Gunner Hansen, the 300-pound Icelandic-American poetry journal editor/carpenter who famously played the psychotic, chainsaw-wielding Leatherface in Tobe Hooper’s 1974 seminal horror masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, died Saturday at the age of 68 of pancreatic cancer at his home in Northeast Harbor, Maine. Hansen was studying English and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Texas when he met Hooper and accepted the role of Leatherface, severely mentally handicapped man who wears a mask of his victims’ faces sewn together in a grotesque quilt. Says Vulture:
When a coterie of young hippie types wander into Leatherface’s house, he greets them by bashing in their brains with a mallet, dangling them from meat hooks, and carving them up with the titular woodland instrument. Hooper’s film, anchored by Hansen’s performance, approaches its horrors with such fierce banality it feels surreal. What Hansen does feels less like acting than going insane on screen; Wes Craven said it looked like “someone stole the camera and started killing people.”
The movie shot for 16 hours a day in sweltering Texas heat for three weeks with only one day off a week. The actors all wore the same outfits every day so by the final week of filming no one would sit next to Hansen, he smelled so rank. Right before filming the scene when he chases Sally (Marilyn Burns) up the stairs and cuts down a door to get to her, using an actual functioning chainsaw, Hansen scarfed down a few brownies someone had passed out earlier, not realizing they were special brownies. They kicked in as he was filming, and he was so high when he had to break down the door, he had a tough time concentrating. “I trust Gunnar 100 percent,” Burns said later. “But not Gunnar on brownies, with a chainsaw, running up the steps, take forty-four, oh no.”
Hooper’slow-budget movie cost a mere$100,000 (in cash) and ended up becoming the most successful independent film of all time, taking in over $30 million in box office revenue (John Carpenter’s considerably tamer Halloween usurped it in 1978).
According to CNN: after the movie’s release, Hansen began a career as a writer and editor, although he eventually returned to acting — mostly in low-budget horror movies with titles like “Chainsaw Sally” and “Swarm of the Snakehead.”
At the time of his death he was developing Death House, a horror film he had written about a prison break at a secret underground government facility. The movie will be produced next year in Hansen’s memory.