Actor Bruce Campbell made his name in deliciously schlocky B-movies like Evil Dead II and Maniac Cop, where special effects were almost as special as the acting, battling the supernatural and strange for the enjoyment of horror fans everywhere. Now, the cult-figure-turned-genre-icon is trying on non-fiction for a change. Hosting (and executive producing) the latest TV revival of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! on the Travel Channel, Campbell will be taking fans of the offbeat to all corners of the globe.
The natural evolution of P.T. Barnum’s sideshow performers continues to fascinate us, with plenty of psychological ties to why we love the oddball, goofy, gross, slapdash worlds of low-budget genre cinema. Now, the series that started a hundred years ago as a newspaper column is back on TV. What’s changed? The series’ premiere episode features YouTube stars and viral sensations-something that definitely wasn’t present in past iteration. What’s stayed the same? Everything is completely out of the ordinary. And of course, what can we expect from Campbell? Well, to answer that, Paste sat down with the actor sat down to discuss Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, empathy, and mountain biking.
Paste: How did you get involved with the show?
Bruce Campbell: Like anything, stuff comes across your desk and you evaluate it. One of the evaluations is “Have I heard of it?” One was Ripley’s and I went “I’ve heard of that,” and one was Travel Channel and I went, “I’ve heard of that.”
My last show [Ash vs Evil Dead], it was like no one knew what Starz was. They go, “Bruce, have you retired?” and I say, “No, I’m on my third season of a new show on Starz.” They go, “What’s Starz?” Oh no. Then it comes to Netflix and people are like, “Wow, a new show! I didn’t know they had a new show.”
But yeah, it was just a brand I was very familiar with. My only conversation with them, when it came to doing it was the tone. We’re not going to point fingers. No “ew” factor. We’re not going to use the f-word. No one’s a “freak.” These are extraordinary people, so we’re going to celebrate it. We’re not going to make fun of it or mock it. There’s no “us and you” situation. And they were all over that. That was already their tone.
Paste: I got to see the first episode and read the descriptions for a few more. I can’t wait to meet some of these folks.
Bruce Campbell: It’s gonna digitally curate the amazing. Ripley’s has a warehouse that’s probably top five in the world … we’re also taking more of a documentary style. We go into their living room and find out why a guy wants to transform into a parrot. Like literally. Physically. Including flying.
Paste: That’s uh-
Bruce Campbell: When you hear that your first instinct is to go “Well, he’s a freak.” But let’s go talk to the guy. Let’s find out what his deal is. I look forward to meeting them. As a host, I only did the wraparounds. But we’re going to San Diego Comic-Con on the 20th of July and we’re doing a panel. Now THAT’s a panel.
Paste: Ooh, your first time meeting your subjects.
Bruce Campbell: I’m gonna be nervous meeting them! I’ll be like, “Shit! You’re the guy that took a playing card and sliced an Oreo in half sideways through the cream.”
Paste: They take away business cards from him at security.
Bruce Campbell: Credit cards too! Anything rectangular. He could kill you at a press conference. He could kill you sitting at that panel.
Paste: If you were going to have your own segment, what would your special talent be?
Bruce Campbell: My special talent? Watching Lawrence Welk, his TV show. And riding my electric mountain bike.
Paste: What is an electric mountain bike?
Bruce Campbell: It has two wheels in the front. It’s called a Rungu. And it’ll go up a mountain. It’s pedal assist, but you can also use the throttle and that son of a bitch will go anywhere. I’m not a gearhead-I don’t like the gas and oil portion, the noise and all that crap-I just like cruising around on miles of old forest service roads. It’s a beast.
Paste: What’s the most impressive thing you’ve done on the bike? What’s your crown achievement?
Bruce Campbell: Riding from one city to another through the mountains, that’s my next goal. I have a route. It’ll be about a twenty mile route through the mountains. I just want to ride across the country.
Paste: I’d watch that show! And now you’re at the Travel Channel…
Bruce Campbell: Rails-to-Trails, that’d be my thing. I don’t like riding bikes on roads with jerks who cut me off.
These Rails-to-Trails take old rail lines and turn them into trails. They go for frickin’ miles between cities and the grade is like 2, 3, 4 percent because they have to allow for a train. So they’re perfect for geezers like me.
Paste: You’ve definitely had a long and storied career, some of which was spent hosting all sorts of things. Documentaries, horror compilations; what’s it like introducing subjects that are very real?
Bruce Campbell: Good. It makes it more substantial. Technically speaking, this takes me back to my formative years when I got my Screen Actors Guild card doing training films for car companies. Films you would never see because they were for Chrysler, doing cross-sections of the cars from Ford and Chevy, and explaining why Chrysler has a better seat for the ergonomics of that car. So I did training films for car salesmen on how to sell their cars for people.
Paste: I was going to ask you about that, because you’ve said before that those industrial films were “the toughest work” you’ve ever done because you couldn’t improvise or-
Bruce Campbell: They were! “MacPherson strut suspension,” you say shit like that all day.
Paste: Did you take anything away from that experience besides discipline in your delivery?
Bruce Campbell: Yeah, that some of this shit is actually hard. And nobody saw it! The hardest stuff I’ve ever done and nobody will see it.
Paste: Not yet. But we just have to find it.
Bruce Campbell: Find an old Chrysler salesman that’s about my age, about 60, and ask him if he saw any training films from the ‘80s. See if he has an ¾” videotapes.
I’m digitizing stuff, by the way. Digitizing all that old shit. I’ve got them in boxes and some of them physically can’t play anymore, so I’m sending them to restoration places in L.A. and then dumping them into the cloud.
Paste: As a host, you’re taking over not only for Robert L. Ripley himself, but figures like Jack Palance, Dean Cain-even Marie Osmond.
Bruce Campbell: Marie Osmond was a host? Of Ripley’s?
Paste: Yep, she guest hosted the ABC show in the ‘80s.
Bruce Campbell: What kinda shit are you talkin’, man? Really? She brought her own spin, I’m sure.
Paste: Yep, she guest hosted the ABC show in the ‘80s. And a Filipino basketball star hosted a version back in 2008.
Bruce Campbell: So I’ve got some big shoes to fill.
Paste: Exactly. Following all these figures, did you have a specific tone you wanted to bring with you as a host?
Bruce Campbell: Empathy. We’re not making fun of these people. We’re celebrating them. There are some stories that are hard to watch because of the difficulties these people have had. It all comes out in the wash when you see what they’ve overcome. Every actor wants to work on something that’s unique in its own way, and this show is. You won’t see anything like it on TV that has the same substance. You’ll see a lot of car crash shows, a lot of roadkill shows. But this one has the substance for the sizzle. Behind every crazy stunt is someone who has the dedication, the practice, the will to overcome ridiculous amount of fear.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! premieres on the Travel Channel on June 9.