Once cited as the “Laurence Olivier of bad movies,” no actor has done more with a strong chin and questionable scripts than Bruce Campbell. The 60-year-old Michigan native achieved B-movie infamy beginning with The Evil Dead films before garnering primetime employment on USA’s Burn Notice and a three-season stint on the Starz series Ash vs. Evil Dead. Campbell also frequently appears at comic book conventions, where his playfully combative repartee with audiences (choice quote: “You’re a dumbass!”) has further endeared him to the non-Oscar voting crowd.
Having closed the door on any further appearances as Ash, Campbell is jumping into hosting duties, headlining a revival of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! that will premiere on the Travel Channel in summer 2019. In the meantime, check out all the gory details we’ve dug up on Campbell’s formative years, his bid for superhero status, and why it took him so long to pick up another chainsaw.
1. Sam Raimi began torturing him in high school.
The Evil Dead director and frequent Campbell collaborator Sam Raimi has repeatedly expressed his delight in torturing Campbell for cameras, drowning him in fake blood and poking him with a stick in order to elicit his desired performance. Their dysfunctional relationship began in high school, where Raimi was fond of sitting behind Campbell and pressing a pencil into his back while his “friend” was attempting to answer a question from a teacher. Despite the acrimonious classroom behavior, the two began to collaborate on Super 8 films along with friends Josh Becker, Scott Spiegel, and Raimi’s brother, Ivan.
2. He was not a fashion plate.
As detailed in his 2001 autobiography, If Chins Could Kill, Campbell saw no need to sport blue jeans while cruising the hallways of his Michigan high school in the 1970s. They “wore through at the knees and butt too quickly,” he wrote, preferring Montgomery Ward’s work pants and his father’s dark brown smoking jacket as his ensemble of choice. By the time he graduated, he had gone on less than five dates.
3. He fended off the advances of prostitutes.
After dropping out of college to pursue acting, Campbell found work with a Detroit-area taxi company, Southfield Cab. While working the overnight shift, he sometimes found himself toting around prostitutes who would offer their services instead of paying the fare: Campbell declined the arrangement. He lasted a year as a driver before recommitting to film work in 1978 with Raimi’s low-budget, shot-in-Michigan short Within the Woods, which would become the proof-of-concept for their feature film, The Evil Dead.
4. He hated The Evil Dead as a title.
When Raimi and his crew finally finished shooting their splatter flick The Evil Dead and began seeking a distribution deal, they were calling it Book of the Dead. Irvin Shapiro, a wheeler-dealer who had helped horror filmmaker George Romero find his audience, dismissed it, insisting people would think they’d have to read. Among the alternative titles suggested were Blood Flood, Death of the Dead, and The Evil Dead, which Campbell called “poor” but “the least worst of the bunch.”
5. The Evil Dead led to soap opera stardom for Campbell.
Flush with success from 1981’s release of the horror classic, Campbell returned to Michigan and got himself hired on the regional soap opera Generations. He played a teacher named Alan Stuart and received $35 a scene. As a bonus, he also met his first wife, co-star Christine Deveau. Having ditched his Montgomery Ward’s pants, Campbell says it was “the first time a woman had openly expressed an interest” in him.
6. He was bumped from his next starring role.
After filming a Chrysler commercial, Campbell agreed to jump back in with longtime tormentor Raimi for an action–comedy picture called Crimewave. Both men assumed Campbell would portray the lead, but the studio told them to slow down: They asked Campbell to film a screen test first. He did, and word quickly came down that he would not be the star of the film. Campbell took a supporting role instead; production was strained, and the movie (released in 1985) bombed.
7. He guarded beer.
While Campbell and his partners were eventually able to film 1987’s Evil Dead II, it did not result in any huge financial windfall for the actor. Needing some steady income between acting gigs, he took a job as a security guard for an Anheuser-Busch plant in the San Fernando Valley and worked from midnight to 8 a.m. After several nights together, his co-worker recognized him from the “Evil Death” films. When more Hollywood work came in—1989’s Moontrap among the opportunities—Campbell walked away from the graveyard shift.
8. Raimi put him in a film just to shut another actor up.
By 1993, Raimi was an A-list director, shooting the Western The Quick and the Dead with Leonardo DiCaprio, Gene Hackman, Sharon Stone, and Russell Crowe. When Campbell visited the set, Raimi quickly put him into costume and tossed him into a “scene” with actor Pat Hingle—but the shot was never intended to make the movie. Raimi was indulging Hingle’s request for his character to confront a pimp who had sordid dealings with his onscreen daughter. Campbell found himself in the role of the villain, kicked and tossed around by Hingle, as Raimi cackled.
9. He got a gig by beating himself up.
For his first leading role in network television, in 1993’s The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Campbell auditioned for a series of executives who were eager to find an actor with the physicality to ride horses and perform stunts. Grabbing himself by the collar, he performed a forward-flip, a trick he and Raimi had taught themselves back in high school. The impressed casting director insisted he do the flip every time he was called back. (The show lasted one season.)
10. HE AUDITIONED TO BE THE PHANTOM.
After Campbell had finished shooting Brisco in 1994, he got a call from the show’s co-creator and executive producer, Jeffrey Boam. Boam was writing a big-screen adaptation of The Phantom comic strip for Paramount and invited Campbell to screen test for the title role. Though he wound up becoming a finalist, the part ultimately went to Billy Zane. Coming on the heels of the Batman films, the role was coveted—but the film bombed.
11. HE MIGHT BE THE BEST REVERSE ACTOR IN THE BUSINESS.
To achieve some of the more surreal effects shots in The Evil Dead series, Raimi had Campbell employ a “reverse-motion acting” technique, which required him to perform in reverse so Raimi could play a sequence backwards. In 1992’s Army of Darkness, a miniature version of Ash is impaled by a fork: this required Campbell to begin the scene by dying, returning to life, getting a fork pulled out of him, then running. This difficult task became a Campbell trademark, but missed attempts would prompt Raimi to exclaim that, “This is some of the worst reverse-motion acting I’ve ever seen!”
12. He once had to carry dog food so wild animals wouldn’t eat him.
Campbell began work on a script he titled Man with the Screaming Brain in 1983. Financing opportunities were spotty, and production didn’t actually start until 22 years later, in Bulgaria. Directing and starring in the film, Campbell took note of the fact that the country was home to packs of wild dogs. To avoid being attacked, he kept dog food on his person to feed any creatures that came around looking for a snack.
13. He built a movie set on his property.
For 2007’s meta-comedy My Name Is Bruce, Campbell cut costs by erecting sets on his lavender farm near Medford, Oregon. “It’s so big I can’t take it down,” he told The Portland Mercury. “It confuses the hell out of delivery people—some guy comes up and he’s like, ‘I didn’t know there was a town [named] Gold Lick out here!’ My wife and I say, ‘Let’s meet out by the tavern!’ or ‘I’ll meet you in the livery!’ It’s a great conversation piece.”
14. He officiated a zombie wedding.
Campbell’s devoted fans have made him a frequent guest of horror and comic conventions, where they flash Evil Dead tattoos and plead for him to sign body parts. One couple took it a step further and enlisted the actor to preside over their zombie-themed wedding. The ceremony took place at ZomBcon 2010 in Seattle. Campbell, resplendent in a red suit, married the two, then supervised 40 other couples who wanted to renew their vows.
15. Army of Darkness paid him about $93,000.
To illustrate the plight of the working stiff actor, Campbell once provided a helpful breakdown of his salary for 1992’s second Evil Dead sequel, Army of Darkness. With a $500,000 salary nipped at by agents, managers, income taxes, and a now-ex wife, he figured he made roughly $93,000. But the film took two years to complete, meaning his net profit for portraying horror icon Ash in a major motion picture was less than $50,000 a year. No wonder he was in no hurry to return.
If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor, by Bruce Campbell
The Evil Dead Companion, by Bill Warren
An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.