Gunnar Hansen, whose life as a post-graduate school poet was forever altered when he agreed to play the masked maniac Leatherface in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, died Saturday, PEOPLE has learned. He was 68.
Hansen, born in Iceland, died in his Maine home from pancreatic cancer, his agent, Mike Eisenstadt, confirmed.
Leatherface, the part that began Hansen’s acting career, “is one of the most iconic evil figures in the history of cinema,” Eisenstadt said.
Or as Hansen once described him: the “brutish, relentless – yet apparently lovable – killer.”
Hansen’s career, in addition to his horror roles, spanned documentary work and book-writing, and he was a “keen naturalist” according to the BBC.
His most recent film appearances were in 2009, according to IMDB.
He also spent years away from acting, in the ’80s and ’90s. When he spoke to PEOPLE in 1993, upon Chainsaw‘s reissue, he was writing poetry and magazine features in Maine.
“I could win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and my gravestone would say, ‘Gunnar Hansen: He was Leatherface,’ ” he told PEOPLE then. “It is a strange juxtaposition – Leatherface whipping his mask off and pulling out a quill.”
Hansen returned to his memories of Chainsaw for a 2013 memoir about the filming.
As he recalled then, the part developed organically, when, having finished graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, he ran into an acquaintance who was briefly in the cast who said they needed a killer.
As it turned out, Hansen knew the casting director from high school.
“Through an improbable series of events, one sweaty summer afternoon I found myself dancing on a Texas hilltop, spinning a chain saw over my head, hell-bent on scaring the bejesus out of the director,” Hansen wrote in Chain Saw Confidential.
“It had been a long trip getting to that hilltop,” he wrote, “and it has been a long trip since.”
Hansen is survived by Betty Tower, his partner of 13 years, according to the AP.
Following the news, tributes came pouring in on Twitter, including from director Edgar Wright.
• Reporting by MARIA MERCEDES LARA