From ‘Evil Dead’ to ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,’ this quintessential, ironic cult-movie icon has long been an antidote to the pomp and self-importance of modern-day blockbusters
When it was announced that Sam Raimi would be directing Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, his first film in nine years, the inevitable question on my most fans’ minds was, “So, Bruce Campbell is going to do a cameo, right?”
And now that the movie is out, I can safely reveal that, yes, Campbell does show up in Multiverse of Madness. (If you haven’t seen the film yet, I won’t say what his role is, but it’s fairly amusing — and results in an end-credits bit that, for once, is actually good in a superhero movie.) Campbell’s appearance isn’t surprising: The actor and director have worked together for years, most memorably on the Evil Dead trilogy, but Raimi has found things for Campbell to do in his subsequent movies, including Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man trilogy and (my personal favorite cameo of his) Darkman.
The Associated Press recently asked Raimi about his longtime bond with Campbell, who he’s known since they met in high school in 1975. “He’s like my long-lost brother, partner, most constant collaborator, friend,” Raimi said of Campbell. “We communicate so well. … He’s the guy that understands me more than anybody. He’s a real problem solver, and I find him to be a brilliant comedian and somebody that will do anything to be professional and make a movie as best it can be.”
The internet’s joy over discovering that Campbell is in Multiverse of Madness is to be expected but also a reminder of what an odd corner of the Hollywood ecosystem he occupies. A man best known for B-movies, funky indies and certified cult classics, the 63-year-old actor has made a career out of playing Bruce Campbell types — a cinematic role that really didn’t exist until he created it. A sarcastic sex symbol, an antitode to the self-importance of most modern-day blockbusters, he’s a walking raised eyebrow in defiance of Hollywood conventionality. And one of the reasons why people love him is that, even after all this time, they don’t have to share him with the whole world. Campbell is famous and successful, but he still feels like he’s ours.
Campbell and Raimi have been collaborating from an early age, starting when they were in the same drama class. “Sam was very much into magic, and I was his assistant at a couple of magic shows,” Campbell said later. “Then, I think Sam made a logical transition into film being the ultimate sleight of hand. … [T]here was a weird group of about six of us who wound up teaming up and making Super-8 movies on weekends — almost every weekend.”
From those experiments came 1981’s The Evil Dead, an intense, low-budget horror flick in which Campbell played Ash Williams, a college student out in the woods with his buddies, who accidentally summon demonic forces. “There wasn’t much acting required: You were cold, you were miserable, you were covered in blood,” Campbell recalled. “Some actors have to run around in circles, do push-ups, slap yourself in the face to get ready. We were miserable all day long; we were good to go.”
He portrayed Ash like a regular joe, except maybe slightly dumber. But Ash’s ordinariness always seemed a bit of a feint — after all, Campbell’s intense, almost over-the-top stares hinted that there was something deeply twisted about the guy. And although it took two years to film The Evil Dead, audience reaction suggested Campbell and Raimi might have something on their hands. “There was a lot more laughter than we thought, because of the over-the-top violence, because of the kooky dialogue, the cheesy acting,” the actor said. “[The audience] laughed at all kinds of stuff, and we were very happy about that.”
They laughed even more at Evil Dead II, one of the rare sequels to surpass the original. It’s also the film where Ash really became Ash, essentially repeating the plot of The Evil Dead but cranking up the Three Stooges-like mayhem to a delightfully demented degree. Evil Dead II often gets described as a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon — it’s a slapstick marvel that’s gory, funny and just plain weird.
And at the center of it all is Campbell, who contorts his face and body in such a way that anticipates the arrival of Jim Carrey a decade later. In one of Evil Dead II’s highlights, Ash battles his own right hand, which has been possessed by those demonic spirits that want to destroy him. Campbell is brilliant making his appendage seem like it’s working independently of his body — it’s an inspired screwball performance. “People make fun of these movies sometimes,” Campbell would say later. “They think you’re not working hard, or they think these low-budget movies are easy, or whatever. They’re so full of shit.” This viral tweet incorrectly stated that he improv-ed this whole scene, but that doesn’t diminish how incredible the end results were.
Ash wasn’t your typical hero, which he demonstrated further with 1992’s Army of Darkness, going back in time to once again vanquish the forces of evil. Campbell never took his eye off Ash’s B-movie charm — he was the sort of guy that earlier generations of filmgoers would see in garbage that played at the drive-in. Full of roguish charm and a sarcastic attitude, pitched somewhere between the muscle-bound heroics of an Arnold Schwarzenegger and the everyman appeal of a Bruce Willis, Bruce Campbell was the put-upon action star, and he cheekily approached Ash as if he were a low-rent replacement for whoever would ordinarily step in to defeat the bad guys.
Still, Ash was a pretty good ass-kicker — and that’s before he attached a chainsaw to the end of his arm. But where other heroes were, y’know, heroic, Ash’s bravery was always laced with snark — he saved the day, but ironically. Raimi’s cheap-o effects and exaggerated camera moves underlined the Evil Dead trilogy’s intentionally trashy, campy qualities — these films reveled in their junkyard disreputability — so it made sense that Campbell played the character with a bit of edge. Even when Army of Darkness was released through Universal, the trilogy thumbed its nose at Hollywood’s nice-and-tidy aesthetic. Campbell had the looks and the swagger of a movie star, but he acted as if he was too cool for the job — let some boring hunk do those square studio vehicles.
Campbell has worked steadily ever since, appearing in several Coen brothers films, as well as starring in the 2002 horror-comedy Bubba Ho-Tep. He was part of Burn Notice and led the quirky Western series The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. He’s written a few books, including the first of two memoirs, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor, and done some directing. And he’s consistently played up his deadpan, self-aware image as a cult icon without allowing himself to slip into self-parody.
In other words, when he needs to be dramatic, you buy it. Look no further than Raimi’s gorgeous 1990 pseudo-superhero film Darkman, which features Campbell in the film’s devastating final scene. As we reach the ending, the emotionally and physically scarred scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) flees from his true love (Frances McDormand), deciding he needs to disguise himself so she won’t go looking for him. He dons a mask and becomes Campbell, who slips out into the world undetected. For Raimi fans, it was a great callback to their collaboration on the Evil Dead pictures, but it was also a superb use of Campbell’s anonymous handsomeness. He could be anyone, but not someone you’d necessarily notice immediately. That’s the secret to Campbell’s genius in a nutshell.
Of course, Campbell’s mug is so recognizable — that prominent chin so distinctive — that he can’t “disappear” into roles like your average character actor. But he also doesn’t fall into the trap of playing himself, coasting on the audience’s good will. His part in Multiverse of Madness is short and funny, but also nostalgic — two old friends hooking up one more time, far removed from that tiny little movie they made in the woods in Tennessee with no money, figuring out how filmmaking even worked. Marvel films are such corporate entities that they barely have a personality, but Campbell brings a little goofy irreverence to the proceedings — he defies all algorithms. In an age of polished movie stars, he seems blessedly unpretentious, a true “dudes rock” dude having more fun than the A-listers.
In a 2015 interview with Reddit, Campbell looked back on his legacy. “I didn’t get into this to be famous,” he said, “I got into it to be an actor, and whatever happens happens. … Look, most people walk right past me on the street.” I have no doubt that’s true. In another universe, if things were different, you could see him being a big deal. Luckily, we live in this universe, where most people don’t recognize him. But if he walked by you, you’d probably freak out. Holy shit, man, that’s Bruce Campbell.