He was a sensitive big lug: an actor and a poet whose imposing figure, 6′ 4″, 300 pounds, and size 14 feet, hid an aesthete able to churn out a 240-page meditation on American barrier islands. But Gunnar Hansen’s artistic bent didn’t prevent him from, quite improbably and to the outrage of many moral critics, gaining great fame playing a cannibal who carved up victims with a chainsaw and made masks out of their faces in a notorious cult horror film.
Now, Hansen is gone. The actor best known for his portrayal of Leatherface in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is dead of pancreatic cancer at 68, his agent, Mike Eisenstadt told the Associated Press, calling Leatherface “one of the most iconic evil figures in the history of cinema.”
Leatherface was created in the boiling hot Texas summer of 1973, when a group of mostly young, mostly inexperienced filmmakers and actors gathered north of Austin to film a gruesome story under grueling conditions.
Hansen, a native of Iceland who moved to Maine as a child and ended up writing poetry as a graduate student at the University of Texas, was there on little more than a lark. Out of school and “freshly fired” as a bartender, as he wrote in the memoir “Chain Saw Confidential,” he wanted to “do a little acting and see how movies are made” despite his fear of public speaking. One of his few prior roles – that of doomed lug Lennie in a campus production of “Of Mice and Men” – at least proved he could play looming and large.
“I needed a job and I thought this would be an interesting one,” Hansen wrote. “How many people can tell their friends that they were once in a horror movie, even some obscure thing no one ever heard of?”
The plot of “Texas Chainsaw” – later called an allegory for everything from the Vietnam War to the Manson family to the OPEC oil crisis – is, at least on the surface, pretty straightforward: A family of flesh-eating crazies terrorize youths stranded in rural Texas, particularly the scantily clad women among them. Hansen would take the role of Leatherface, so named for his penchant for wearing masks of human skin, a la notorious serial murderer and frequent horror-movie inspiration Ed Gein.
In his first meeting with Hansen, director and future horror master Tobe Hooper explained that Leatherface was not all there – that he was mentally challenged, and, though he could wield a chainsaw viciously, he actually got a lot of abuse from the rest of his crazed family.
“He didn’t really talk, though he did grunt and squeal like a pig at times,” Hansen said he was told of the character. “Could I squeal like a pig? I would learn, I said.”
After a bit of nail-biting, the big man with the big feet got the gig.
“Later I found out the reason he hired me was that when I came for the interview, I filled the door,” Hansen said. “I was the tallest and widest person who interviewed for the job.”
Before production, Hansen entered method-acting mode. He visited pigs to perfect his squeal. He spent time at a school for the developmentally disabled. And to build stamina for chasing co-stars with a chainsaw, he started jogging. The actor prepared, and cast and crew decamped to the Hill Country to commit their squalid tale to celluloid. And there, the real suffering began.
“Shooting in the van was a misery for the actors and the crew,” Hansen wrote of one scene. “It was July in Central Texas, with high humidity and temperatures hovering on one side or the other of a hundred degrees every day.”
The heat was just one of many brutal factors. Money was tight. Shoots were long. Sometimes, scenes in the script were changed or, worse, merely notional. Dialogue was sometimes improvised or, when not, less than Shakespearean. And the set, dressed with macabre dead-animal sculptures ostensibly created by Leatherface’s family, stank.
Oh: Hansen’s prep hadn’t included wielding the power tool that would become the preferred weapon of horror baddies. The actor had to run around with this thing that could actually kill people pretending to kill them. And it had to look real.
“I had never handled a chainsaw,” Hansen said. “Which is good. Good in the sense that I would have refused had I known.”
“I thought you were going to really hurt me,” co-star Marilyn Burns – who played the only character to survive the massacre – said of one scene. “. . . You couldn’t see through your stupid mask.”
Strangely, as inhabited by Hansen, Leatherface became somewhat of a sympathetic character and the film’s star. Yes, he’s a murderous psychopath who can’t really speak and attacks women. But unlike mute, masked killers who would follow – perhaps most significantly, Mike Myers of “Halloween” – Leatherface, somehow, seemed down on his luck. This is perhaps best seen in his dance of frustration at his final would-be victim’s escape – a dance much parodied on YouTube – during which Hansen, frustrated by the merciless production, imagined killing his director.
“The sun was setting,” he wrote. “I started to dance. I raised the saw and revved it into a snarl. I spun. I saw Tobe and took aim. This time he was going to have to stay out of my way.”
Those critics who weren’t calling “Chainsaw” complete dross saw something special.
“‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is as violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises – a real Grand Guignol of a movie,” Roger Ebert wrote at the time. “It’s also without any apparent purpose, unless the creation of disgust and fright is a purpose. And yet in its own way, the movie is some kind of weird, off-the-wall achievement. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective.”
“Chainsaw” became an improbable blockbuster that started an epic battle over profits in which Hansen, who had a piece of the film, was a peripheral player.
“The worst part for me was not that I made little money from the movie – I had not expected to make any at all,” he wrote. “The worst was that, whatever amount the movie made, there should have been enough for everyone.” (According to Box Office Mojo, the movie, with an original budget of $60,000, has earned $30 million.)
This wasn’t just a B-movie, it turned out. It was a Film – one eventually selected for the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.
“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a perfect horror film,” one blogger wrote in 2013. “From an aesthetic and narrative standpoint, it is one of the most emulated genre films of the last half century. It has its roots in the bloody chamber archetype, the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale and the literary notion of the Bluebeard. Put simply, it is the cinematic incarnation of the most primal fear mankind experiences, that of being captured and eaten by an animal more vicious than ourselves.”
After “Chainsaw,” Hansen did not embark on a storied acting career. He appeared in horror films, including a chainsaw sequel. He was a regularly on the “Chainsaw” nostalgia circuit. He lived in Maine. And he wrote a gentle meditation on the Eastern seaboard in which chainsaws were not prominently featured.
“The water was shallow out to the ridge, and I saw two men wading across, shining their flashlights into the water, netting fish,” he wrote in “Islands at the Edge of Time: A Journey To America’s Barrier Islands.” The daylight was almost completely gone; only some blue remnants lingered in the western sky, enough to reveal the dark shape of the ridge against the brighter water. The sky was clearing. Saturn, massive and bright, was already visible. Here is what stayed with me: The two fisherman casting their lights back and forth at their feet seemed to be walking on water.”
But amid such musings, Hansen would not deny the legacy of Leatherface.
“Even if it had been nothing, I would have been proud of it,” he told USA Today. “Because we tried so hard to do something good.”