I just learned, via MetaFilter, that Gunnar Hansen – the legendary Leatherface from the original version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – has died. I am not much of a horror film fan, but I did admire that movie, which I saw one Halloween, 36 years ago now, at the University of Washington, part of a triple feature that included Night of the Living Dead and Freaks. (As Roger Ebert wrote, “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well acted, and all too effective.”)
Six years later, when I moved to this island in Maine, I actually met Leatherface, who, it goes without saying, was nothing like his famous film creation. He was, rather, a low-key, bearded poet from Iceland, who had gotten his role, he told me, solely because he was the largest person the filmmakers happened to know. And over the last 25+ years we remained friendly – not friends, but always happy to run into each other from time to time.
On one such occasion, in October 2013, he spoke at the Bar Harbor library about his new book Chain Saw Confidential, which makes entertaining reading. As I sat listening to him, I realized I should have brought my copy of his earlier, also well-written Islands at the Edge of Time (1993) for him to sign; filed under Travel/Natural History, it’s a look at American’s barrier islands around the curve of the coast from Texas to North Carolina.
Gunnar lived next-door to the library in Northeast Harbor, where in October 2011 – at a party for the retiring librarian, who had worked there almost 40 years – he and I were hanging out when a woman, saying, “Look, it’s two local celebrities,” asked us to pose for her camera. “I don’t know about me, but definitely him,” I said.
As I drove away from the library, I passed his house, whose appearance made me laugh because, with no one home, it looked much like a place where a chainsaw murderer might live. But as Gunnar writes in Chain Saw Confidential: “I certainly did not want to be Leatherface, or even feel his emotions. For me he was a shell, a set of behaviors and postures.”
The real man, sadly no longer with us, was nothing like his image. But happily, I have the photo to back me up if I ever want to say to some lesser imitator: “Sir, I knew Leatherface. I was friendly with Leatherface. And you are no Leatherface.”