Michael Campus dies at 80; director of inner-city cult classic 'The Mack'

Michael Campus dies at 80; director of inner-city cult classic 'The Mack'
Michael Campus, left, Soviet writer Alexander Gelman and producer Derek Hart in 1990. Campus, director of "The Mack," has died at the age of 80. (Robert Gabriel / Los Angeles Times)

It's hard to image two films more different than "The Mack" and "Thomas Kinkade's Christmas Cottage."

"The Mack" (1973) is a gritty, violent tale of mean-street Oakland pimps, often decked out in wild '70s fashions, that has become a cult classic. "Christmas Cottage" (2008) is a small-town, super-sentimental story about the painter whose once-popular works were mass-produced and sold in suburban malls.




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But there is a common thread. Both films were directed by Michael Campus.

Campus, 80, died May 15 at his home in Encino. The cause was melanoma, said his wife, Arla Dietz Campus.

Even fans of hip-hop music who've not heard of "The Mack" have probably heard snippets from its scenes. Dialogue from the film was sampled in songs by Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre and Ludacris, among many others. In addition, the film was referenced by performers such as Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg and by filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who wrote it into his script for 1993's "True Romance."

"Far from being one of the many cliched blaxploitation movies that only serve the purpose of historical parody," said USC professor Todd Boyd in a 1995 essay for The Times, "'The Mack' is in fact a narrative that combines the nuances of African American folklore with the ambition of Horatio Alger."

Campus believed that "The Mack," which was shot on location, has endured because it strove to truly portray inner-city struggles.

"It was a slice, a fragment of life in America at that time," he said in the 2002 documentary "Mackin' Ain't Easy," about the making of the movie. "I think the power of the film is the fact that we told the truth."

Lines from "The Mack" — such as "You're gonna have a bankroll so big, when you walk down the street it's going to look like your pockets got the mumps" — have lived long past the initial, limited first-run of the film that starred Max Julien and Richard Pryor and was reportedly made on a budget of about $250,000.

Several years before directing "The Mack," Campus, the white son of a New York physician, worked on television documentaries around the world, sometimes in the midst of armed conflicts.

"Documentaries really prepared me for 'The Mack,'" Campus said, "because Oakland was a battleground and you had to be really prepared for anything."

Campus was born March 28, 1935, in New York. He earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin, then served in the Army. In television, he worked on films for ABC and CBS.

His first feature as a director was the futuristic "Z.P.G.," which led to his being hired for "The Mack." He spent two months in Oakland before the shoot began, immersing himself in the local scene.

The filming endured multiple crises, including when a check given as a payoff to the Black Panthers bounced. Soon thereafter, the set was bombarded from on high. "Bottles, glasses, anything you could throw comes raining down from the roofs," Campus said. The camera was temporarily confiscated because the rental wasn't paid, and Pryor — who sometimes didn't show up for filming — at one point punched Campus so hard that the director almost passed out.

"The fact that the film even got made is a miracle," Campus said.

"The Mack" was trashed by mainstream critics when it opened, but audiences in black neighborhoods embraced it, and Campus went on to direct another film with African American themes, "The Education of Sonny Carson."

He directed several more films in the 1970s and then worked mostly in television, overseeing specials. Several film projects fell through over the years until a chance meeting in the mid-2000s at a restaurant in Carmel.

"At the next table was a lovely couple," Arla Campus said. "It was Tom Kinkade, and he was very interested in Michael's work."

The Campuses, along with Kinkade and his wife, are listed as producers of "Christmas Cottage," about a young Tom Kinkade making a painting that helped save his mother's home from foreclosure.

Though "Christmas Cottage" had stellar actors, including Peter O'Toole and Marcia Gay Harden, it went straight to video.

After that, Campus looked to regain his street cred. Among the projects he was trying to get made during the last years of his life was a feature about the filming of "The Mack."

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his brother, Peter, a noted video artist in New York.

Twitter: @davidcolker