More than just a Leatherface

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Courtesy of Chronicle Books

There is very little resemblance between Northeast Harbor, Maine, where Gunnar Hansen made his home, and rural Texas, a fictionalized version of which was the setting of the best-known film that Hansen starred in.

The scenic Maine village, which borders Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, supports a year-round fishing fleet of lobstermen and, in the summer, a small population of millionaires and billionaires whose waterfront “cottages” and luxurious yachts line the craggy shore. The fictional film “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” on the other hand, was largely inhabited by illiterate, deranged and bloodthirsty psychopaths.

Residents of Northeast Harbor say Hansen — despite his 6-foot 4-inch, 280-pound physical frame — was equally dissimilar from what one might expect from a splatter-movie icon, which was the unintended but lifelong role that he found himself in after he played the demented killer Leatherface in the 1974 cult horror film. Hansen did not shy away from his accidental fame, nor did he seek to inflate it or let it define his identity.

Hansen, who died at home Saturday from cancer at the age of 68, has been remembered by MDI residents in the past few days on social media as “an intensely private man” with “a good humor;” a “very kind and gentle soul in a Viking-sized body;” and as “intelligent, well-spoken and kind.”

Bob Pyle, the former longtime director of the town’s public library, recalled growing up with Hansen in the coastal Maine town of Searsport after Hansen immigrated with his family to the United States from Iceland at the young age of four. Pyle, one year older, and Hansen were “sand box buddies” in those early years, before Hansen moved to Texas with his family half a dozen years later, staying there through high school, college and graduate school.

Hansen — who, as Hansen wrote on his own website, played the part of “Leatherface” immediately after finishing graduate school in the summer of 1973 — returned to Maine soon after filming ended to be the best man at Pyle’s wedding. From that point onward, Hansen called Northeast Harbor home, the librarian said.

“My wife and I are mourning the guy who played cowboys with me, stood up with us at our wedding, was there when we needed him no matter what the cost, and who was our daughter’s beloved ‘Uncle Bear,'” Pyle posted on Facebook.

Hansen, he said, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this past summer after returning home from Europe. He asked Pyle and others in the know not to disclose his illness, and only allowed word to get out when neighbors noticed that a wheelchair ramp had been built at his front door.

Hansen loved to sail and, though not religious, believed in “something eternal,” Pyle wrote. For a time, they both sang bass in the choir at the local Union Church.

Pyle lamented that, in most news stories about his friend’s passing, Hansen was remembered solely for playing the gruesome killer in the original “Chainsaw” movie.

“He was on the Board of Directors of the Mount Desert Festival of Chamber Music for more than 25 years,” Pyle wrote. “He was a Trustee of the Northeast Harbor Library for some 20 years, a member of the Building Committee for the new [library] building, on the Executive Committee, and in his last year on the library board, its chairman.”

On his website, Hansen listed 33 filming projects he was involved with as an actor or narrator, in addition to 16 documentaries he has appeared in and a dozen more films that he helped write, direct or produce. The vast majority of the projects fall into the horror genre, but there are a handful of documentaries specific to Maine history, with subjects that include the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Indian tribes and legendary MDI boatbuilder Chummy Rich.

Hansen wrote articles and books as well as scripts. His books include “Chain Saw Confidential,” released in 2013, about the filming of the classic horror film, and “Islands at the Edge of Time,” about coastal barrier islands from Texas to North Carolina.

“Acting had never been what I intended to do,” Hansen wrote on his website. “I moved back to Maine and decided to get serious about writing. This had always been my main interest, something I had always wanted to focus my work on. I moved to a village on an island on the coast, where I figured I could hit those keys.”

A 2004 Associated Press story about Hansen indicated that he got involved in the horror film convention circuit in the late 1980s, partly as a way to “counterbalance” his life of sitting at a computer screen all day. He told the AP that he was paid $800 for four weeks of shooting and estimated that the film, which cost a quarter-million dollars to produce, may have grossed as much as $100 million from 1974 to 2004.

“Hansen neither trumpets nor conceals his celebrated movie role,” AP reported. “His car is adorned with a rear license plate holder that reads, ‘What Would Leatherface Do?’ Still, Hansen keeps his sideline in perspective and does not view his portrayal of Leatherface as his life’s defining event. “I’m really proud of [Texas Chainsaw Massacre], but it’s not the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” Hansen told the wire service. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s not the most important thing in my life.”

Fandom being what it is, however, multiple video memorials to Hansen have sprung up on Youtube since Saturday, and all of them place his iconic “Chainsaw” role and his horror portfolio front and center. Here are a few of them, along with a brief clip of an interview of Hansen that was recorded at his MDI home this past February.

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors. He writes about fisheries, marine-related topics, eastern coastal Maine communities and more for the BDN. He lives in Ellsworth. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.