“Jack of All Trades is like a gourmet meal for goofballs. If you took a dash of Wild Wild West, add a dash of Get Smart on top, and a garnish of F Troop, and a helping of Moonlighting… that’s what you’d get.”
Back when I started this website, one of the first articles I wrote was about The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., headlined by cult hero Bruce Campbell. The series is one of my favorites, and the show got an unfortunate early demise despite its wild adventure and comedy mix. There’s a reason the article for it was called “Just under over-the-top”, as it described perfectly the fun tone and presentation. But Bruce Campbell has done much more in his career, and there’s one other show he later did which fits on this site. The show is called Jack of All Trades… and it abandons all pretense of being UNDER over-the-top. Here, there’s no longer any subtlety involved… and in this case, that’s a good thing.
In the 2000 series Jack of All Trades, we meet Jack Stiles (Bruce Campbell), an entertaining rogue if ever there was one. A former spy (or “secret agent”, before the term was popularized), he worked for the early US Government during the Revolutionary War, and was now entrusted with preventing the formerly allied French from gaining a foothold in a slowly building America. Despite their differences (and there are many), he teams with a British agent, the lovely Emilia Rothschild (Angela Dotchin), and they establish themselves on the tiny East Indies island of Palau Palau, hoping to fight the enemy French from within their own colony.
In order to fool the French, Jack pretends to be the manservant of the regal Rothschild, while Emilia takes on the bearing of a respected member of society’s elite (and supposedly on the side of the governing French). She and Jack are really there to spy on their mutual French enemies and foil their plans for world domination. And while there’s an obvious attraction to each other, neither is used to taking any orders from someone else, and both sexual tension and friction are played in equal measure amidst the rollicking adventure.
To help with fighting the French, Jack also takes on the alias of the legendary Daring Dragoon, a supposed local legend and masked hero. Using both covers as Emilia’s attaché and the local populace’s fascination with the “reappearance” of the Dragoon, Jack and Emilia embark upon their true mission: opposing the brother of Napoleon, Governor Croque (Stuart Devenie), and Croque’s personal lackey, Captain Brogard (Stephen Papps). Our heroic pair then proceeds to foil various plans and schemes of others, including many historical figures like Bonaparte himself. In reality, Emilia is often Jack’s assistant instead of the public portrayal as his superior, and she’s also rather adept at mechanical invention, coming up with various devices to foil villainous plots along with the swashbuckling of Jack’s Daring Dragoon.
Captain Brogard: “So, we meet again, Mister Fancy Sword and his flowing cape.”
Jack (as the Dragoon): “Give me some credit, will ya? You know how hard it is to wear this thing and still look dashing?”
Between the Zorro-like pastiche of the Dragoon, the deus ex machina of some of Emilia’s machines, and the general lack of historical accuracy given in the production of the series, there’s no two ways about it: Jack of All Trades was designed purely as an action romp, complete with cartoon character villains and plot holes big enough to drive war cannons through. But that certainly didn’t stop the show from being entertaining, and that was the whole point.
From the opening, you knew this show was different. The rousing theme song features a large cast, clever lyrics, explosions, dancing pirates (even one with a peg leg, on a table no less), and a talking parrot. Subtlety be damned, this was in-your-face joyful fun. It did such a fine job of setting the scene and demonstrating the style of the series, it was nominated for an Emmy! Jack of All Trades was no place for sensitive drama or introspective scripting, and the theme alone let everyone see just what they were in for.
And the show delivered on that promise, at least most of the time. There is some good role reversal going on between Jack and Emilia and the roles they have to play for the French leaders in order to keep their true identities hidden, and whenever Jack dons the garb of the Daring Dragoon Bruce Campbell simply shines. Stories included numerous French attempts at conquest with Napoleon Bonaparte, a meeting with explorers Lewis and Clark, and faking the death of one of the principals to clear the name of the Dragoon. And just when you thought the show couldn’t get any crazier, they broke out the Marquis De Sade, and a sex-game based triathlon ran in pseudo-fetish costume (or at least as “costumed” as television could get in the year 2000).
Governor Croque: “The Marquis de Sade is my second cousin, twice-removed.”
Jack Stiles: “I can see why you removed him.”
Trying to be true to the actual setting of 1800 was a lost cause, and even became a running gag at times. Canada was constantly mistakenly(?) mentioned as being under French control instead of British, and historical characters visited Palau Palau even though their own “real” timelines never had them near the place (or even alive at the time). Jack of All Trades was never designed for the remotest attention to detail or reality, it was simply designed as silly, fun entertainment. And that’s just the way Bruce Campbell wanted it.
“I have a good time. It’s one of the reasons I took Jack of All Trades. It’s like a guarantee that I will have fun every day .”
Modern audiences might know Campbell from his current run as sidekick/mentor Sam Axe on the USA series Burn Notice. He’s played the part since 2007, which is easily the longest running regular gig he’s had in television, although he’s known for many others. He was an occasional guest (and fan favorite) as Autolycus on both Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and sister series Xena: Warrior Princess, both of which were shooting in New Zealand before and after his stint in Jack of All Trades. I’ve mentioned his star turn in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. previously. He’s also had a movie career which includes the cult favorite Evil Dead/Army of Darkness movies, cool zombie pictures that became influences on the current television hit The Walking Dead.
Campbell is a successful bestselling author, with tongue firmly in cheek, writing the semi-autobiographical tomes Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way and (making fun of his chiseled good looks) If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor. He knows his niche, and while he’s possessed of great dramatic skills when they’re necessary (a stunning two-part Homicide: Life on the Street comes to mind), his personality and desire seems to be more in line with poking fun, both at himself and others, with the characters he plays.
He’s also become associated with good friend Sam Raimi, a producer of film and television who has used Bruce in many of his vehicles (as listed above), but considers Campbell his “good luck charm” and will find small roles for him in various films. Whether he’s a wrestling ring announcer or a French waiter, or his part ended up on the cutting room floor, Raimi wouldn’t make a film without him.
Fortunately, the aims of Jack of All Trades dovetailed with Raimi’s needs, and the series was shot utilizing some of the resources Raimi had already set up for Hercules and Xena in New Zealand. The monetary exchange rate was excellent at the time, and a production which would cost millions of dollars in Hollywood only cost a bit over half of that down under. An added plus was locations and scenery that simply wasn’t available in California, especially when you’re trying to replicate (even inaccurately) a South Sea island like Palau Palau. The only real problem was time… but not in the way you might think.
When Jack of All Trades premiered, it was paired with a futuristic series called Cleopatra 2525, and sold as a set known as the “Back-to-Back Action Pack”. It was also sold as only a 30-mintue program, with Cleopatra 2525 filling the other half of the hour. Once you remove the necessary commercials (as they pay for the production), and the elaborate opening credits and any end credit sequence (required by various unions, no matter how they’ve been shrunk on modern-day shows), you’re left with an actual available running time of only about 20 minutes per episode, if you’re lucky.
That may be enough for a typical situation comedy, with a modest plot set primarily in a living room or office. It becomes a terrible burden, however, when trying to make a period show set on a South Sea island, with multiple characters foiling elaborate schemes, plus character relationships and secret identities, not to mention trying to add action/adventure qualities with an over-the-top comedic tone. Jack of All Trades really tried to be exactly that: a show which presented all types of things to all people, in the name of entertainment. But ultimately it couldn’t do everything it had hoped, primarily because of the time constraints.
But at least it had fun trying. And perhaps “fun” is the one quality most important in any show, for viewers, cast, and crew. And, as the opening credits sang, if you didn’t know that… you don’t know Jack.
BRUCE CAMPBELL (Jack Stiles) and his career are detailed in the article itself, but mention should be made of his recent trip overseas to visit US troops during the recent Iraqi conflict, and of his brother Don’s involvement. Don has almost 30 years of experience in the military, and the brothers support each other in their endeavors. Bruce has appeared at multiple sites in support of the troops, and Don has helped with some of the military-related roles Bruce has played over the years. Entertainment takes many forms, and is especially valued by those whose hard work helps make us free to enjoy those moments.
AMANDA DOTCHIN (Emilia Rothschild) is a native of New Zealand, and her career has been primarily down under. She’s best known there for the Lawless series of TV-movies, where won awards for her portrayal of a private investigator. She left the acting business a few years ago and moved to Great Britain, where she now makes a living in the fashion industry.
STEWART DEVENIE (Governor Croque) is another New Zealand actor, and a favorite of director Peter Jackson. He’s had an extensive theatre career as both an actor and director, and taught acting at the New Zealand Drama School. He also founded the Playfair Ltd. theatre company, based in Auckland.
STEPHEN PAPPS (Captain Brogard) also appeared in both Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess before joining Jack of All Trades. Continuing his acting in Australia and New Zealand, he was seen in America most recently guesting on Legend of the Seeker (which filmed, like Hercules and Xena, in New Zealand).
Jack of All Trades has been released on DVD (although there aren’t any extras included), so you can enjoy all the fun and adventure for yourself. Bruce Campbell has his own site, of course, full of information about his previous projects, his current stint on Burn Notice, and upcoming appearances at various conventions around the country. He may be a self-confessed “B-movie” actor, but many would love to have his career, his fans, and his popularity. On his site, just as in Jack of All Trades, you can see why.
No matter what the Hollywood power structure might believe as a business, for viewers television will always be primarily an entertainment medium. One which is invited into our homes, as a part of our everyday lives, to bring us both dramatic and humorous moments to make our existence more interesting or, at the very least, provide an outlet for escape. Depending upon the scene and the episode, Jack of All Trades did this well, with likable characters and humor, in a setting and style seldom found on most programs.
Much of the credit has to go to Bruce Campbell, for although he’s a self-proclaimed B-list actor, he’s been a welcome part of many productions, and his executive producer credits on both Jack of All Trades and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. meant his trademark humor was more than evident. It only proves that, even though he plays a supporting role on the current Burn Notice, when the series was tapped for a special TV-movie, it focused upon his character and his backstory before the show continuity began.
Campbell may not be a star in the strictest Hollywood sense, but for those who appreciate his humor and dedication, he’s one of the brightest stars in both television and movies. He doesn’t have to master Hollywood, especially when he can become popular on his own terms. To those who love his work, he’s already a Jack of All Trades, and a master of entertainment.
22 half-hour episodes — none unaired — available on DVD
First aired episode: January 22, 2000
Final aired episode: December 2, 2000
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central? Perhaps, but not likely. Since the series was syndicated, it aired at various different times on different stations who bought the rights. It also was known to flip-flop with Cleopatra 2525 at times, occasionally airing before it, and occasionally airing after.
(By the way, this didn’t fit in the article, but I found a picture that’s the very definition of “cult hero”: Here’s Bruce Campbell, wearing Clan Campbell tartan dress, posing with Conor Macleod’s Highlander broadsword, in front of statues of Robert the Bruce and William “Braveheart” Wallace, at Edinbrugh Castle in Scotland.)
Comments and suggestions are appreciated, as always.