This morning I awoke to the saddening news that Gunnar Hansen had passed away at the age of 68 after a prolonged battle with pancreatic cancer, the same disease that claimed the lives of Bill Hicks, Luciano Pavarotti, Steve Jobs, Dizzy Gillespie, and Joan Crawford. Hansen’s name was very familiar to horror fans around the world, but many of those who recognized his moniker never quite knew what the man actually looked like, though we all remembered his face….in a way.
Hansen was an actor and author whose life began in Reykjavik, Iceland on March 4, 1947. At the age of five, he moved with his family to Maine, where he lived until he was 11. That’s when the Hansen clan packed up and headed for Austin, TX, where Gunnar would attend Austin High School and later, as an English major, the University of Texas at Austin. That is where Gunnar’s date with cinematic immortality would ultimately occur when he answered a call for actors to join the cast of an independent film preparing to enter production in the area. The film was originally titled Leatherface (or Stalking Leatherface, as Hansen himself has claimed), and at one point it was briefly retitled Headcheese, but after its completion it would be given the title that has helped cement its reputation as one of the most terrifying motion pictures made since the invention of movie cameras….The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Being a soft-spoken giant who understood the importance of refusing to overplay a part, Hansen handily won the role of the film’s chainsaw-wielding monster Leatherface, later to become one of the reigning iconic villains of horror cinema. He reportedly went the extra step of studying the movements and mannerisms of children with special needs in order to better under the character he was to play, because although Leatherface was a towering menace with a power tool expertise that could not be denied, deep down he was a frightened simpleton afraid of disappointing the somewhat better-adjusted members of his twisted family.
Under the direction of Tobe Hooper, calling the shots on the one true masterpiece of his filmmaking career, Leatherface became a legend of horror the moment he first appeared on screen at the close of one of the genre’s greatest “Don’t Go in the House” set-pieces. One of TCM’s disposable Lone Star lamewads decides to wander into a dilapidated homestead out of sheer curiosity and is greeted with the cordiality of a Nazi sniper by the Sawyer clan’s top butcher. The camera pans up as Hansen’s intimidating form practically fills the frame and Leatherface, the stuff nightmares are made of with his curated human flesh mask in place, responds to the intruder’s presence by whacking him on the head with a sledgehammer, dragging the unconscious dope into his makeshift slaughterhouse, and slamming the door shut with a reverb-shattering impact. It is an entrance that most mainstream movie stars would kill for and in fact go their entire careers without encountering.
As an educated man of letters whose true passion resided in the written word, Hansen considered acting more of a passing interest than a passion. After The Texas Chainsaw Massacre unexpectedly became a blockbuster at the global box office, he dabbled in the craft a little more by taking the role of Professor Peckinpah in the Michigan-lensed indie fright flick The Demon Lover, but the experience soured Hansen on acting for the next decade. It wasn’t until Fred Olen Ray came calling with a choice villain role in his classic B-movie Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers that he finally decided to give a life in front of the camera another shot. Playing the leader of a murderous cult that worships the destructive power of the chainsaw, the role gave Hansen the perfect opportunity to both spoof his most famous movie character and expand his acting chops considerably. He played the crazed cult leader with the erudite calm of a James Bond baddie, giving certain lines of dialogue a pulpy zing by choosing to underplay his delivery to quietly hilarious effect.
In the wake of Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers’ laudable success thanks to healthy video rentals and appreciative midnight cult movie screenings, Hansen started to become a fixture in the world of indie horror and a regular presence at conventions around the world. His future screen credits would include Campfire Tales, Mosquito, Hellblock 13, Hatred of a Minute, Chainsaw Sally, Murder-Set-Pieces, and Steven Mena’s goofy farce Brutal Massacre: A Comedy. In 2013, Hansen made a triumphant return to the franchise that made him a silver screen icon when he took a small but pivotal role in Texas Chainsaw 3D, a gory and gimmicky attempt to make a direct sequel to Hooper’s seminal 1974 masterpiece. The flick was a minor hit with horror fans looking for a cheap thrill in the blistering cold of the early winter months, but it was hardly the bloody good homecoming longtime admirers of the twisted Texas Chainsaw Massacre saga had been hungrily awaiting. Regardless, it was the first time a film featuring Gunnar Hansen had played on thousands of theater screens the world over since he initially donned the terrifying mask of Leatherface, and with any hope Texas Chainsaw 3D enabled audiences to desire to seek out the groundbreaking original and witness for themselves what a real horror film looks like.
Hansen’s first published book was 1993’s insightful travel memoir Islands at the Edge of Time: A Journey to America’s Barrier Islands. Two decades later, he chronicled the making of the film that made him a legend and gave the world one of its most enduring horror cinema monsters in the book Chain Saw Confidential. On the convention circuit, Hansen was always a warm and gracious presence who gave his countless fans the same respect and appreciation they showed him. He appeared in several documentaries about the original TCM’s making and cultural impact, including the wonderful Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait (1988), Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth (2000), and Flesh Wounds: Seven Stories of the Saw (2006). The latter two can be found on Dark Sky Films’ 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray release of TCM. Hansen has also been interviewed for a documentary about the 25th anniversary of the original Night of the Living Dead and an episode of A&E Biography about the real-life unofficial Leatherface inspiration Ed Gein, and in 2009 he was a judge on a horror-themed episode of Food Network Challenge.
Ask anyone who met Gunnar Hansen in person and they will all likely tell you the same thing: that he was a really cool guy, friendly and fun, and a genuine pleasure to talk to about almost anything. He was the kind of person the world really needs, but even though he is gone now, the man left his mark on the world by portraying the scariest monster in the history of modern cinematic horror and embracing the performance and the fans who loved him for it. Tonight he joins his fellow TCM cast-mates Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, and Jim Siedow in the great beyond. Rest in peace, Gunnar, and thanks for the nightmares.