Bruce Campbell interview: Hail To The Chin, Evil Dead, Spider-Man, Burn Notice, Jar Jar Binks

Bruce Campbell chats to us about his new book, snow in Britain, Sam Raimi, Evil Dead, and so much more...

Serendipity is a beautiful thing. At the beginning of 2009, when Den of Geek was still relatively fresh faced, Mr. Bruce Campbell was over in the UK to promote My Name Is Bruce, a film he directed and starred in that playfully skewed his own persona and we were fortunate enough to get some face to face with the man himself, having trekked through an eerily abandoned London in the midst of a freak snow storm, which you can read here.

For this particular writer though, it marked my first ever interview – a high point in itself, but with the added pressure of speaking to one of my all-time heroes. Consequently, due to Sir Campbell’s generosity and good nature during the process, it gave me the confidence to continue down that path and I’ve been forever grateful. In the years since, partly due to not wanting to tarnish the memory by risking a second encounter, we hadn’t crossed paths again, but since he was heading back to the UK to promote his latest book Hail To The Chin: Further Confessions Of A B Movie Actor, and I was fortunate enough to be offered the chance, how could I say no?

The interview ended up taking place just before he was about to head to Forbidden Planet for a book signing and as a result of a busy schedule, the location had been moved last minute from Titan Books publishing office, to his hotel. On arrival I was told to head up to the restaurant area, where I spotted Bruce with his assistant (as well as actor and stuntman) Mike Estes sat up to the bar. Having arrived early I apologized and introduced myself, offering to take myself elsewhere until the allocated time, but Bruce proffered a bar stool and as I sat, got me a beer and things flowed from there.

As a result, instead of the usual formalities, we ended up chatting for nearly an hour, so below is the core of the conversation – especially as there was often digression into talk of alcohol. Tequila is his “poison of choice”, though his description of Laphroaig whisky had me in hysterics during a mid-interview pause when referring to Mike as “Sucking on saddle fumes, he’s smelling the balls of the earth right there! It’s Sasquatch’s ball sack drippings. It’s a saddle that’s been rode hard and put away wet. There’s scotch and then there’s crack of the ass of the earth – you can quote me on that!”

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Hail To The Chin: Further Confessions Of A B Movie Actor is every bit the honest, insightful and compelling read that the first Chins book was, with Campbell’s unique voice making even home improvement entertaining, as it follows the next fifteen years of his career from Jack Of All Trades to Ash Vs Evil Dead. Though I thought I’d start our conversation by asking about the person who’s endured the most throughout his career, which he answered with his usual dry humour…

There were two things that really struck me about the book, in terms of recurring themes, and the first one was Ida your wife, and the amount of suffering by proxy she’s had to endure.

Yeah, I put her in the hospital. I almost got her arrested by Bulgarian police! She puts up with a lot of shit. It’s just because I’m so dynamic and amazing, it’s really what it is, that’s what keeps her coming back for more, otherwise she’d be married to some drip, rich attorney, some guy who couldn’t get it up, I mean you know…

An easy life!

She knows what she could be stuck with, so – I have a friend Danny Hicks, Danny’s like ‘You know what, my wife is never going to find anyone better than me’, he was convinced of that, he’s just a random friend of mine, actor friend of mine. He was utterly convinced of that. So, that’s my approach, she can’t possibly do any better… although she could, but it’s fine!

So, you’re relying on complacency?

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Smoke and mirrors. No, not complacency, with my wife what works is keeping her off balance. Like, she doesn’t like the same thing over and over again, so this provides that, but then she complains that about not having any kind of stability, I’m like ‘Well, careful. Careful for what you wish for!’ I’m a Cancer, I’m supposed to hunker down and never leave, but I’m never home, so that’s a great irony of my life.

Did you get to bring her to London for this tour?

Well, when you say ‘get to’, I mean, she picks her cities. She’ll go ‘You can have Gary, Indiana, I’m coming to London.’

That’s fair enough though!

Oh my god, what a great life she has!

It’s sort of weird having an informal setting to do an interview, I’m so used to the hotels and…

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Yeah, those are a bore.

Press rooms and things but…

Press rooms are a bore!

It’s funny because I’ve only ever spoken to you once before, nine years ago when you were over in London for…

My Name Is Bruce! With the snow storm.

It was the freak snow storm. 

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It was! How many inches did we get? It was either, we either got eleven inches and it was the most in seventeen years, or it was seventeen inches the most in eleven years – it was a long time. They were afraid the beer was going to run out throughout the city.

Oh really?

There were a couple of articles that were like ‘What would happen?’ because train operators couldn’t get to their stations to operate the trains. I mean, it wasn’t even like the trains couldn’t run, operators couldn’t get to the trains. It was amazing. That was my last time here. 

Was it really? 

Yeah, it was the last time I was here!

I should say, I owe you a debt of thanks because that was actually the first interview I’d ever done.

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Oh, that’s hilarious. 

And I had to go in and think ‘Ok, let’s see if I can do this’, but because that went so well, you actually gave me the confidence to go and do more.

Good! Good and I will be responsible for you getting out of the business… eventually. I know people who are very powerful in media. 

Oh I see, so you can get me fired?

Well, you said it not me.

[Laughing] So when did you decide that the time was right for Hail To The Chin, because technically it’s a second part to the first Chins book?

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To the trilogy.

There’s going to be a trilogy?

Oh yeah! Fifteen years, Final Confessions. George Lucas, eat your heart out man, I’ve got the original trilogy. No, it just evolved into that and it seemed like it was time. A lot of weird crap had happened. Business changed, I changed, move on in my life, it wasn’t the same old same old anymore, there was a different criteria for working, so by the end of act two, I’m ready for part three.

We’re also going to know really soon if they’re up for season four of Ash Vs Evil Dead, or not, on Starz.

Oh, is it that time?

Oh yeah, we’re within days now. 

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Because last time you were here, you just found out that Burn Notice had gone straight to the top of the ratings.

Burn Notice was doing well, yeah, that was a good run – that was a good seven year run. We tied Miami Vice. Miami Vice did hundred and eleven episodes and so did we. They ran fewer seasons, but they did more episodes per seasons. Those days they did twenty two. 

So was it just fortunate timing then that, by the time you knew that the second book was done, you could stick the Ash Vs Evil Dead chapter on the end?

Yeah, because I was going to end with Burn Notice – you always want to end on a big note (adopts nerdy voice) “Oh yeah we’re the number one show on cable!” and “Oh yeah everything’s great” – you always end it with that, always, why would you not? You don’t want to say (in a low register) “And then we got cancelled.” But this way I could tell the whole Burn Notice story, but the most important aspect was being able to literally crawl back into the womb. That was why ending on that note, to me, was way more important. I got to go back to the very beginning again. I started with Evil Dead, I may very well end with Evil Dead. That may very well be one of the last professional gigs I do and it was one of the first. 

With The Evil Dead, as you say in the book, you owe it gratitude but it almost seems to be a love/hate relationship – and those are my words obviously.

It’s more love than hate. It’s only hate because I’m actually more type cast by fans, than by my own industry. Within my own industry I’ve worked for Disney, multiple times, I did Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, I did Love Bug. I did a French film, La Patinoire, Gold Rush I did for Disney also. So I’ve done unrated, I’ve done Disney, lots of TV, but if that’s all you watch, that’s all you watch. If you’re a horror person, then you’ll only know me for that.

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I’ve done a western, I’ve played the King of Thieves, Hercules, Xena – I could go on.  So, I only get pissed off when people say “Hey how does it feel to be best known as…’ I’m like ‘Best known to you.’ I’ve got people who watch Burn Notice who didn’t watch Evil Dead. They wouldn’t watch that shit, they like spy shows. They don’t like gore. Not a lot of people did find out that the old guy on Burn Notice made weird movies when he was younger. That’s what cracks me up! [laughs and adopts nerdy voice again] “Oh I didn’t realise you made these weird movies when you were a young guy”, I’m like ‘Yeah well, there you go.’

Absolutely and I love that a point of reference will and should change depending on who you are. When I left this morning, to my three year old I was going to speak to Coach Boomer, because I like to give him a frame of reference for what I’ll be doing if I’m late back…

Absolutely, Sky High.

And so for him, Disney will be his first introduction.

Ours too.

Yeah, because as you say in the book – that’s why it was good to get a call from Disney because you, like everyone, grew up loving Disney – I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. The other recurring theme I meant to mention from Hail To The Chin was, I couldn’t believe how many times you’ve almost died!

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Oh yeah, the infections…

The arm infection and car accidents…

Yeah well, that’s life, isn’t it? Here I am. I’m still standing. My time’s not up yet!

Was it strange when you were writing the book and you put everything in succession, were there any themes that stood out?

Yeah, drive carefully. Always wear your seatbelt!

I think it’s quite telling that the older I’ve become, the more interesting it is to read about your home renovations, as it is about anything else.

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Well the guy who I was writing this with, Craig Sanborn, the guy who wrote the book with me, was like ‘Do you really want to put that in about the bureau of land management? You think they’re going to go “Whoopee!” and now we get to talk about the bureau of land management. So I’m like ‘I don’t know, it’s interesting to me.’

I do think it’s one of those weird things with age – when you’re younger you think you’re never going to take an interest in things like DIY, or gardening and then suddenly you hit a point where that changes.

Well it’s called perspective and maturation and you realise that what you do isn’t really the ‘be all and end all’, there’s other stuff that keeps you busy. I love getting involved in land use issues, it’s important, water shares matter [I think he says], it doesn’t matter who you are. 

You also make a point as well that, as an actor, you get used to having people do things for you [he laughs] and so when you moved out of LA and into Oregon, you were on your own, because I always felt like my dad in particular could do anything, you know? Take a car apart…

My older brother could do that!

He could do plumbing and electrics and I feel useless by comparison!

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Yep, my older brother can do any of that. Well, here’s what I say – do Army Of Darkness. That’s what I say to anyone who thinks that we either don’t have skills, or what we do is sort of superficial.

And by that do you mean read and research?

Well, actually it’s been kind of fun honestly to go back and to move out there and to re-establish skills too. So yeah, I do know how to blade my drive way now, so, I can do that but slowly. Yeah actors they do have a lot of stuff done for them, for sure. I’m not George Bush – George senior, George Bush didn’t know what a scanner was at a supermarket. 

Of course yeah, because he hadn’t been able to just go to the shops. 

He hadn’t been expected to shop for so long and he didn’t know what it was, he goes ‘Wow look at this!’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, you scan it.’ He was like ‘Wow that’s great!’ It was like sending the Royal family in there – same thing [puts on appropriate accent] “Hmm what’s this? Look at that! Wonderful!”

When you write about Sam Raimi, as he obviously comes up across various projects you’ve done, was it really a case of you ringing him and hassling him about being in every Spider-Man film?

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Only randomly – only for the first one, I was like ‘Sam, you’re making Spider-Man, there’s no way I’m not in that.’ I’m like ‘There’s got to be something, you have forty eight cast members in that!’ So yeah, occasionally I will, I’ll just go ‘Whaddya got?’

And Tobey Maguire was blissfully unaware of your working relationship!

After the second or third one he was sort of aware – I came back for the second movie and he was like ‘What you doing back?’ I’m like ‘Hey man, you’ll be gone one day, I’ll always be here!’

I guess depending on your own knowledge of the two of you and your working relationship, you almost take it for granted that everyone is aware of your history.

Yes and no – it’s really fun though working on say Oz The Great And Powerful, as Sam’s fun and starts trash talking me in front of everyone and I start trash talking him back and the crew gasped, because they don’t know who their day player is – a guy comes in to play a Winkie and starts talking back to this famous director – I laughed my ass off, it’s hilarious. They’re kissing his arse up one side and down the other, I thought it was hilarious.

But I find that whole thing surreal anyway, even from my perspective as someone that gets to do interviews, because a friend of mine who’s a horror director has finally had his career take off, but it’s taken twenty years of pushing and everything else that goes with it.

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Very often it does. 

And I interviewed him when he had a horror film out for Fox two years ago, so when I turn up and say I know the director and I’m going in to surprise him, they think it’s an assumed familiarity, not that you’re actually mates.

And you do know them. 

But they can’t get their heads round it, they look at it and think but he’s made a film and you’re writing about it – there can’t be a link.

It’s hilarious, I think. Well your friends are your friends, when they know this is all kind of funny. Your friends start taking us too seriously, that’s when you go… fortunately I haven’t had too many friends go crazy on me, some have though.

There’s a lot of recurring friendships that pop up across your career, even in Ash Vs Evil Dead… there’s suddenly…

Oh yeah, Ted’s (Raimi) back, everybody!

How did Walker Stalker go for you this weekend? 

Good, busy. I thought it was good idea not to come to the same place all the time. 

Of course, you were saying it has been nine years since you’ve been over here. 

It’s good to create a bit of a vacuum. It can get a little too much of like ‘Hey Joe, how you doing? if you come every year to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, at the same con, so I try to pace it out. If I’ve been to a city, I don’t really want to go back for three or four years. So, we’re going to do a tour for the trade paperback for this book in twenty nineteen in ten cities I’ve never been to before – or ten of my favourite cities.

That’s good, because going back to If Chins Could Kill – the map in the back of that, I remember was insane when we spoke about it before.

Fifty five cities. I’ll never do that again. Thirty five last summer, I’ll never do that again. I’ll probably never do more than twenty.  Twenty cities, three months, two, to three events a week and then after three weeks, you’ve taken ten days off, before you start again. So you learn many lessons on the last tour… we re-learned many lessons on the last tour!

So, this one is going to be slightly less, is this for just the UK?

Everything will be less from now on. Well this one is for four cities, four events, this is easy money. This is nothing. Mike and I we laugh at this tour! [chuckles] I mean we toured from mid-August to the first week in November, so this is nothing. But it’s great because I have not toured for a book in the UK period. I’ve released a book here through Titan, but I haven’t toured and done that whole business. Because I want to get into that, I want to establish that relationship with markets outside the United States. 

And its handy timing that it coincided with coming over for Walker Stalker…

[He makes a ‘hole in one’ potting noise and winks!]

[Laughing] Was it coincidence or a well-planned move?

It was not coincidence, because the Walker Stalker came up and then Dortmund, Germany came up and it actually started with Dortmund I think, so everything was wound up backing into Dortmund, then Walker Stalker came up and Mike reps me for doing appearances and we had done several Walker Stalkers in the States – they’re a great new company, relatively new, run a good ship, get a great turn out – so we thought Walker Stalker in London, shit yeah, let’s go do that.

Because you know this is the birthplace of Evil Dead, this is the cradle of Evil Dead – Palace Pictures, Steve Woolley, guys like that. They made it happen here, they premiered it at the Prince Charles Theatre, made it look like it was the fucking Poseidon Adventure. They went big, they didn’t make it seem like it was something they were embarrassed about, they were like [mock shouts] Evil Dead!

Yeah, because it was the attention here that got it launched in the States.

Yeah, then it got banned here, then there was the lawsuit and we came back and then in ’83 we were the number one video in the UK – The Shining was number eight.  [laughing]

I’ll underline that bit!

That was a beautiful moment. 

Yeah, I bet. 

I can’t… I’m not even going to lie to you. Suck it Stan! If you can compete with the big boys, that’s really all that really matters, you can compete – the little guy can compete with the big guy, that’s what that represented. There was no ‘fuck you’ aspect to it, even though you go ‘It’s fucking Stanley Kubrick!’ horror to horror, we went toe to toe. We didn’t even go apples and oranges with Stan, we went horror to horror with Stan.

So, that was fun to do, so England – Sam Raimi’s insists that we always refer to it as Mother England, because it is the birth of Evil Dead. We could not get arrested for it, we got no distribution deals before we got the deal here. And that’s when New Line Cinema, which I called New Lies Cinema, that’s when they went ‘Oh you know we always liked that movie.’ And so we then got a distribution deal because of here. And we thought that could be the opposite, we thought  they’d rip you off overseas, you make your money domestically. This was just the opposite, we did a deal with Thorn EMI, right when video was going crazy, they kept sending us cheques, we were like there must be some mistake, 

Aren’t you’re supposed to rip us off and we’re supposed to sue you? Whereas New Line Cinema they advanced us some money and we never saw another penny. So, we took the video money they were supposed to get part of and just didn’t share it and they never protested it. We were like okay, well that’s your admission of guilt, right there. ‘So how about this pal, you keep your money and we keep ours from video’ and I guarantee it was actually more than they made. ’83 was it, ’83 was the explosion of VHS, right around there, police were in our world. 

Of course, you were right of the middle of the video nasties ban with Mary Whitehouse and everything that came with it in this country.

Yeah it was amazing.

It created almost like an exponential want to see it – I remember being a kid at school trying to hunt it down.

Best PR ever. Ever. Don’t watch this movie – you can’t watch this movie. We’re keeping it from you. It’s not even that it’s a higher rating, you know? The UK is like ‘No, we’re banning it, you don’t get it, you don’t get to see it at all, not even in a truncated version’, so Sam came over, he was all prepared to testify in the court case. 

Oh really?

Oh he had a whole Frank Capra, you know “Your honour, here we are as filmmakers…!” He was ready to give a William Shatner speech, but they never needed him and then they won. So it got released and then everyone was like wow, I’ve got to see this. It made it worse than it was! And now, look at Evil Dead compared to some stuff, compared to Hostel.

I was just going to say Hostel, it’s funny that it took that long before there was a landmark like that, where suddenly everyone was like ‘that’s now the benchmark for splatter and nastiness.’

Yeah watching a guy’s dick in a vice for an hour!

[At this point we’ve been talking for half an hour on record, so I ask if he’d like me to end the interview as I’ve already had over my allocation of time and he tells me I can finish when I feel I’m done, which I’m always grateful for and was a nice throwback to our first conversation when he gave me extra time. “We’re fine, we’re fine, my Laphroaig friend doesn’t care!” he says gesturing to Mike, leading to the quote in the intro and then goes into an awesome breakdown of the history and geography of all kinds of booze from whisky, to gin, to rum and the measurements you get around the world when ordering – “Whenever the Queen is the money they get very funny about their alcohol!”]

So, we’re going to know soon about the show (Ash Vs Evil Dead), this will conclude my touring for this particular book in this form – after this it will be the trade paperback in 2019, so a tour for that and if the show gets cancelled, for the first time in probably twenty five years, I have a blank calendar coming up. 

And how does that feel?

Intentionally blank and it’s the most fantastic thing I’ve ever seen in my life. There’s a lot of stuff I want to do, but I’m going to shift over now. I’m going to get off the hamster wheel a little bit. Everyone has to make a living and make money, but now it’s time to redefine how to do that, because you learn what you learn over the first various decades and then you apply what you’ve learnt to what you want to do. And there’s stuff that I’ve just checked boxes: I don’t want to do this anymore, I don’t want to do that anymore. 

So you’re just going to have some down time? 

And also when you’re actually working, it’s like ‘I’m not looking at tennis balls on sticks anymore.’ That’s what this is, you’re not acting scene by scene – Mike and I saw a play two nights ago, you know here we are, actor and Mike does a lot of stunt work and TV himself – and so you’re used to doing lots of little tasty bits, a shot here, a shot there and you turn around, whip, boom, you got it – so you go to see a play in London, as we’re in the fucking theatre district and it was just such a joy to watch actors act.

One guy acts and the other guy acts and they get the react of each other and you get to watch the scene build, or not, whatever it is, you’ve got time to do that and those fuckers have got six weeks to figure that out, minimum – big shows, six, eight , ten weeks of rehearsal? Boy I wish I had that! TV shows they go “Hey, you’re Ken, you’re the bad guy? [shakes my hand to demo an quick intro] Let’s block out the final confrontation *dying sound effects* and then you die over here”. You’ve got about ten minutes of peace, you can chase the crew out of there and we would block the scene of the three of us talking and block it all out, but you’ve gotta do it quick and then you’re shooting.

So it’s always just nice to look at continuity when you see an actor just acting, and you watch them get out of breath, they sweat, they can’t stop – it’s awesome! And it’s important to see that, because we start to forget. The film business is a form of acting, it’s not the purest form, and if you get into special effects, sci-fi, horror – careful Robert Downey Jnr. you’re looking at a green screen, you’re looking at a guy with a stick for the rest of your life. “No, it’s over here. No, the world exploding is over here. Oh, no sorry, it’s over here now”.

If I never hear on a film set [nerd voice] “Three, two, one, GO!” because they’re setting up and attack and everything’s got to be timed because you’re up on a rig, or you’re up on a harness and everything has to happen at the same time. You know, how about “Action!” ready and action, no, it’s like “Three, two…” and everyone in each department cues up a different number. I’m done with that. It’s a very specific type of acting, it’s like techno acting. It’s like I should’ve gone into engineering school to do that kind of acting. ‘Hit this mark, turn here, look up’. Army Of Darkness was front screen projection, so they were calling numbers “34, 35, 36, 37…” for certain numbers you had to be in certain positions to match what was happening behind you on the front screen. Stupid.

Liam Neeson almost quit! He did one of the Star Wars movies with Jar Jar Binks and then he did The Haunting, back to back. And he was like ‘You know what? I think I’m done’. He was so disillusioned by that form of acting, he was like ‘This is horse shit, man’. ‘Jar Jar Binks, his tongue where? Oh, it’s not here? Oh, it’s here? Ok, so we have to go again ’cause the tongue is here? Got it. Ok, here we go.’ [does a little Neeson impression] Cut. ‘Did I get it?’ ‘No, you have to get a little higher.’ ‘How am I supposed to see it? Ok put a piece of tape on the wall, over there, so I can look up and know where I have to grab the tongue.’ I mean, fuck off. Fuck off – why don’t you grab the tongue? You grab the tongue! 

At least he managed to carry that kind of thing off…

Some actors can and some can’t! 

But it didn’t translate across the board in that film and you could tell people were struggling, it was just too much. 

If your directions from a director are always ‘faster and more intense’? I’m sorry man, that don’t cut it. Some directors have no idea what to say to an actor, not a clue.

No and I think that George Lucas was sort of infamous for that, he got so preoccupied with the special effects and everything else, that the actors were almost secondary.

Funny thing about that was he was sort of bailed out by the story – crappy dialogue, not great finesse with actors, great story. So in the midst of it, clunky this, clunky that, it didn’t really matter, because you’ve Jedi swinging through the air, blowing chunks out of concrete with their lasers [laughs], it doesn’t matter, cool stuff, classic story telling, classic. Classic hero, so that’s what saved that. 

Yeah and it’s interesting how you say in your book how Spider-Man set in motion B list concepts becoming A list properties, especially in terms of how Hollywood looked to then make money from its success.

Sam was a good choice to direct, because he really did read that – I didn’t. Sam was the right choice because he was used to tons of special effects, so you have to be able to kind of manage that too, you’ve got this huge canvas all of the sudden and that’s the thing about Sam, he was always too expensive for us, his ideas were always too expensive, Rob and I felt bad as producers, we’re always trying to play catch up, trying to help him. Finally he got to these A levels, where he can do the most ridiculous stuff ever.

That’s where he’s always meant for, Sam wasn’t actually meant for doing low budget movies, he did it because he had to, but he didn’t actually stay in that game that very long. Darkman – that’s a studio movie, 1989, that’s not that long after Evil Dead II. Warren Beatty looked at Evil Dead II to see whether Sam should direct Dick Tracy.

Oh, did he really? 

Yeah. So I know that Warren Beatty at his house had to watch Evil Dead II, with Molly Ringwald!

And on that note, we finally concluded the interview! Mr. Bruce Campbell, thank you very much.

Hail To The Chin is available now – come get some.

Oh and Luke, if you read this years from now, I want you to know what a dedicated father I am, as I left the chance to finish my beer alone with Bruce Campbell to race back to be with you when you were three, so count on me using this as leverage throughout your teenage years.