Actor and writer Gunnar Hansen, best known for playing the masked killer Leatherface in Tobe Hooper’s infamous and influential 1974 shocker, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, has died at the age of 68.
Hansen’s agent told the Associated Press the beloved horror icon died of pancreatic cancer Saturday at his home in Maine.
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Hansen was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, but moved to America with his family at the age of 5. He studied at the University of Texas in Austin, where Hooper and his Texas Chain Saw Massacre cowriter Kim Henkel were based. Hansen secured the role of Leatherface after, literally, filling the door with his tall, imposing physique when he met about the part.
The shoot of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a notoriously testing production and 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 told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. “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.”
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a huge financial success but the cast and crew would receive only a tiny portion of the money they were owed, due to alleged financial irregularities on the part of the movie’s distributors. In 2013, Hansen 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.”
By the ‘80s, Hooper’s film had entered the canon of classic big screen terror tales and Hansen would be cast in a number of other horror movies, including 1988’s Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, 1991’s Campfire Tales, and 2013’s franchise reboot Texas Chainsaw 3D, in which he played another member of Leatherface’s demented clan. The friendly and intelligent Hansen, so different in personality from the character which made him famous, also became a fan favorite on the horror festival circuit. But Hansen always regarded himself as primarily a writer rather than an actor and in 1993 published a non-fiction book called Islands at the Edge of Time: A Journey to America’s Barrier Islands. “It is a book about the problems we’re facing on the Atlantic coast,” Hansen explained in 2013. “It starts in Texas and it goes to the Outer Banks. It looks at the natural history of these islands and how people have lived on these islands. Ultimately, the book asks the question, ‘How do we deal with living on these islands now in the face of sea level rise and global warming?”
In 2013, Hansen published a memoir called Chain Saw Confidential, in which he recalled the making of Hooper’s film and the lasting appeal of his character, Leatherface. “He’s extremely dangerous and deadly but he’s not purely evil,” he told EW at the time of the book’s publication. “There’s some ambivalence about your feelings. Because the mask is expressionless, you never see the face, so you’re looking at nothing. I imagined, if you took the mask off, that there would be no face there — in fact, that not only would there be no face, might be nothing at all. Just an empty black spot.”