“Waiting for Dutch” was the name of this season’s Fargo premiere — and now the wait is over with tonight’s episode, “The Gift of the Magi,” when Bruce Campbell guest stars as Ronald Reagan in the FX anthology series. We meet a pre-POTUS Reagan on a campaign swing through tiny Luverne, Minnesota, where “Dutch” gives a stump speech for his 1980 presidential bid.
Groovy Bruce nails it as The Great Communicator. He’s got it all going on, from the charisma and palpable patriotism to the rosy cheeks and Brylcreem in his black pompadour. Not to mention Reagan’s velvet-smooth voice.
Campbell started working on that — just for fun — long before he landed the role.
“Everyone I knew imitated him,” Campbell said about the 40th president.
That includes Fargo executive producer John Cameron.
“We’re close friends. He’s the godfather of my son,” said Cameron, who beckoned his longtime pal to the Calgary set to shoot the fifth episode. “It was easy to pick up the phone and say, ‘You’re going to Canada.’”
Campbell and Cameron met in high school in suburban Detroit and worked together on The Evil Dead (1981) and several Coen brothers’ movies, including the 1996 Oscar-winning Fargo (Campbell made an unbilled cameo) that inspired Noah Hawley’s cable series of the same name.
“When the Reagan character became central to one of the episodes, it seemed obvious that Bruce had to play Reagan,” Cameron said, noting that it was Hawley’s idea. “He’s a fan of Bruce’s work.”
At the TV critics’ press tour this summer, Hawley talked about the Reagan storyline in season two, which began in Fargo’s typical offbeat fashion. The opening scene featured an outtake from a fake black-and-white 1951 movie titled Massacre at Sioux Falls. The actors, including a Native American in headdress and face paint, were killing time on the chilly set, waiting for the arrival of the film’s star: a young Ronald Reagan.
“The spectre of Ronald Reagan hangs over the movie because it also hangs over this time period, 1979, where post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, the American narrative becomes so complicated,” Hawley said. “These characters [in the opening] are standing around waiting for Reagan the way that America was.”
“Nobody knew if we could get out of this mess,” he added. “Then along came Reagan and said, ‘It’s not that complicated. We are Americans.’ And the country changed dramatically from the ’70s to the ’80s.”
Campbell filmed Fargo shortly before heading to New Zealand this spring to shoot Starz’s new series, Ash vs. Evil Dead.
“I had to grow my sideburns back after getting all trimmed up to play Reagan,” the actor said on the Southern Hemisphere set, rubbing his face with Ash’s prosthetic hand.
When we’re introduced to Campbell’s clean-shaven Reagan in Fargo, the future prez is humble-bragging about the many people he saved as a lifeguard in Illinois and wooing the crowd with lines from an actual 1979 speech announcing his candidacy.
Campbell fastidiously researches his roles, Cameron said, and the Reagan part was no exception.
“On his own dime and on his own time, he went to a studio and filmed himself doing Reagan speeches and sent them to us for comment,” explained Cameron. “He wanted to know what we thought of his expression.”
He got Hawley’s vote.
“We had a long conversation about the accent and the mannerisms, and I think he did an amazing job,” the Fargo creator said. “It’s really awesome.”
“The Gift of the Magi,” starring Bruce Campbell, airs tonight on FX at 10 p.m. Read season two reviews here.