John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, Bette Davis and Elvis Presley. And I knew somebody who actually knew them all. That still surprises me.
William Campbell (known as Bill to his friends) made his mark in such 1950s movies as The High and the Mighty (co-piloting alongside Wayne), Operation Pacific (a WWII tale, also with Wayne), The People Against O’Hara (on which Tracy gave him crucial career advice), Battle Circus (a Korean War story with Bogart) and Man Without a Star (as Douglas’ pal in a fine Western). Later, Campbell bedeviled Davis (as a tabloid reporter in one of my favorite films, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte) and played Presley’s brother (Love Me Tender). He was often a brash, cocky guy in pictures (Escape from Fort Bravo, Man in the Vault, etc.). His most important screen role may have been the lead in Cell 2455, Death Row, a convicted prisoner staving off execution day. He offered some good stories about his career in interviews published in Starlog #128 & #138 and our Official Deep Space Nine Magazine #8.
Campbell also had an unusual brush with history. His first wife was Judith Campbell Exner (who died in 1999). In her autobiography (Judith Exner: My Story, filmed as the TV movie Power and Beauty), she alleged romantic involvements with both reputed Mafia figure Sam Giancana and U.S. Senator/President John F. Kennedy. Now, I never asked Campbell about those not-so-good stories—it seemed a wildly inappropriate topic of discussion for me to broach with a friend—but he is quoted about the Exner-Giancana-JFK connections in a lengthy Vanity Fair magazine article.
His younger brother (who died in 2000) was a writer. Credited as R. Wright Campbell, he earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Man of a Thousand Faces (the biopic with one legend, James Cagney, playing another, Lon Chaney, Sr.) and co-scripted The Masque of the Red Death (the stylish Edgar Allan Poe adaptation starring Vincent Price). Years later, under the byline Robert Campbell, he wrote comedic mystery novels (his Jimmy Flannery books, which I read, were good stories, marvelous fun and highly recommended).
I first met William Campbell briefly as fellow guests at a Clipper Con held at a Baltimore waterfront hotel. At a subsequent Dreamwerks-sponsored convention in Syracuse, New York, I got to know him better. Dreamwerks promoter Jonathan Harris emceed the usual Costume Contest, which was judged, in this instance, by guests John de Lancie, Campbell and me. Campbell was incredibly lively on the judging panel—much to my and de Lancie’s amusement. He was dismissive of the contest’s meager awards, so he took out his wallet and peeled off several $20 bills to sweeten the pots—much to my and de Lancie’s astonishment. Were we expected to donate prizes, too? I was particularly chagrined, because in the mad dash to Syracuse, I left New York City with little cash on me.
A born raconteur, I recall Campbell spinning a yarn about legendary director Raoul Walsh (who had directed him in The Naked and the Dead and The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw). In the years when acting jobs became sparse, Campbell worked as an executive for a well-regarded charity serving Hollywood industry veterans, the Motion Picture & Television Country House & Hospital. Notably, he helped out with the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s big money-raiser, the Golden Boot Awards dinner (honoring, from 1983-2007, those who made past TV and film Westerns including actors, stuntmen, writers and directors). Decades after their two movies together, Campbell reunited with Walsh at (what’s also called) the Motion Picture Home. Walsh (who famously directed They Died With Their Boots On, a retelling of Custer’s Last Stand) was a patient there. "And I was at his side," I remember Campbell saying that evening, "when he died with his boots on." Did it really happen that way? Maybe not, but it makes a good story.
At another con in Silver Spring, Maryland, I shared a stage with Campbell, de Lancie and our mutual pal Trek novelist Howard Weinstein. Campbell provided a comedy sketch in which the Squire of Gothos (Campbell) shows up to address the antics of his mischievous student "son" Q (de Lancie) with a private school administrator (me) and Q’s teacher (Weinstein). We did it on stage as if a radio play (scripts in hand, no costumes, little rehearsal), and it was lotsa fun. At that con, Weinstein and I had dinner with Campbell, and I met his third wife, Tereza. She’s just wonderful (and they were married for almost 50 years). Later, I sailed on a SeaTrek cruise with them—and Campbell was again the life of the party, urging a few, more-introverted actors to loosen up.
And why not? He really was the most extroverted, the most outgoing guy I ever met. (And as someone who at times can be almost cripplingly shy, I certainly admire the gregarious.)
Sadly, in later years, Campbell had health problems, which slowed his exuberant nature. He died in 2011 while at the Motion Picture Home he had served so well. I’d like to say that William Campbell died with his boots on. Because it makes a good story.
David McDonnell, "the maitre’d of the science fiction universe," has dished up coverage of pop culture for more than three decades. Beginning his professional career in 1975 with the weekly "Media Report" news column in The Comic Buyers’ Guide, he joined Jim Steranko’s Mediascene Prevue in 1980. After 31 months as Starlog’s Managing Editor (beginning in October 1982), he became that pioneering SF magazine’s longtime Editor (1985-2009). He also served as Editor of its sister publications Comics Scene, Fangoria and Fantasy Worlds. At the same time, he edited numerous licensed movie one-shots (Star Trek and James Bond films, Aliens, Willow, etc.) and three ongoing official magazine series devoted to Trek TV sagas (Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager). He apparently still holds this galaxy’s record for editing more magazine pieces about Star Trek in total than any other individual, human or alien.
Copyright 2013 David McDonnell