You'd think that if an actor making his major motion-picture debut in a starring role brought a date to the screening, she'd be all starry-eyed and flush with romance after the closing credits rolled. But if your name was Gunnar Hansen, you were playing Leatherface, and the movie was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, things might turn out differently.
They did. "After the movie was over, she began looking at me very strange, like I was about to do something to her," Hansen remembers. "She was scared."
That was in the early '70s, of course, when Gunnar Hansen was just another UT graduate with an English degree. He'd done a little acting, and heard that director Tobe Hooper was casting a horror movie to be filmed in Austin. The part of Leatherface had already been cast, but when the actor slated for the part got very drunk, holed up in a hotel and refused to come out, the six-foot-four Hansen was given the nod.
And thus was born a pop icon. Hansen had expected Chainsaw to be just a cheapie horror flick, but when critic Rex Reed called it the scariest movie he'd ever seen, Johnny Carson denounced it on TV and audience members across America vomited during screenings, he knew it was something bigger.
Hailed as "the mother of all meat movies," Chainsaw changed the way that horror films were made, introducing a thoroughly modern menace: a brutal, silent butcher who had ingenious (and often downright gross) ways of dispensing with horny teens amid cascades of blood. For better or worse, Leatherface begat Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees and that Scream killer.
Leatherface brought Hansen recognition (both good and bad: A woman he'd never met once told him, "Sixteen people were killed in New York today ... and it's all your fault"). But the role didn't make him a star. He was offered shots at all three of the dismal Chainsaw sequels, but the money, he says, was "insulting." Besides, he prefers to bask in the untarnished sheen of the original.
Today, Hansen lives in Maine and works as an author/filmmaker. He's starting work on a documentary about a fishing community and is seeking a publisher for a book about accused serial killer Henry Lee Lucas.
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"If I have any fame, it's a very small fame," he says. "But it is very affirming. It's strange, but a lot of people like me even though they've never met me. There's even a biker bar that I go into where they won't let me pay for my own drinks."
The Hell's Angels picking up Leatherface's tab? Now that's a scary thought.
-- Bob Ruggiero
Gunnar Hansen will appear at The Fear Factory, 901 Rosalie, on October 16, and at The Haunted Hotels I & II, 2800 block of Fannin, on October 17. Ticket prices, times and attractions vary (he'll autograph power tools at both locations). Call 521-1907 or 759-9866 for more information.