that in Assault on Dome 4, he was asked to play the hero but opted to do what he felt was a more interesting character, though the role was smaller.
Perhaps the most important thing to be learned from Campbell's web page is the definition of "shemp," a term familiar to Evil Dead fans from the credits of the movies. Campbell explains that Raimi and himself were fans of The Three Stooges, but discovered that Shemp - whom Campbell characterizes as "the really ugly one with the long, stringy black hair" - suffered a heart attack and had to be doubled by another actor in several short films. The phony Shemp was easily recognizable to Campbell and Raimi, who used the term "fake shemp" to refer to doubles and extras when the two began to make films together. In the Evil Dead movies, they decided to designate "Fake Shemp" as an official category to credit people whose body parts were featured onscreen; thus Raimi's brother Ted, now working with Campbell on Xena, had his first film role as a "Fake Shemp." Campbell himself became a "Wedding Shemp" in The Quick and the Dead when his scene was cut but his screen credit remained.
Ted Raimi mentioned when I interviewed him that Campbell used to babysit for him, so I asked Campbell what it was like working with someone he'd known since childhood. "We share the ability to speak in shorthand and in special Michigan 'codes,'" the babysitter explained, adding that he thinks viewers mistake the silly Joxer for Raimi because Raimi plays the role with such conviction. "Ted is a real actor, and even I realized this when working with him recently - Ted is very underrated by fans because he is so good at what he does, he makes it look very easy. It all came home when I had the pleasure of directing him in 'King of Assassins.'"
Campbell himself insists that there's a large chunk of his own personality in all the characters he plays. In his Manifesto, he wrote, "There is a large element of me in every role I do. My characters are basically me on my best/worst day." When I asked him which of his characters came closest to the real Bruce, he replied, "On my very, very best days, Brisco, because you could have a normal conversation with him."
TNT's press release declares that Campbell won the role of Brisco "because of his fantastic comic timing, his square-jawed looks, and his experience in doing his own stunts for Raimi's movies," but fans are more interested in his apparent sincerity, generosity, and flexible outlook on life - qualities which Campbell seems to share with a number of his characters, even poor Ash whose gullibility made him an endless target for villainy.
Despite his long list of science fiction and horror credits, Campbell claims not to be a big genre fan and says he finds truth much stranger than fiction - and far more compelling. "I am 100% more interested in real-life stories; I think they are so much more interesting than anything you can make up," he said when I asked whether he had a fantasy project he'd like to put together. "I'd like to see more character-based films than effects-based. Horror flicks are great to get an audience riled up; very few types of films can get an audience going like an effective scare flick. [But] I think human dramas are far more compelling than things blowing up every 3 seconds."
A community theater veteran who dropped out of Western Michigan University after little more than one semester and went to work for a Detroit television production company, Campbell jokes that he honed his acting skills doing commercials and industrial films for the automotive industry, but says quite seriously that he believes there is such a thing as too much technique. He adds that "actors who say they can dive inside a character are either schizophrenic or lying."
His advice for would-be actors and directors is similar: work, work, work, and make sure you're communicating with the people you're working with. "I don't want to tell anyone how they MUST become an actor - there are so many ways that you can approach it," he observed. "All I know, in my experience, is that preparation is everything. You must be disciplined enough to know your dialogue backwards and forwards so that you are comfortable on camera and you must maintain a very open dialogue with the writers and director." For directors, he believes it is essential to communicate to the actors and department heads exactly what one's intentions are, so they can serve the director and the film better.
A defender of the environment who suspects he'd be a teacher if he weren't an actor, Campbell says that sharing knowledge appeals to him, but sharing creative control of an artistic product with a studio does not. "My first film experience was with Evil Dead - I was one of the executive producers of the film, and we were allowed to make it without any creative intervention whatsoever. How many 'mainstream' actors can say they've ever had complete creative control over anything?" he mused. He likes the independence offered by independent films, but notes that there are always concerns about budget. "With studio pictures, you can cry poor sometimes and they'll cut you a check, but this comes with a price: loss of control."
Campbell is loath to choose among acting, directing, producing, and writing, noting that he enjoys what in Detroit factory talk would be referred to as the "Job Rotation." He loves the travel and the people he meets through acting, but repeatedly condemns the politics and "the B.S." about fame and fortune. Despite his personal attention to fan mail, believing that fans deserve some personal input - he's still bothered by the fact that Steve McQueen never answered a fan letter Campbell sent in his youth - he offers a lengthy, meticulously thought-out condemnation of autograph collecting in his Manifesto. He will send photographs to anyone who requests them, but prefers to offer fans "the best performances I can give" rather than his signature.
In addition to making him accessible to his public, e-mail lets Campbell keep in touch with his family while out of town on shoots. The role on Xena requires him to spend time in New Zealand and in transit, but he also has several film projects in the works as both an actor and producer. He says his goals are simple - continuous work and a better choice of decent roles - and calls himself a "take it as it comes" kind of guy in terms of current television shows or film projects he'd like to be associated with.
"I'm not really a dreamer - there are many talented people that I would like to work with, but there are too many to name," he said when I asked if there are specific performers or directors on his wish list.
Of his long-term goals, Campbell declared, "I would gradually like to move totally behind the camera with more writing and directing gigs," noting that "less work with more selection" would be ideal. In terms of fantasy projects, while he does hope eventually to write, direct, and act in one single film, he adds that the budget doesn't really matter. "I'd be happy doing low-budget independent films for the rest of my life as long as [I] have freedom."
In the meantime, there's Autolycus, who allows him to explore a wide range of physical comedy and verbal wit. Campbell has also directed episodes of Hercules and Xena and is scheduled to act in several films for 1998, including Texas Blood Money, the sequel to Quentin Tarantino's From Dusk Till Dawn which has not yet completed shooting.
He will also be seen in La Patinoire, a French film which uses ice skating as a metaphor for filmmaking. La Patinoire had a web site during production, with images refreshed every five seconds, that recorded up to 12,000 hits per day. It seems appropriate that Campbell, now a veteran of CD-ROMs as well as his own well-visited web site, should be the major American name to appear in that film.