Marilyn Burns ("Texas Chain Saw Massacre") Interview
Last year at the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix, I had the great opportunity to chat with Marilyn Burns, who played final girl Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Our talk focused exclusively on her career in the 1970s and resulted in some great stories about the Texas film industry, the dangers of making a Charles Manson biopic, and why Eaten Alive may not be the film to take home to mother and father.
How did you first get into acting?
I've always wanted to be in acting. I think I was a real bookworm and in seventh grade in Catholic school, we had an English (actually from England) drama teacher. Well, she was our English teacher but she was also our drama teacher. And we did A Midsummer Night's Dream and I played Helena. And all of the sudden, I went from my green-striped uniform and green beanie into a toga with my hair down and makeup. I remember after the play, my dad said, "Hey Marilyn, those guys want to talk to you." And I said, "No, Daddy! No! Let's go home, let's go!" But he says, "Marilyn, they want to talk to you." But I thought, "Uh-uh, I better get home, they're gonna make fun of me in front of my dad." And I realized, you know what? This was kind of fun. And then I really got serious to it and I started doing all kinds of the little shows that you'd compete against, you know, in drama. And I enjoyed that.
I just kept doing plays and went into UT [University of Texas], the drama department. Music and dance always got me. And then I wanted to be in the movies, so any chance that a big movie came to town, I was there to get a little part in it. Then I got put on the Texas Film Commission under President Smith. And so I got to be there and bring the films in. And of course then I'd have to see if I could be a casting director or get a little part on the set. I wormed my way into several pictures.
One, Sydney Lumet came to Austin and auditioned me in Lovin' Molly with Anthony Perkins, Blythe Danner, and Beau Bridges. And he cast me in this part, and he finally said, "Marilyn, if I want to get the rest of this cast through this agency, they're gonna make me take this little known girl named Susan Sarandon, so you're not gonna get to do it." And I said, "Okay." And he says, "But I tell you what, Blythe's only five feet tall and Susan's about 5'7", so you'll be the stand-in." I'm 5'2". All the New York crew hated me. I got to have a small part in the picture that was viciously cut. But that's okay, y'know? I was there the whole time watching the shoot. And when the Astrodome opened before that, I went right in and got a job as a tour guide. I took my group right in to where Robert Altman was shooting Brewster McCloud, and I met the crew there. I had some good times. Anything that came in, I managed to get involved in.
From there, how did you get involved with Tobe Hooper and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre?
Well there were a bunch of political people that wanted to put up a tax shelter. They did tax shelters for movies back then. Oh dear, if your movie flopped, you were safe with your money. So they had this great idea to do a tax shelter...well, a movie. It was gonna be called Chainsaw... Now I remember: Scum of the Earth. And I thought, oh goodie. Well, I want to be in the movies, y'know. I took the role, I got it because I was a UT student, I had been in movies already... I had met Tobe when he got kicked off the set of Lovin' Molly. He'd snuck in with Kim [Henkel] and they were eating chicken -- the little bit of chicken when the cast and crew had some food. Stephen Friedman, who was the producer, then came up to them and said, "Excuse me, but are you on this picture?" And they said, "No we're just visiting..." "Put the chicken back and get off the set!" And so I watched Tobe and Kim exit. Then when we met together for the audition for the movie, I knew him from [that] sad experience. I did remind Tobe about when we did our last Fangoria thing this year. I said, "Do you remember how we really met?" He goes, "Oh yeah, I remember! The chicken story!" Obviously they never expected [The Texas Chain Saw Massacre] to get done, but we did it, somehow. It turned out the way it turned out, and it's been wonderful ever since.
You give one of the great, intense performances of the damsel in distress. It's one of my favorite performances in horror films.
Thank you! Well, of course, getting chased by chainsaws is a pretty damsel-in-distress deal. One thing about little Sally is that she keeps getting away, but she keeps getting caught back, stuck in the web again. I remember when it first came out, everyone was asking me about, did I think it was sexist and all this... And I said, look, this is the first time that a victim has got away. Now, granted, she gets caught a few more times in the process, but she's one of the first girl victims that ever got away. And she gets to laugh hysterically at the end of the picture. So there.
It's such a great laugh. There's so much going on there. She's happy, she's also going a little mad...
This picture's finally over! [laughs] And I have to reshoot this. We did have to shoot the ending twice and that was the second ending. So there was probably a little reality in there.
A little reality never hurt.
It never does. It always makes for a better picture!
And then you went from that to Helter Skelter, the Charles Manson biopic, playing Manson girl Linda Kasabian.
That was interesting, too. We were on Paramount Ranch. This girl came up to me and dug her nails into my arm and said, "Linda wasn't there that day!" And I said, "Oh good, one of the Manson Family is an extra on my movie." It was real heavy. And Manson had made a whole lot of threats. And one time I said to the director, Tom Gries, "Hey Tom, what are those SWAT team guys up there in the hills for? We're shooting down here. We're not shooting up there." And he said, "Oh Marilyn, there was a bomb threat." And I'm thinking, oh that's nice, they're up there checking, and we're down here, a few feet away.
So glad they thought to inform everyone.
They did, in their own way. There were a lot miserable things on that. There was tension, LA didn't want it done, they thought it was too soon. The book was awesome, by [Vincent] Bugliosi. It was just... it was made and it turned out to be one of the top television experiences. It was one of the first two-parters that got such a big... a lot of viewers.
From there, you worked with Tobe again in 1977 with the multiple titled...
I think it had fifteen titles!
Eaten Alive, Starlight Slaughter...
Horror Hotel... You name it they tried to sell it.
And they're abusing you again in that movie.
[laughs] I think that's why I wore the black wig. I was hoping that I could die in the middle of the picture and not survive until the end, but it didn't work that way. I was exposed before the ending. That was a real interesting shoot, too. People like it nowadays! They give me great praise. I'm always amazing, because it had so many titles. They tried so hard so many times to bring it out.
It had a young Robert Englund in it. One of his first parts.
Yes it was. And that part, I wasn't aware it was in the picture when I told my parents to bring their bridge club and the church with all the people to go to the movie. And they brought them in and there it was, "Marilyn Burns" in big orange letters right on the screen as the camera settled on a belt buckle, and Robert Englund's saying, "My name is Buck..."
And then we all know the rest of that line.
I was in LA at the time. And my parents said, "Marilyn, I think nobody said a word the whole picture or, worse, after the picture was over." In other words, they didn't join [my parents] for coffee and cake at the house. And I never told my parents to go see a movie with me in it without me personally seeing it first.
I'd like to thank Marilyn for staying late at the Festival to have such a wonderful chat with me.