Put on your party hats and grab your copies of Evil Dead, because legendary B-movie actor Bruce Campbell is 53 years old today. The iconic star of Sam Raimi’s classic horror trilogy has been making movies since he was a teenager (he hooked up with Raimi while they were in high school), but recent years have seen him also branch out into voice work (he’s appeared in numerous videogames and animated features, including Cars 2) and he’s even become a bestselling author.
Campbell will always be loveable doofus/savior of the world Ashley J. Williams to us, but the actor has played other unforgettable parts during his career. In celebration of “The Chin” making it through another year, we decided to take a look at five of those roles-- parts showing that, while Bruce is unmatched when it comes to killing Deadites and firing off one-liners, there’s more to his career than just Ash. So, join in us wishing the man, the myth, and the legend a happy 53rd birthday by re-examining some of his finest work.
My Name is Bruce
You know you’ve become a cult icon when you get to star as yourself in a film. Such was the case for Campbell in My Name is Bruce – a horror comedy farce that finds the actor (who also directed) charged with saving a small town from an evil Chinese spirit. Bruce plays himself just like you’d expect – in an over-the-top and self-deprecating manner that’s probably more like Ash (who the citizens mistake him for) than Campbell. The film isn’t perfect, but fans of Bruce should find a lot to like here. It’s silly and not every gag works, but My Name is Bruce is still a shining example of why we adore Campbell.
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.
Bruce started out his career as a film actor, but in the intervening years he’s branched into television – which is a good thing, because some of his best work has appeared on the small screen.
Take, for instance, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. The series, which found Campbell playing the title character – a lawyer-turned-bounty hunter tasked with tracking down the outlaws who killed his father – was beloved by a small, but dedicated, audience and critics. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to ensure a long run – and the show was canceled after 27 episodes. (Hey, it ran twice as long as Firefly before Fox pulled the plug.)
Truthfully, BC was probably ahead of its time – the blending of western and steampunk was a little hard to grasp for audiences who were just starting to get familiar with the Internet. It’s a shame, because had the timing been right, Campbell would probably be a big star now. The actor’s turn as Brisco is one of those examples of perfect casting (again, kinda like Firefly – which benefited greatly from Nathan Fillion in the lead role), and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. Fortunately, the whole series is available on DVD – meaning Bruce fans who missed out can remedy the situation at their earliest convenience.
Bruce was riding high on the success of Evil Dead 2 when he struck horror gold again with his appearance in Bill Lustig’s Maniac Cop in 1988. In a great bit of casting, Campbell appears alongside fellow B-movie legend Tom Atkins in this chiller about a killer cop slaughtering folks on the streets. When Campbell’s character becomes the main suspect, he teams up with Atkins to really find out who’s murdering people while wearing the badge.
Maniac Cop is a blast, thanks mostly to Atkins, but it’s cool to see Bruce can do more than just play Ash – and this film provides our first proof of that.
Jack of All Trades
Undaunted by the failure of Brisco County, Campbell returned to lead another TV series – Jack of All Trades – in 2000. In this half-hour action comedy, Bruce plays Jack Stiles – an American secret agent sent to a fictitious island to thwart threats to the United States.
Like Brisco County, Jr., Jack of All Trades was loved by a small, yet vocal, group of fans. The problem this time wasn’t that the show was ahead of its time, rather that it was aired through syndication, meaning it didn’t get the marketing push of a major network and could air at different dates and times in various markets. Unfortunately, this led to the show’s untimely demise. Still, Campbell-ites should be sure to track down the episodes. The show is hilarious.
Bruce’s finest cinematic hour came in this 2002, with the release of Bubba Ho-tep. The Don Coscarelli-directed film was based on a story by Joe R. Lansdale and features Campbell playing a nursing home resident who insists he’s Elvis Presley. He teams up with JFK (a fellow nursing home resident, played by Ossie Davis, who explains that he was kept alive after the assassination attempt, dyed black, and left to his own devices) and together they must stop a malicious mummy stalking the home’s halls.
On the surface, the film is a horror comedy, but if you dig deep you’ll see that it’s really a story about growing old and how we treat our elders. Campbell and Davis have fantastic chemistry, and the role reinforces the notion that Campbell really can act – he’s a pretty convincing Elvis, after all.
The best part of any birthday is that one last surprise gift – the package a loved one trots out after everything else has been opened and you think you’ve gotten everything you’re gonna get. Keeping with that tradition, here’s a bonus pick.
Homicide: Life on the Street: Justice parts 1 and 2
Choosing five Campbell roles was hard – and I still feel guilty for leaving Burn Notice off this list because I think Bruce’s work on the show is top notch – but his two episode stint on Homicide: Life on the Street is arguably my favorite piece of his work. In the episodes, entitled “Justice,” Campbell plays officer Jake Rodzinsky – a Baltimore cop whose father is murdered. He turns to his friends in Homicide unit to help find the killer, but when the killer goes free, Rodzinsky vows revenge.
As a whole, the episodes demonstrate why Homicide is arguably the best cop show to ever air on television – they tackle issues that other dramas would handle in a shallow and glib manner with a surprising amount of depth and nuance. The episodes are also a fantastic departure for Campbell, who never once mugs for the camera in the way we’re used to. This is Bruce showing he’s more than the cartoon character he normally plays, and he imbues Rodzinsky with a surprising amount of depth and earns the audience’s sympathy throughout. Whenever someone tells you Bruce Campbell is just a cult actor or B-list celeb, point them to these episodes – they demonstrate just how seriously Campbell takes his craft.
And there you have it, six Bruce Campbell roles that aren’t Ash, but are excellent. Happy birthday, Bruce! Here’s to hoping there are at least 53 more in store for you. Hail to the king, baby.