I’m a horror geek. I admit it. One of my favorite films has always been “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974). Shot on a shoestring budget during the hot summer of 1973 in location in Texas, Chainsaw follows the brutal crimes committed against four friends by a deranged family of backwoods cannibals. Partly inspired by the crimes of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, Chainsaw premiered in October 1974 and has since become one of the horror genre’s most beloved films.
I recently spoke with John Dugan (Grandpa). I was starstruck, sure, but quickly sobered up: John is a great guy, very approachable. In fact, after a while, it was like talking to an old friend.
John, you were great.
Q: First of all I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me. Inevitably, we’re going to talk about Chainsaw, but before we get into that: The…sort of origin stories (if you will) of creative people fascinates me. When did you realize that you wanted to act? Are you a natural born performer, or did that come later?
A: I MC’d the neighborhood talent show on my Grandparents street, when I was about ten. I killed. I’ve always been very out-going.
Q: Did you do many acting gigs prior to Chainsaw? Theater, maybe?
A: I was in theater school, in Chicago, when I did Chainsaw. It was the summer between my second and third year. I was doing a Children’s play, two shows a day, six days a week, when Kim Henkel called me. I think the play paid 150 dollars a week, or something like that. Dancing around in tights. Hehehe
Q: Oh, boy. Hahaha. That’s not bad, actually. I’d dance for much less. So…you knew Kim before production started?
A: He was married to my sister. she was an artist and sculptor. Austin was a really neat place, back then. Still is, except it’s been discovered.
Anyway, that was the year I became a professional. I had 3 paying gigs that year.
Q: Your time was coming around at last. So Kim called you and you went down there. One problem. The make-up process was torture. Correct?
A: Sitting for it wasn’t bad, you know the part where they did a cast of my head. But the application took forever.
Q: So the application process was hell, and you told Tobe Hooper you weren’t going to do it again, meaning all of your scenes had to be shot in one sitting. How did he take that? Was he cool with it? Did he panic?
A: That is a myth. I never said that. They had no more prosthetic made, we had used them all, and Jim [Siedow, AKA Cook, Old Man, Drayton] had to be wrapped out because of other obligations, so we shot that one marathon 30 hour day.
Q: You were filming in an old farmhouse. Most of your scenes were set at night but had to be shot during the day, necessitating the windows being covered. It was summer, the lights were bright, there was no air condition…I hear it was hot. You must have gotten the worst of it under all those prosthetics.
A: It was awful. I can’t even begin to describe it. I think at my age now it could possibly kill me to attempt that.
Q: It would probably kill me now, and I’m only 24!
So, when did you know Chainsaw was a hit?
A: I knew we had something when people started using it as a reference, and when Johnny Carson referred to it, on his show. Things like that. It was still kind of a joke in “Hollywood”, though. If it was on your resume, studio casting directors would snicker, or roll their eyes. Kind of insulting, really.
Q: Wow. Hearing Carson talk about it must have been surreal. The Ramones did a song about TCM in ’76. Chainsaw, it was called. What you said about having Chainsaw on your resume being a joke…it is insulting. Horror movies didn’t get much respect back then. These days it’s different, but back then…
Anyway, British film critic Kim Newman claims that the killers in TCM parody the typical American family unit, with Old Man being the father, Leatherface acting as the housewife, and the Hitchhiker being the rebellious teenaged son. Others see the film as an indictment against the meat industry. Is there anything to that? Do you think Tobe Hooper really have a sociopolitical “message”, or was he just trying to make a good horror movie?
A: People will see what they want. If you take a dysfunctional family to the extreme, as we did, there are bound to be sociopolitical comparisons. I don’t think it was intentional. Kim and Tobe just put it over the top….with glee, I might add, hehehe
Q: Were you asked to play Grandpa in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2?
A: I was never asked to play grandpa again until Carl called me about 3D. It wasn’t like I was hiding or anything. The decent thing to do would be to ask me. Pisses me off.
Q: You’re right. You originated the role. You should have gotten first dibs.
You next appeared onscreen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation in 1994. What did you do in that twenty years between movies?
A: Got married twice, had a daughter, worked in F&B, basic actor stuff. Let’s just say, neither wife was real keen on my career choice; they were attracted to the whole “actor” thing, but when it came time to move in and pay bills, not so much.
Q: You had a cameo in Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013) as Grandpa. I loved the beginning (I’ve always wondered what happened to the family and I never bought that “No farmhouse was ever found” crap from II), but the rest of it…I wasn’t impressed. Mainly because it lacked the low-budget feel, but for other reasons as well. Are you at liberty to discuss your opinion on 3D?
A: You can’t get a low-budget feel when you have a budget. It simply can’t be done. The temptation is to great to use that money. That aside, I liked the film on several different levels. I liked the beginning, the archival footage, the destruction of the home. I loved seeing Marilyn [Burns] act her age. I thought Dan [Yeager, Leatherface in 3D] was great.I’m pissed that there wasn’t a closeup of me, or a two-shot of me and Mose. Now the story……and this is what causes a lot of controversy….. When Carl [Mazzocone] bought the rights to the name, he bought the rights to use it seven times, so it was an absolute necessity to change the story curve and I think they did a great job. I liked it.
Another thing a bout the low-budget feel thing. Daniel Pearl told me ,at lunch last fall, that when he met with producers about the remake that they wanted him to recreate the look that he created in the first one. When he said that first off they would have to shoot on 16 mm film, they freaked out. Hehehe! It’s a funny story when Danny tells it.
Q: Do you have a website where your fans can find you?
A: I don’t have a website, but I am easily accessible on Facebook.
Q: Do you have anything in the works?
A: I’m working on a film next week called “Belly Timber” based on a true story about cannibalism. I play a grandpa…..no shit! In October I’ll be in California doing “William Froste”, a film who’s cast list reads like the who’ who of modern horror.
Q: That about does it. Thanks again for agreeing to sit down with me. You’ve been wonderful to talk to.
A: It’s been great, talking to you as well, Joseph.
John Dugan is active on Facebook. Since you’re limited to only 5,000 friends, I can’t guarantee he’ll accept your request, but he *is* approachable.