He was educated in private schools of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and for a brief period studied law.
Cambell's newspaper career began on the Pittsburgh Post, and before he left that city he had become editor and part proprietor of the Pittsburgh Leader. In 1869 he founded and edited the Southern Monthly Magazine at New Orleans. When he began playwriting in 1871, he definitely retired from journalism, as his standards forbade him to continue as a dramatic critic while he was producing plays. After a sensational drama Through Fire (1871) and a social comedy Peril; or, Love at Long Branch (1872), he became associated with R. M. Hooley in Chicago, in the development of Hooley's Theatre, which became the chief rival to McVicker's Theatre as the home of legitimate drama. Campbell directed the plays, many of which were his own. His Fate (1872 - 73), a domestic drama, which opened the house, was played in London at the Gaiety Theatre in 1884. Among his other dramas were Risks, or Insure Your Life (1873), The Virginian (1873), and On the Rhine (1875), a play of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Campbell took his company to San Francisco in 1875, appearing at Maguire's Opera House, and anticipating in his Bulls and Bears (June 7, 1875), an adaptation of Gustav von Moser's Ultimo, Augustin Daly's version of the same play, which arrived on July 19. During this summer season Campbell met Bret Harte and Mark Twain, became a member of the Bohemian Club, and received the inspiration for his best play. In 1876 he produced The Virginian at St. James's Theatre in London, and while there wrote A Heroine in Rags (1876) and How Women Love (1877). The latter, a play laid in and near San Francisco, was later rewritten as The Vigilantes; or, The Heart of the Sierras. After a verse tragedy, Clio (1878), laid in Italy in the twelfth century, and revived in 1885 on a large scale at Niblo's Garden, with music by Operti, Campbell wrote his most significant play, My Partner, produced at the Union Square Theatre, New York, September 16, 1879. It celebrates, with sincerity and skill, the friendship which, in the frontier days in California, often sprang up between two men associated in hardships and in success. The scene in which Joe Saunders pleads for reconciliation with his murdered partner, who is apparently sitting with the divided gold beside him, is one of the most powerful in American drama. My Partner held the stage for many years, was performed at the Olympic Theatre, London, April 10, 1884, and was played for about fifty nights at the Residenz-Theater in Berlin, beginning September 15, 1884, Campbell attending the rehearsals. While My Partner was a great success, Campbell received a royalty of only ten dollars a performance, so he determined to produce his own plays. The Galley Slave (Chestnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, September 29, 1879) was a vigorous melodrama, with a European scene, which ran for eighty-three nights at the Wilhelm-Theater in Berlin in 1881. Fairfax (Park Theatre, Boston, December 8, 1879), a romantic play of the South, has some effective character drawing. It was written for Lester Wallack, but, when a disagreement with him arose, Campbell walked out of the theatre with the play. More melodramatic was The White Slave (Haverley's Theatre, New York, April 3, 1882) which contains the lines, "Rags are royal raiment when worn for virtue's sake, " deliberately planted by Campbell for their melodramatic effect. Siberia (California Theatre, San Francisco, November 26, 1882) portrays the terrors of exile for the Russian patriots of that day and each of its six acts possesses a telling climax. In Separation (Union Square Theatre, New York, January 28, 1884) Campbell's theme was the puritanic prejudice against the theatre. In his last play, Paquita, produced at his own theatre on Fourteenth St. , New York, August 31, 1885, he laid the scene in the Southwest and built up a play upon a situation in which a surgeon is called upon to save the life of the lover of his wife. Foreign recognition came to him to an unusual degree, but his reputation has suffered from the fact that, except for one unimportant play, Little Sunshine (n. d. , first performed in 1873), his dramas have not been published. In ten years he made and lost a large fortune, and in the effort to write, direct, and produce plays his mental powers broke down. In November 1886, he was committed to the State Hospital for the Insane at Middletown, New York, where he died.
Campbell was tall, with a dignified bearing and with the aspect of a scholar.