Gunnar Hansen, who played one of the most iconic figures in the history of cinema, Leatherface in Tobe Hooper’s 1974 “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” died Saturday of pancreatic cancer at his home in Maine, according to USA Today. He was 68.
Hansen, who was born in Reykjavik, Iceland and moved to the U.S. at age 5, got his first acting role as the iconic, mentally impaired cannibal, Leatherface in 1973.
Hansen spoke about his role to Entertainment Weekly back in 2013 and it appears that this was no mere acting gig. Hansen was at times required to wield an actual working chainsaw, despite having limited vision because of the masks his character wore. “Anytime Leatherface was cutting on anything it had teeth,” he said. “It was very dangerous. I had no idea how dangerous it was until later, after the movie came out, when I was living in the woods and chopping up wood to heat the house.” He goes on to say that although the film was a great success, he saw very little by way of payment or residuals due to alleged financial irregularities on the part of the movie’s distributors. He recalled that his first check following the release of the film was for a mere $47.07. “We made virtually no money,” said Hansen. “My shooting salary worked out to two dollars an hour.”
The low budget film was produced for under an estimated $84,000 according to IMDB and used a cast of unknowns drawn mainly from central Texas, where the film was shot. The limited budget forced Producer/Director/ Tobe Hooper to film for long hours, seven days a week, so that he could finish as quickly as possible and reduce expenses on equipment rentals.
The film’s violent content, made it difficult for Hooper to find a distributor. Louis Perano of Bryanston Pictures eventually purchased the distribution rights. Hooper limited the onscreen gore in hopes of securing a ‘PG’ rating, but the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rated it ‘R’. The film faced similar difficulties internationally where upon its October 1974 release, the film was banned outright in several countries. Numerous theaters later stopped showing the film in response to complaints about its violence. While it initially drew a mixed reception from critics, it was enormously profitable, grossing over $30 million at the domestic box office according to Box Office Mojo. It has since been re-assessed by critics and is now viewed as one of the best horror films in cinema history spawning the lucrative film franchise. Rotten Tomatoes now gives it an 88% Fresh rating, a testament to it’s lasting impact.
Surviving Gunnar Hansen is his partner of 13 years, Betty Tower.
Trivia per IMDB:
The human skeleton in the house at the end of the movie was a real human skeleton. They used a real one because a human skeleton from India is far cheaper than a fake plastic skeleton.
When it was first released, the film was so horrifying that people actually walked out on sneak previews for it.
According to John Larroquette, his payment for doing the opening narration was a marijuana joint.
Marilyn Burns, whose character was chased by Leatherface through the undergrowth, actually cut herself on the branches quite badly, so a lot of the blood on her body and clothes is real.
The soundtrack contains the sounds an animal would hear inside a slaughterhouse.
Even in his lift boots, Gunnar Hansen could run faster than Marilyn Burns, so he had to do random things when chasing her through the woods (you’ll notice in one head-on shot that he starts slicing up tree branches in the background).
The close-up of Leatherface cutting his leg on the chainsaw was the very last shot to be filmed; the actor was wearing a metal plate over his leg, which was then covered with a piece of meat and a blood bag.
Gunnar Hansen wore three-inch heels so that he was taller than the rest of the cast, but it meant that he had to duck to get through the doorways in the slaughterhouse.
“Entertainment Weekly” magazine voted this the the second scariest film ever made, behind The Exorcist (1973)
Due to the low budget, Gunnar Hansen had only one shirt to wear as Leatherface. The shirt had been dyed, so it could not be washed; Hansen had to wear it for four straight weeks of filming in the hot and humid Texas summer. By the end of the shoot, no one wanted to stand near Hansen or sit next to him during breaks to eat lunch because his clothing smelled so bad.
Leatherface’s teeth were prostheses made especially for Gunnar Hansen by his dentist.
Despite the obvious implications of the film’s title, only one victim is killed by a chainsaw.