Playing the Frankenstein monster was the smartest professional decision film actor Boris Karloff ever made. The same can be said for Bela Lugosi, who agreed to portray Count Dracula first on stage and then in the movies. But Karloff was in his mid-forties when fortune smiled on him, and Lugosi had just turned 50. By contrast, Bruce Campbell was just 29 when he became associated with the horror film franchise that would change his life.
As a teenager growing up in Michigan, Campbell was already acting and making his own 8mm movies when he met kindred spirit Sam Raimi in high school. The two became friends over their shared love of film and were soon creating increasingly elaborate productions with Campbell in front of the camera and Raimi in the director’s chair.
Their collaborations eventually yielded a 30-minute horror film called "Within the Woods." Campbell and Raimi thought the film could be made into a full-length film for theatrical release – if only they had the money to pull it off. They convinced family, friends and some Detroit businessmen to fund the project, eventually raising $350,000. The film, now called "Evil Dead," was completed in 1981.
The only problem was no theater wanted to show it.
Instead "Evil Dead" debuted in England on video where it rose to number one in 1983. After writer Stephen King pronounced it "the most ferociously original horror film of the year," New Line Cinema released it in the U.S. "Evil Dead" was so successful that it spawned a sequel, "Evil Dead II," in 1987 and another, called "Army of Darkness," in 1992.
In between those films, Campbell reveled in his newfound career, making appearances in Raimi-directed films such as "Crimewave," "Darkman" and "The Quick and the Dead" as well as films by the Coen brothers, John Carpenter and others. His hilarious bits in Raimi’s three Spider-Man films with Tobey Maguire and his portrayal of Elvis Presley in the horror comedy "Bubba Ho-Tep" are further indications of why Campbell has such a huge B-movie fan following.
Campbell will be in Milwaukee on Saturday, Sept. 28 at The Pabst Theater in support of his new book, "Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way." He’ll tell stories from his career and take questions from the audience after a screening of "Evil Dead II." Prior to the show, though, Campbell shared some life experiences with OnMilwaukee.
OnMilwaukee: You began your career as an actor, but since then you’ve become a screenwriter, an author and a producer as well as doing voiceover work for animated films and video games. What’s your professional title?
Bruce Campbell: It’s easiest to just call myself an entertainer. It covers all that stuff you just mentioned.
I know you work very hard at being Bruce Campbell, but you make it all look effortless.
It’s pretty simple. I love what I do. Yes, I work hard, but that’s the only way to get where you want to go. Was I lucky? Sure, to a certain extent – but working at something is more effective than luck. People can talk themselves out of anything if they want to. "Oh, I’m not smart enough" or "I’m not good enough." Nobody’s talented at first. I just figured it out.
Is that how you and Sam Raimi got to make the "Evil Dead" film?
I think we benefitted immensely from being together at that time. And we had a little group of friends that traded off working on each other’s movies. Remember: We grew up in a time when a kid could be a kid. Those were the days when you’d leave the house in the morning and show up again around supper time. We were free-range kids. No programmed activities, no cell phones, no computers and, most importantly, no fear. We weren’t afraid to fail. We were just motivated. Period.
You must have been motivated because the money you raised to make the film was a sizable figure at that time.
You bet. But we had a plan and we stuck to it. We chipped away at it slowly but surely. One of our friends had a lawyer in the family, and through that connection, we learned how to raise money the right way. We formed a legal entity with investment contracts, and we sold shares. No bullsh*t. This was all above board. For $5,000, you could buy a half share; for $10,000, a full share. $5,000 was the minimum buy-in. My mom bought in – and you know what, every year she gets a check for $11,000, and she’s gotten one like that for the last 40 years. I’m proud to say that all the original investors in "Evil Dead" have made 35 times their money back as of today.
Your mom gets $11,000 every year?
That’s right. I called her a few months ago and asked what she bought with the money this time. She was so excited because she bought new Anderson windows for her house!
As an actor, you’ve worked for A-list directors like Sam Raimi and John Carpenter. What’s it like being on their set?
Well, Sam’s a friend, of course, and I’ve worked with him a lot. But on the set, he’s all business, a real tough guy. The first day of a shoot, he’ll be yelling at everyone – including me – making sure that every little thing is in order. By the next day, he’s calmed down, and it’s more like we’re pals again.
I only made one film with John Carpenter: "Escape from L.A." He was deadly serious on the set. He gave me one direction on how he wanted me to play my part and then walked away. I never spoke to him again.
Do you depend on relationships like those to get your next job?
To some extent, sure. But I’ve amassed a body of work in film and TV that speaks for itself. I used to go to all the parties in town, but I quickly realized that Hollywood is full of phonies, and they all go to those parties too. When I’m talking with someone, I want them to look me in the eye, not be constantly glancing around the room to see who just came in. I’ll do a legitimate audition for anyone that’s interested in casting me for a part, but I don’t like playing the games. I moved to Oregon in 1998 so I didn’t have to be in Hollywood on a daily basis.
At one time, you had a project called "Bruce vs. Frankenstein" in pre-production. Is that one still going to happen?
(Laughs) I’m not sure. "Bruce vs. Frankenstein" was conceived as a sequel to "My Name is Bruce," which was a spoof of the stuff I’d done to that point. I wanted to make this one like "The Expendables" of horror films and get as many stars as I could to be in it.
What can the audience expect at the Milwaukee show next week?
There’s the screening of "Evil Dead II," which was the promoter’s choice. That’s consistent. But when I get on stage, it all depends on what the audience wants. Some of what I’ll talk about will be extensions of things I’ve done at Comic-Con, but I don’t ever want to be boring so I let the fans take the show and the discussion where they want it to go.
You have a new book about things that have happened since you wrote "If Chins Could Kill." Will you talk about that at the show?
Of course! "Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way" is my first novel. I’ll be signing copies for everyone. (Laughs) At the conventions, I sign quite a few boobs too! My hand used to shake when I did that, but over the years, I’ve gotten rather good at it. It’s like eye surgery. I’ve only blown a few.
If you hadn’t gotten the opportunities afforded you by the success of the "Evil Dead" franchise, what might you be doing for a living now?
I love the outdoors. I’d be a park ranger, yelling at kids to stop smoking dope in the forest!