Oliver Stone had a unique reason for hiring actor Ed Neal to be in the movie “JFK,” according to Neal.
Stone wanted first-person details about “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”
“That’s all he wanted to talk about,” Neal said.
Neal played the creepy hitchhiker in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” If you want to pick his brain about the 1974 horror classic, you don’t have to go to extremes like the “JFK” director and hire Neal for a movie role. You can visit with him at an upcoming horror convention and film festival.
Neal will join actors from the “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween” franchises at the 2020 Monsters of Horror Weekend, scheduled Friday-Sunday, Feb. 14-16, at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa.
Neal, who took part in a phone interview in advance of the show, explained how he came to be involved with Leatherface and company. He was in college when the opportunity arose. He and fellow University of Texas drama students hadn’t taken the time to learn lines for acting scenes. They chose to address the problem by taking advantage of a pitcher beer special at a nearby watering hole, Scholz Garten. They rationalized that if everyone drank a pitcher, they wouldn’t care if they knew their lines.
“At that time in my life, it sounded like a good plan,” Neal said.
When the students rushed back to campus, someone on the steps of a classroom building said, “Hey, ya’ll going to audition for that movie?”
Movie? What movie?
A notice about auditions for a movie titled “Head Cheese” (later to be renamed “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”) had been posted on a campus bulletin board. Director Tobe Hooper conducted the auditions and, upon meeting Neal, asked, “Can you be weird?” Classmates laughed because Hooper asked the right question to the right guy.
Neal read from the script and, trying to fulfill the “weird” request, borrowed mannerisms from a relative with issues. A few days later, Neal was surprised when presented with a contract to be in the film.
“I thought to myself that nobody will ever see it,” he said. “It will play in a couple of drive-ins that are still open in Round Rock, Texas, and that will be the end of that. As they say, the rest is history.”
The movie was “no budget instead of low-budget,” according to Neal. He said the van that picks up his hitchhiker character was borrowed from a crew member. The freaky hitchhiker scene sets a tone for the remainder of the movie.
“The reason it does is because you don’t expect (what happens),” he said. “Here these kids are. They are all right there. They can’t escape him. They are driving down the road, and he’s like 2 feet away from them. You know what I mean? It’s not like you can run in the other room and go, ‘This guy is weird.’ You are right there, and all you can do is eye rolls and (signal) to each other through body language. And he is doing weird stuff. He cuts a hole in his hand. He takes a picture on a Polaroid, and since they won’t give them two bucks for it, he blows it up in the middle of the van with gunpowder. This is not something you normally see a person do. This is stuff we haven’t seen before.”
Neal considered himself a serious thespian with Broadway ambitions when the movie was being made. He and other participants thought this cheapie flick was beneath them. They asked that their names be spelled out in lower-case letters in the credits because they didn’t want people who watched the film to see their names.
“Six weeks later, after it was going through the roof, we are on the phone screaming, ‘Can you make that name any bigger?’ Too late now, dude. So, for all time, we are trapped in lower-case letters.”
Neal said the movie defied all the odds and was one of the greatest “word of mouth” films ever. Big movie theaters in major cities avoided it. But it attracted crowds to little theaters and drive-ins. Bigger theaters eventually wanted a piece of the action. Show dates kept getting extended.
“In a way, it is still in distribution,” Neal said, adding that the film is shown at a midnight movie or some other event just about every weekend. “I was told it was just about the only film that has ever been made that has never been out of distribution since the day it was first released. Are you serious? Even ‘Gone With the Wind’ can’t say that.”
Why did “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” push the right buttons with moviegoers? Great timing.
Said Neal: “We had not had the onslaught of CGI. We did 90% of our own stunts. ‘Jump out here.’ ‘OK.’ But it came along at the right time. It was clever the way it was edited because you think you see more than you see. ... There is very little blood in the movie. But it came along at the right time. The political environment was right for it. The social environment was right for it.”
Active on the convention circuit, Neal said he has been to hundreds of cons and it never gets old. He became a convention guest sort of by accident. He said he once was in the film memorabilia business. Armed with movie posters, props, scripts, photos and slides, he set up as a vendor at memorabilia shows. He got to know other vendors, who spread the word that he was the hitchhiker in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Show attendees began coming to his table and asking for his autograph.
“It just kind of snowballed,” he said, adding that show organizers noticed the activity at his booth and offered to pay expenses if he wanted to be a celebrity guest instead of a convention vendor.
Neal, who has a long list of acting and voice acting credits, is appreciative of the “side” career made possible by his work in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” He enjoys sharing stories with fans and, unlike some convention guests, he never charges for a selfie photo.
“I’m coming to a town and I’m going to meet several hundred people who have all seen the film — 98% of them multiple times,” he said. “And you are there solely for the purpose of reliving whatever it was they thought or felt when they saw the film, and to say ‘hey’ to me. It’s humbling because it’s like, wow. And it never gets old. ... I think it is what keeps me young and keeps me going. It energizes me like nothing else. There is no better medicine in the whole world.”
Neal won’t have to travel far to get to the show. He said he lives in Rowlett, Texas, with a house on Lake Ray Hubbard, where the catfish are “as big as you.”
How does a guy who once felt “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was beneath him feel about the movie more than 40 years later?
“I get down on both knees and I tell my six children and my extended family that I am so grateful to have been in contact with so many terrific people like Gunnar Hansen and Marilyn Burns and everybody that was there because we created something that has endured,” he said. “That is so difficult when you think of the thousands and thousands and thousands of films that have been made by some really talented people that have not endured. They never showed them again. It’s very humbling.”