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Everybody Remembers Evil Dead, But Burn Notice Was Bruce Campbell At His Best

Some actors were simply born to play the iconic roles for which they're most notable. Adam West was the perfect Batman, for instance, and it's impossible to imagine anyone else playing Arthur Fonzarelli but Henry Winkler. Let's not forget Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, or Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator. 

Bruce Campbell, meanwhile? He was born to play Sam Axe.

Wait, wait! Don't rev up your chainsaws, "Evil Dead" fans. Obviously, the role that Campbell is most associated with in popular culture is, and will forever be, Ash Williams. His legacy and that of the "Evil Dead" franchise are inseparable, despite Campbell's decades-long attempt at separating himself from his iconic role following 1993's "Army of Darkness." And while he eventually did wield his boomstick again for the three-season long Starz series "Ash vs Evil Dead" — and it's undeniably true that his grit and vulnerability help make Ash a memorable and beloved figure in horror — it was in "Burn Notice" that his acting truly shined the most.

Truthfully, there's something special Campbell brought to the role of Sam Axe that feels beautifully tailor-made for him, to the point of surpassing even Ash's funniest quips. Campbell's witty, devoted, hard-nosed, and soft-hearted performance helped bring millions of eyes to "Burn Notice" during USA Network's iconic "Blue Sky" era, when action dramedies like "Psych" and "Suits" drew scores of devoted viewers to the channel,  and years from now, Sam might just be looked back on as the best character Campbell ever played. 

Sam Axe was the role Bruce Campbell was born to play

Sam Axe is a bunch of different things to the many "buddies" who know him. To the numerous rich women he seduces for favors and money, he is a charming (if aged) sugar-baby happily living off their charity. To Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar), he is a perpetual thorn in her side, always jockeying for Michael Westen's (Jeffrey Donovan) attention and getting in the way during team missions: their closeness grows gradually over the span of the show until they're very close compatriots. To "Mikey," Sam is a running buddy — the man he'd trust with his life, but also the guy who took money to inform on him to the government. To Michael's mom, Madeline (Sharon Gless), Sam becomes both a drinking buddy and a close friend. To Jesse Porter (Coby Bell), Sam is first a rival, then a close friend — a partner in shenanigans. And to the clients Michael takes on, Sam can be a source of comfort — and is always a source of justice.

Bruce Campbell embodied all these facets as "Burn Notice" raced through its seven-season run, and he tackled the task with breezy, confident ease that suggests he was born to play the part. From beginning to end, Campbell manages to nail Sam's vulnerable side and his cool, tough, Navy SEAL side without breaking a sweat. He makes it seem as natural as the falling rain and cool as a glass of freshly mulled mojitos. It's the kind of range Campbell is rarely called upon to use, and proof that he has layers as a performer.

Sam was witty -- and his partners help make him that way

At the core of Bruce Campbell's combination of heart and humor when playing Sam is his ability to make the audience laugh. Sam's not only a playboy and a good sailor — he has a natural wit. He's the kind of guy who looks at a sports magazine while being bedded down by hostile soldiers, sees the name "Chuck Finley" on the cover, and claims the man's name as his own personal secret identity. He thinks fast and fights, as Campbell once said, like Fred Flintstone, relying on his fists, his undercover acting skills and intelligence instead of weaponry for the most part.  

Sam's humorous moments come via snappy repartee, as opposed to either Ash-like one-liners, or Campbell's real-life tendency to poke and prod his audiences and interviewers to goad the right responses out of them. Sam's funny because he has incomparable partners to bounce off of — the extremely dry sense of humor of Michael Westen, whose deadpan reactions to Sam's more outlandish life choices are comedy gold. Fiona, too, gives Sam the perfect partner in banter, fighting his fire with fire of her own. In the show's early seasons, this leads to objects and barbs being thrown. With Jesse, Sam is a regular Bud Abbott to Porter's Lou Costello: they develop a two-pronged attack on Michael's enemies that's twice as successful as anything they could accomplish solo. Campbell has rarely gotten the chance to banter with anyone but himself in the grand majority of his projects. "Burn Notice" finally gave him people worth ribbing and actors who could match him joke for joke, and the end results were delightful.

Bruce Campbell's worn dozens of faces, but Sam remains the most human among them

If Sam's many layers and his sharp wit don't convince you that Sam Axe is Bruce Campbell's best role, then take a look at the quick twists and turns he has to survive during episodes like Season 6's "Game Change," in which Sam gets shot and nearly dies. 

He only survives his wound because of Michael and Fiona's quick-thinking intervention — in this case, giving him mouth-to-mouth when he flatlines. Michael even provides Sam with a crude transfusion of his own blood. The episode requires Campbell to go from quippy to serious as Sam's condition becomes more and more grave, bookended by action sequences that require him to run and gun. Parts such as Autolycus of "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and "Xena: Warrior Princess" Brisco County Jr. may have allowed Campbell to be emotional, funny, two-fisted and quippy, but in no other role does he ever have the chance to be this believably needy and vulnerable, all the while keeping Sam's rough and tough edge present. He pulls it off in spades, demonstrating that he's a far more talented actor than his B-movie reputation would suggest. 

Don't believe it? Watch "Burn Notice," and Sam will prove it to you himself.