Bruce Campbell. The man, the myth, the mighty chin.
In the realm of cult cinema there is no greater name than his. Bruce embodies all the great qualities we look for in our cinematic icons: talent, personality, wit, charisma, humility, grace, and honesty. He may never be accepted in the Hollywood circles like so many before him who got their start in B-movies and then forgot about where they came from, because Bruce will never betray his roots or his massive, well-deserved international fanbase. Any movie he’s part of, be it a clever cameo (the Spider-Man movies) or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit part (the last shot of Darkman, The Demolitionist, several recent Coen Brothers flicks), is all the better for his presence alone, but Bruce has more acting talent than his extensive resume of Sci-Fi channel flicks, failed television shows, and countless convention appearances would reveal to the uninitiated.
Here’s a list of Bruce’s 10 best performances in film and television, in the humble opinion of this writer.
10. JACK FORREST–Maniac Cop/ Maniac Cop 2 (1988-1990)
Far removed from the dark forests that surround the Evil Dead cabin, the Chin found himself pounding a beat on the mean streets of New York City in the first two installments of William Lustig and Larry Cohen‘s Maniac Cop franchise. As a dedicated cop framed for the murder of his wife Bruce keeps his own in a cast of exploitation gods among insects including William Smith, Richard Roundtree, Robert Z’Dar, and the one and only Tom Atkins and manages to create a cool and relatable hero without the brilliant cheeseball one-liners of his previous characters. Further proof of Bruce Campbell’s ever increasing versatility as an actor.
9. JACK STILES–Jack of All Trades (2000-2001)
Reaching into his massive bag of tricks Campbell was able to play an endearing hero who was both a dashing rogue and a clueless buffoon as the fearless American secret agent sent to a South Pacific island in the early 1800’s to stop Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest of the region with the assistance of a fetching British colleague. To keep his agenda covert in the face of the French army Jack commits acts of sedition under the guise of a famous hero known as the Daring Dragoon. Jack of All Trades bit the dust too soon because it’s a heady brew of everything we could ever want from a Bruce Campbell TV series. An entertaining guilty pleasure.
8. AUTOLYCUS, KING OF THIEVES–Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-1999)
For many their first exposure to the greatness of Bruce Campbell came courtesy of his recurring appearances on the hit syndicated series executive-produced by Sam Raimi and Evil Dead producer Robert Tapert. Playing the charming rogue Autolycus, Bruce got to charm the ladies and embody the dashing swashbuckler every guy likes to daydream of being. He also got his first taste of directing by helming several episodes of both shows, and as a result he eventually turned to features with Man with the Screaming Brain and My Name is Bruce.
7. THE SURGEON GENERAL OF BEVERLY HILLS–Escape from L.A. (1996)
Sure we all love Bruce as the hero, but most times the villains are way cooler to play from an actor’s standpoint. In the belated sequel to his post-apocalyptic action classic Escape from New York director John Carpenter gave the Chin a great twisted baddie to play even if it was for only a single scene. The Surgeon General of Beverly Hills is a complete freak and sadist mutated by his own cosmetic procedures into resembling those hopeless fools with too much money endlessly seeking perfection until they look like horrific parodies of their former selves. Bruce gets to flash that sick little smile as he fondles women and aims a scapel at Snake Plissken’s one good eye. This is a monster you’ll find yourself alternately creeped out and amused by.
6. CARL–Running Time (1997)
You won’t find the pratfalling goofball Bruce we all know and love as the mastermind behind an intricately-planned heist in this entertaining experimental crime drama that was directed by his old friend from Michigan Josh Becker (who would later direct Bruce in the immortal bad movie classic Alien Apocalypse). The entire movie takes place in real time with a series of ten-minute-long takes that require Campbell and his fellow actors to be on their game all the time, and like the seasoned badass he is Bruce more than adequately rises to the challenge with a solid and sympathetic performance as the master thief who must think fast when his plan for the perfect crime goes wrong in every conceivable way.
5. SMITTY–The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
As Bubba Ho-Tep proved, whenever Bruce was matched up with actors of the highest caliber he could always be counted on to rise to the occasion with his performance, and as the fast-talking reporter Smitty in the Coen Brothers’ stylish comic fantasy the Chin found himself co-starring with the likes of Tim Robbins, Paul Newman (Rest in peace), and the lovely and gifted Jennifer Jason Leigh who he shared most of his scenes with. As is typical with the Magnificent One he demonstrates to be more than a wisecrackin’ demon killer or a macho doofus with a rapid-fire performance of hilarious verbosity that could be straight out of an old Howard Hawks comedy.
4. RENALDO THE HEEL–Crimewave (1985)
In Sam Raimi‘s follow-up to the original Evil Dead Bruce was originally slated to play the heroic lead as the script, which Raimi co-wrote with the Coen Brothers, was crafted to his particular brand of humor. The Hollywood studio assholes disagreed and forced Raimi to cast a no-name schlub as the lead instead and relegated Bruce to the secondary role of Renaldo, a smooth-talking lothario who could charm the pants of your mom. Naturally the Magnificent One takes the part and proceeds to not only steal every scene he’s in but put the scenes in an offshore account in the Grand Cayman Islands. From blowing a smoke ring in the shape of a beautiful lady to sweet talking any lady who wanders into his field of vision, Renaldo may be a hopeless heel but with Campbell behind his lascivious smile he’ll always be the coolest heel in the room.
3. BRISCO COUNTY JR.-The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1993-1994)
Bruce the kid who grew up idolizing the stalwart gunslingin’ heroes of his favorite westerns finally got to play one himself in this addictive Fox sci-fi/comedy/western that only lasted a single season before the lack of an audience drove it to a premature death (but then again Fox has never had much success on Friday nights — see Firefly). As the fearless Brisco, Campbell got to ride heroes, draw on the bad guys, and sweep a beautiful lady into his arms in nearly every episode like the Cary Grants and John Waynes of yesteryear. He got to be the cowboy every boy has dreams of becoming, and at the same time solidified his status as a god to geeks everywhere.
2. ASH– The Evil Dead trilogy (1981-1992)
Ash, the S-Mart (“Shop smart! Shop S-Mart! You got that?!”) wage slave with the chainsaw appendage he uses for killing vicious demons from beyond the grave, is the role that earned Campbell his status as a horror icon. There have been heroes in horror before Ash but Bruce’s combination of charisma, action hero wit, and zombie slayin’ brio made his character stand out from the pack. He’s also the rare hero to undergo a strange evolution over the course of his series, from frightened dork who has to grow a pair to survive a demonic onslaught (The Evil Dead) to the egotistical jackass who must grow a brain and a heart to survive (Army of Darkness), and that certainly can’t be said for his franchise contemporaries.
1. ELVIS PRESLEY– Bubba Ho Tep (2002)
I could have gone with the obvious choice for number one, but I relegated that to the number two spot because Bruce’s turn as an old Elvis Presley with a bad hip and a cancerous dick stuck in a rat trap Texas nursing home who teams up with another oldster who believes he’s John F. Kennedy to take down an ancient soul-sucking Egyptian mummy is by far the performance of his career. The combination of Don Coscarelli‘s masterful direction, Joe Lansdale‘s wonderfully sweet and grotesque short story, and the presence of the late, great Ossie Davis as “Jack” helped the Chin raise his acting game to a whole new level. As a rock ‘n’ roll legend faced with the prospect of dying alone and racked with regret for his past sins, Campbell’s Elvis is a lost soul who seeks redemption and rises to become the hero he always knew he could be. A great performance headlines a classic cult film.
HONORABLE MENTION: MAKE LOVE! (The Bruce Campbell Way) Audio Book
Playing himself in a madcap adventure into the world of big-budget Hollywood flicks, Bruce turned his best-selling foray into fiction into an addictive six-hour audio play and heads a sprawling cast of characters (voiced by the same four or five people, including Ted Raimi). The Magnificent One never loses his cool (although occasionally he does lose his grip on reality) as he is put through the physical and emotional ringer in his pursuit of mainstream respectability while alternately being pursued by socially inept movies stars, demanding hotshot filmmakers, scheming studio executives, and the United States Secret Service. A hilarious Tinseltown meta-adventure that laid the groundwork for My Name is Bruce.
So there you have it folks. He may be sniffed at by the mainstream media and the Hollywood acting elite who are in this game simply for the giant paychecks they willingly prostitute their limited talents for. But no matter what he does, from an Evil Dead videogame to a series of Old Spice commercials, one thing’s for sure: Bruce Campbell will always be a giant where it counts….to us.