Bill “Leatherface” Johnson Interview!!!

Hardcore horror fans should be very familiar with actor Bill Johnson. No one who has ever seen the 1986 horror clas-sick “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” would be able to forget his fantastic portrayal of Bubba “Leatherface” Sawyer! I was honored to ask Bill all about “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” and his other projects past and present.

Brain Hammer: I did a little digging and discovered that your first three features all featured “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” alumni. Lets start with the 1980 picture “Fast Money,”which was released on vhs with the much more classy title “Sybil Danning’s Adventures Presents: Fast Money.” You make an uncredited appearance in this stoner comedy as a vice cop. Did you by any chance get to work with your future “TCM2” victim Lou “L.G.”Perryman?

Bill Johnson: I had known Lou from the Austin acting community before FAST MONEY , and acting in some scenes with him would have been a great time, but unfortunately, we had no scenes together in that movie. Meaning as an actor is not called except for days that they will be filmed.

BH: Wayne Bell was the sound recordist for “Fast Money.” He also worked on “Future Kill” and “TCM2.” What are your memories of Wayne?

BJ: When on the set typically he was busy with his sound cart capturing what was needed. I run into him every now and then here in town and catch up on events with him. Wayne Bell is one of the friendliest, happiest looking, steadiest, easy going people you’d ever want to meet.

BH: Ronald W. Moore’s “Future Kill” is an interesting horror/sci fi hybrid flick. Lots of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” survivors worked on this one. You played one of Edwin Neal’s thugs. How was it working with Ed?

BJ: As is often the case when making a movie, actors who know each other well sometimes don’t ever see each other during the making of that movie, such is the case here, I had no scenes together with Ed Marilyn Burns on that movie. However, Ed, Marilyn and I did go to UT Austin together. Because we had no classes of performances together, Marilyn and I rarely saw one another. I was lucky enough to catch her playing the role of Helen of Troy in a modern adaptation of TROJAN WOMEN.

While on the other hand, Ed and I were cast in two stage plays, where we put in a lot of time together. “The Rehearsal” by Jean Anouilh, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by Shakespeare. We had intense and fun times. Also have done some voice gigs for commercials, V.O.s, with Ed Neal and its always a fun time with Ed.

BH: The special effects make up in “Future Kill” was done by the late, great Robert Burns. Bob also starred in “Confessions Of A Serial Killer.” What are your memories of working with him?

BJ: Bob Burns was a unique, outré artist and a fine human being. Had a great sense of humor. Bob often hosted a party to celebrate actor Rondo Hatton’s birthday, Bob was a big fan. I had no scenes with Bob in “Confessions…” so didn’t see him on that set, however because Bob lived in Austin, and was involved with the industrious local Indy filmmakers in the 80’s/90’s, like David Boone, Brian Hanson, Kirk Hunter, Kevin West, Marcus van Bavel, Don Hartack I did see Bob fairly often. And Bob being very busy was either working on someone else’s project or working on directing a personal project.

A particular film project of his called, “ Dad On Arrival”, about a traveling Executioner for the prison system, I was cast as the Executioner, we filmed some portions of his script as Bob could work it into his schedule. I liked working with Bob as the director, a lot. He had a marvelous enlivening energy that gave me a great sense of freedom and empowerment and enjoyment of our process. Unfortunately Bob passed away before “Dad On Arrival” could be completed.

BH: You made an uncredited appearance in “Confessions Of A Serial Killer” as an oil rig worker. How was it working on that film? I understand the production was “troubled.”

BJ: The day that we shot my scene things were going good and it wrapped out quickly. It was a scene early in the movie relating to Bob’s character, based on Henry Lee Lucas and his early childhood formative years. The Scene was about two oil rig workers, me and actor, Paul Smith, who were “partying” with the Mom of the yet to be serial killer. His Mom who I guess, as a way for her to support the family brought in “clients” to the home. Unfortunately, she did her “meetings” on the couch in front of her toddler son and her drunk wheelchair ridden husband. The scene ended with the husband decided during that partying scene to wheel himself into the next room and shoot himself dead.

BH: What are your opinions on these early efforts in your acting career? Did you enjoy the finished products?

BJ: Well as you know, there’s a quite a learning curve to be negotiated and I was always glad to be able to work, especially with so many fun people putting these movie projects together. I’ve got lots of special memories, so I’m really glad for all of those opportunities.

BH: Were you a fan of the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre?” How did you land the coveted role of “Leatherface?”

BJ: Just before my actual audition for Leatherface, was the first time I ever saw the original TCM, and after watching that movie I was definitely a true believer in Tobe Hooper’s vision, so yeah I was a fan. It’s a perfect horror film. I landed the role of Leatherface in the usual manner, I was called up, I auditioned and was cast in the role. The studios were doing a nationwide search and I just happened to be living in Austin instead of Hollywood. Since Bubba had no dialogue I made up the action on some suggestions from the casting director, Pat Orseth and screenwriter Kit Carson in the preliminary sessions before going before Tobe. Fortunately Caroline was there too, so it was great to play off of her, she is such a fine actress. During those auditions, Caroline was definitely sizzling! And then when Tobe was part of the mix the energy went way up, to psychedelic, the good kind, with great colors and body rushes.

BH: Did you feel any pressure “stepping into the shoes” of Gunnar Hansen? Did you copy specific things from his character or did you attempt to create your own Leatherface completely? How much input did Tobe Hooper and L.M. Kit Carson have on the character?

BJ: I opted to stay out of Gunnars shoes and make tracks of my own. I could see right off that trying to do a Gunnar Hansen impersonation would from the outset be doomed to failure, so I avoided that. Gunnar did a shiveringly unique characterization, hey there’s only one, Elvis, and that’s all there is ever gonna be; same with Gunnar’s performance. At the same time, I was faced with the fact that Gunnar’s Leatherface and mine were from similar worlds, but with some very significant differences, made absolutely evident by Kit Carson’s idiosyncratic script so there wasn’t really going to be any “picking up just where everything left off” from the first film.

This sequel was taking place in a parallel universe, so I went into that world spinning in that direction. I welcomed input and influence from Kit and Tobe, who were both very collaborative and I think we came up with some fun results. Kit as screenwriter/producer for this movie and a terrific collaborator and I’m very appreciative that he was so open, generous and insightful. Kit is really cool in the Extra Features sections of the Gruesome Edition dvd release of TCM2. Tobe wanted more humor than the first TCM. Horror and humor together such that people wouldn’t know whether to be scared or to be laughing or what to be doing. I’m recalling what one fan told me about TCM2 that I really like a lot, “The Texas Chainsaw Masascre 2 is my favorite couch drug!!”

TCM and TCM2 have been fan favorites for over 30 and 20 years respectively. These two movies simply just, work. I like what Cinematographer for TCM2, Richard Kooris said about Tobe and TCM2 and I think it likely applies to the first TCM, which is that, Tobe has made a very personal film here. And these films have a fan following in the only arena that really counts, the heart and mind of the fans. The positively, absolutely, truly Far Out Fans that can brand a film as either a frequently viewed Cult Classic or a dust collector.

BH: “TCM2” is infamous for being a difficult shoot. How much did the budget and time constraints effect you as an actor? Was there a sense of pressure on the set?

BJ: Pressure on the set might could have been concluded by some as pretty considerable, sometimes even more so. The Studios were under contract to the exhibiting movie houses to have a finished film on the screen by a rapidly approaching deadline. The Studios seemed to be nervous which is fair enough, since Tobe had just wrapped, “Invaders From Mars” remake for them and he’d gone over schedule. One report was that they tried to fire Tobe off of TCM sequel on two separate occasions but for the strength of Tobe’s contract they would have succeeded. And on top of the human pressures there was the record Texas 100+ degree heat that summer which cooked up more problems.

The final 24 hours of principal photography, ending approximately 10:00 am, July 4th, 1986, had been a non stop filming marathon, literally running from one set up to the next and pretty much directed by the Cinematographer, Richard Kooris, since Tobe was in bed with pneumonia. Tobe wasn’t the only person to come down with pneumonia, many did including me. Earlier on I had contracted the worst case of pneumonia the doctor had ever seen, and the doctor put me in sick bed for a week taking meds every two hours.

BH: Tell me about working with Tobe Hooper. What are memories of working with him on the set, and do you ever recall seeing him without a Dr. Pepper?

BJ: On the set Tobe was not without his trademark Dr Pepper and cigar. Someone had the assignment to keep him supplied with fresh Dr. Pepper, and Tobe carried a briefcase stocked with his Cuban cigars. He was crackling with energy, excitement and a lot of affection for what he was doing. He was having fun making the movie.

BH: The mask you wear in “TCM2” is hideous! Tom Savini did an amazing job. How long did the mask making process take? Did you remember the first time you saw yourself all made up, and in full costume? What was going through your mind at the time?

BJ: Tom Savini told me that a member of his make up crew, award winning SFX Makeup Artist, John Vulich designed Bubba’s Leatherface mask which was then executed in the SFX make up dept. run by Tom Savini. That was an awesome kind of a quasi-Jungian Shadow Self manifestation piece of art. My make up started out at 4 hours to apply and got down to 2 hours. First time in full costume in wardrobe dept I thought that Bubba, as Karin Hooper , the head of the wardrobe dept, had said, “Bubba is a real snappy dresser!” Bubba was ready to cruise for foxes anywhere anytime.

BH: How deeply did you immerse yourself in the character of Bubba Sawyer? Your co-star and partner in crime Bill Moseley admits to diving head first in Chop Top and not coming out until the picture was finished shooting. Did Bill’s insanity fuel your performance, or did it make you want to choke him?

BJ: I was fascinated by the entire process and Bill Moseley was hilarious so it was a full plate of fun and bizarreness for the duration of the shoot. Bill’s extemporaneous stream of consciousness riffing that he got going was really a big help for me, both entertaining and immersive into the special world of the Sawyer Clan Family interactions. Living in Austin it was easy to go home every day. I had to. They wouldn’t get me a hotel room. Since I did go home instead of an empty hotel room, I couldn’t, characterization-wise, really go down deep and stay there. I did not want Bubba Sawyer going home everyday to my wife and neither did she.

I came up for air, after the shooting day was done, but while on the clock, I re-submerged and rejoined Bill and Jim.

BH: Was it hard or easy for you to stay in character? I’m curious if the ad-libbing of Bill or Jim would ever crack you up, or if you could always “stay in the moment,” so to speak?

BJ: Well, staying in the moment is the only really safe place to place oneself during a scene, so its kind of easy to stay in character. I’d laugh in character when appropriate but mostly, Bubba was in trouble and had to avoid being punished and/or humiliated, so not too many laughs for Bubba. He was tied up running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Off camera Bill and Jim were a fun bunch, Bill mostly was a tour de force who I enjoyed immensely, we could rant and carry on with abandon.

BH: You had the great honor of working with Jim Siedow. What are your memories of Jim on and off the set of “TCM2?” Was he the kind of sweet, gentle man that I’ve always heard him to be?

BJ: Jim was all that, yes, Jim was pretty far out. Relaxed, funny, at ease, friendly, shy, solid. A warm, very nice man. Hard working, totally committed actor, he was great to play in a scene with, great because of all the crunching pressure and sometimes “the powers that be” would ratchet up the tension higher by doing something nonsensical like practically turning off our drinking water. Production assistants were bringing in cases of bottled drinking water, stacks of them, and we drank them all. Suddenly out of nowhere that all was cut back by about 75% with the insane rationale that our drinking water was costing them too much money. We just had to grimly laugh at the absurdness of something so self defeating as that. People were on the verge of dehydration and collapse. The temperature on the set in the underground scenes was around 125 degrees.

BH: Arguably, your most memorable moment in “TCM2” is the seductive chainsaw leg rubbing you unleash upon your beautiful leading lady Caroline “Stretch” Williams. First of all, how sexy did she look up close and personal in those shorts? (I had to ask!) More seriously, was that a difficult scene to shoot? Did you actually touch her with the saw for the insert shots?

BJ: Well, Caroline was and is now to this day highly attractive and vivacious I think you know what I mean. She wasn’t Bubba’s fave for nothing. Bubba doing his courting ritual with his Saw, the scene was intense but flowed smoothly in the filming of it. Tobe knew what he wanted and was detailed in how he wanted the sequencing. The tension was pretty high, lots of anticipation, nerves on edge, personal, social, sexual boundaries on the line preparing to be crossed over and violated and not timidly. The physical action really wasn’t all that very explicit, it looked like a lot more was happening than what actually did happen. Caroline’s portrayal, and camera angles and editing gave it a very raw, violent, rapine atmosphere.

Caroline really made that scene sing. Without Caroline Williams special qualities as an actress, and her willingness to enter into that bizarre cruelty with full commitment, openly vulnerable, with poise, and not just a little courage, that scene wouldn’t have had the extended heated frisson it did. From Bubba’s point of view, Stretch opened up and anchored that strangely erotic space which was, in its own way, essentially a love scene, and without the woman dedicated to that purpose, no love scene can come into being. From Stretch’s point of view she was more in a Stockholm Syndrome situation, where in order to survive the captive is bonding with the captor.

(I recall a story told to me by a friend of mine, who was having seriously dangerous domestic problems from her husband. She was being choked to death by her husband, and as she felt herself dying, she knew she could not overpower him, so she gently placed her hands on his hands at her throat, looked into his eyes and loved him and kept loving him. He released her.)

So, back to the Ice Tub, after we had finished the take that they put in the movie, we were all cranked up pretty high, sweating, panting, I recall Tobe turning to the Cinematographer and demanding to know, “Please tell me that we got that!!!”, and a smiling Richard Kooris, nodded in the affirmative. That felt pretty great. And to paraphrase Caroline speaking at a TCM2 reunion Q&A Panel responding to a fan who had asked her about that very explicit scene, about the “Chainsaw and her nether region”, Caroline retorted, “That saw Never touched my nethers!” And that’s a fact.

BH: Another great moment is when Stretch blasts you in the face with the fire extinguisher. How was that effect done? On a side note, did the mask ever get in the way of your vision?

BJ: I’m assuming the Prop Dept did some standard “fire extinguisher” effect. And Yes, the mask did take away some of the peripheral vision, fortunately I didn’t have to play tennis or fly a fighter jet in that mask.

BH: “TCM2” has a deleted scene worth mentioning. The infamous “mall slaughter” that also included the death of the legendary Joe Bob Briggs! I love this footage! How much time do you estimate was spent filming this omitted sequence? Did you think it should have made the final cut?

BJ: That was maybe half a day from setting it up to wrapping it up. By today’s standards it could have stayed in no problem, but I believe Tobe was trying to avoid an “X” rating which back then was much easier to get, even just showing too much “blood” was an offense to the Rating Board (I’d heard Tobe caution once or twice while filming, advising the blood pumpers to back off a little on the volume of blood being sprayed around). When TCM2 opened it did so, Unrated.

BH: Then of course there’s the one and only Dennis Hopper. “Lefty” gave you quite the battle! Obviously Dennis is quite a character. Do you have any fun stories about him on or off the set to share?

BJ: If I wasn’t in front of the camera I was mostly inside my little trailer in the A.C. in order to keep my make up intact, so it was problematic for me to see a lot of folks. Dennis was at the Location only when he was in a scene, so didn’t see him much. However one day it was his birthday and he was given an informal party in the afternoon with a cake and a song. Someone handed him, as a gift I imagine, what looked to be a very large bottle of Champagne. Dennis looked at first stunned then puzzled as he held it away at arms length looking around questioningly, wonderingly. He was saying sort of to no one in particular that he had stopped drinking (I mean, come on, hello, Earth to everybody, Media had been reporting his sobriety for quite some time now) and this gift was puzzling to say the least. Finally someone told him it’s not alcohol, you unscrew the bottom of the bottle and it’s full of chocolate.

Dennis relaxed into a smirk and put the bottle down kindly. Presenting him that was a nice gesture but it didn’t seem like candy was on his menu either.

BH: PLEASE tell me about the chainsaw duel with Dennis Hopper! How closely did you work with him in that scene? Was it difficult? It looks incredibly grueling. How was that amazing special effect of the chainsaw in your abdomen achieved?

BJ: Fact is Principal Photography was behind schedule with the Studios having too much to lose if any key personal got injured so as to avoid delay in filming, the Studios weren’t taking any chances, at all, so Everybody had a stunt double and they worked very, very hard. Studios made certain that stunts were not on my dance card nor were they going to be.

Dennis and I did film one or two Inserts for the duel and the remainder of the dueling was done by the Doubles. And they got beat up plenty by what they had to do. The “chainsaw in the abdomen” effect was pretty much just exactly like the old tried and true “arrow through the head”. The saw blade was “U” shaped in the middle to go around the waist, the ‘U’ shaped middle was attached to a harness to strap it on the body. Special shirt and coat constructed to fit around the saw’s blade perfectly went on over the rig. And slender steel cable running around the ‘U’ shaped part of the trick saw that was made of tubular steel, connecting the front and back “genuine looking chainsaw bars”.

The front and back bar ( the bar is the shiny blade looking part of the saw) of the saw were themselves were looped in a saw-chain so there was a front loop and a back loop of chainsaw chain circulating around individual front and back bars, connected in the middle by a piece of “U” shaped tubular steel, inside of which was a loop of Cable connecting the rotary action of the front and back loops of Chain. That cable synchronized the front and back loops of circulating chain, so the whole package in place looked just like a saw through the guts, churning and chewing poor little Bubba’s innards. The cable synchronized the “chain” on both parts of the saw blade, that you could see in front and back of Bubba’s body. It all ran by an electric motor and was a very well done piece of magician’s equipment.

BH: The over the top gore in “TCM2” lead to a self imposed “X” rating. What is your opinion on the content of the film? Do you feel it “goes too far,” or do you think the splatter fuels the satire?

BJ: While on set filming ChopTop hammering L.G.s head, I had heard Tobe coin the phrase that this “is the cinema of Excess.” So the splatter does seem to be in alignment with the satirical bent. The focus was on Yuppies, becoming an upwardly mobile catering Business (usually business models frown on any limits to their growth or the upwardness of their mobility, so that there are almost no restraints, “the world with a fence around it is not enough”) so, “hand over fist” is the order of the day.

A fist full of bucks, another example of excess, when Dreighton , the Cook, the elder brother, confronts Dennis Hopper and mistakes him for a business rival, one o’ them chickenshit burrito bunch and Dreighton (Jim Siedow’s spelling) whips out of his pocket a bankroll fat enough to gag a rhino and attempts to buy Hopper off. Of course Lefty is really there as “the lord of the harvest” to bring everything down.

And as a final offering as an example of “Excess” I assert that Pride/Shame is a main driver dichotomy of the Sawyer family activities in this film’s world, excessive self importance and self-pity, homicidal emotional hijacking, way poor impulse control. Not the best set of qualities for a moderated well balanced business, or a happy family. Great for a horror film however.

BH: I am a HUGE fan of “TCM2!” I think it’s one of the rare sequels that lives up the original film. Not everyone agrees with me of course. It seems that “TCM2” is a “love it or hate it” sort of film with fans. I’m curious how you feel about it. Do you feel it’s a worthy sequel?

BJ: Hell, yes! N’uff said.

BH: Since working in “TCM2” you’ve appeared in several films including “D.O.A.” & “Paramedics.” You’ve also done voice work for several different successful video games, including the “Ultima” series and “Deus Ex: Invisible War.” Do you find this voice over work to be more or less fulfilling than appearing in front of a camera? Do you have a preference?

BJ: I like what the entertainment industry calls Voice Acting a great deal, it is very satisfying and appealing in its’ own way. It is incredibly challenging and lots of fun, too. It’s even more fun when you are working with someone, as I have a number of times, who is as marvelously talented as Ed Neal. Ed’s got a huge string of VO projects and a million voices to do them with; Ed is an extraordinary Voice Actor. But mainly, I personally prefer the added dimensions that the camera and stage events provide.

BH: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to say?

BJ: Thanks to you, Brain Hammer, for this opportunity to talk to all you Fans, to whom I send a million THANKS YOU’s from me to each of all of you.

It is you Far Out Fans and your love for the special world of this genre that makes this world go ‘round!

With that said, I’m looking forward to seeing you all around.

 – Bill Johnson




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