Interviewed by Petch Lucas
Fans of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have long enjoyed Paul A. Partain's memorable portrayal of wheelchair-bound Franklin, the brother of heroine Sally Hardesty. Mr. Partain generously afforded his time to a 2001 interview which delves into his early acting days, some Chainsaw anecdotes and other notable details. Sadly, we were recently informed of his passing at age 58 on January 27, 2005 after a lengthy battle with cancer. The Pit Webteam heartily salutes the memory of Paul Partain, and we offer sincere condolences to his family and friends.
Your role in the 1974 Sidney Lumet film Lovin' Molly predates The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I understand that you had previously served in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Vietnam conflict, but what brought you back to acting, and how did you land the role in Lovin' Molly?
What brought me back to acting was a need to fill my soul. I really enjoy taking printed words and turning them into feelings and emotions. The need is very strong to get that immediate feedback that you only get on stage. When the words are right and the audience is with you and the lights go out and they clap their hands together, man there is nothing like it. Better than any drug. I used to say that I worked all day to feed my body and acted all night to fill my soul. I am an applause junkie, simple as that.
In the late fall of '72 I was working in a dinner theatre at night and had just gone through my first lay off at an electronics manufacturing plant (my day job). I remember getting to the theatre early that evening, was sitting on the steps of the wide front porch of this old Victorian house that was our theatre and was really kind of bummed out when the theatre director came bouncing up the stairs. She had spent the afternoon with Sidney Lumet and Stephen J. Friedman, who produced The Last Picture Show. Anyway, she came up to me and asked if I wanted to be in a film with Tony Perkins. I couldn't place Anthony Perkins, the guy who did Psycho and On the Beach and a whole bunch of other great films. I got him mixed up with George Hamilton, whom I had seen in Your Cheatin' Heart: The Hank Williams Story, and I was not greatly impressed. But I agreed to go to an audition that this fine lady had set up for me.
So, the next day I go to the Zach Scott Theatre where they are holding the second set of call backs. If my dinner theatre director hadn't set this up for me, I still would not have known the boys from Hollywood were in town. I was told to meet a lady who turned out to be Sidney's secretary. I found her, she gave me a couple of pages of script to read and said she would call me in about fifteen minutes. So I went on into the theatre room and it was full of actors waiting for their audition, second day of call backs. Lots of talk among the college actors and community theatre actors and some actors from Dallas and Houston and LA. I just sat down and read the lines to myself and listened to all the bluster that was going on around me. To hear them tell it, they were the very best actors the stage had ever seen. Well, in about fifteen minutes Sidney's secretary walked in and the room got deathly quiet, she was the boss and everyone in the room knew it but me, I kept on reading, trying to get a handle on Willy, the character they handed me. The lady came over to me and said quietly, "Paul, Sidney is ready for you now." I wish I could have been a fly on the wall to see the faces in the room, I heard a "Who the heck is he?" comment as I was walking out. That was sweet. Well, it turns out that my dinner theatre director had already convinced Sidney that he needed to look at me for Willy. She said, "He handed me this perfect type cast for you." I found out later that she really laid it on thick about me being such a quick study and a serious actor and then she laughed, who knew?
Time for a little background here. When Sidney and Stephen got into town, they came with what they hoped would be the perfect formula for success. It had worked on The Last Picture Show, and they knew it would work here. It was this: Get a Larry McMurtry Novel, hire your three lead actors from Hollywood, get a great director, pick up all the rest of the actors and the crew from the local pool and you were set. Great plan, and it almost worked, but the "what went wrong" scenario would take more time than I want to go into here. So, Sidney and Stephen blow into town, get with the heads of the local theatres, lay out their plans and the descriptions of the charachters they need and my lady says, "I got your guy here" and set up the audition.
Where was I? Oh yes, so the secretary ushers me into this small conference room with Sidney and Stephen, introduces us and she leaves. Sidney says, "Let's read a little." Well, Sidney took one role, I took another and Stephen took all the rest. We read a bit and Sidney asked me to change things up a some and we tried it again. Then we changed roles and went at it one more time. Then back to the original set up. Things were going well and we all were enjoying playing around with the words and Sidney called his secretary in and told her to get my measurements for the costumes and then he told me he had to go to New York to finish auditions but he would be in touch within two weeks. Sure enough two weeks later I got a call from the secretary and was offered the role, but in truth, I knew I had it when little Sidney started jumping up and down. Whenever you can get a director to do that, you got 'em.
Marilyn Burns, who would soon headline The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as Sally, was Blythe Danner's stand-in on the Lovin' Molly set. Hence, you already had a working relationship with a soon-to-be fellow cast member for Chainsaw. Were you acquainted with Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel or anyone else associated with Chainsaw at the time, or did you win the Franklin role chiefly on the strength of your Lovin' Molly appearance?
Remember the lady who was my director at the dinner theatre who greased the wheels for me to get the role in Lovin' Molly? Well, she came through again on Chainsaw. This lady was an English & Drama teacher at a local junior high school. She met a student teacher whose husband had written and was casting a film and needed actors. The student teacher was Kim Henkel's wife. That was Theatre Unlimited in Austin, and most of the secondary characters in Chainsaw, all of the ones at the graveyard, came from there. Edwin Neal also came through Theatre Unlimited. He had the lead in "Bell, Book and Candle." Did a fine job, as I recall. I think I worked lights on that one, or perhaps I was playing with the lady who ran the lights, the memory fades.
Having worked for Sidney Lumet, as I have said, was I think, the key to snagging Franklin. That was the convincer. I hope my readings and interpretations had something to do with winning the role as well.
Your Franklin performance is very believable, both in vocal nuance and physical movements. Did you conduct research so as to successfully portray a partially-paralyzed character, or was the performance based on instinct?
I had a great deal of experience with wheelchairs. My Grandfather, for seven years prior to his death, was in a wheelchair. I knew far more than I ever wanted to know about that subject. Didn't have to go anywhere but my memory banks for the details.
To get to Chainsaw filming specifics, the van scene with the hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) remains an unnerving segment, particularly the "knife demonstration" shots. How long did it take to film the sequence entirely, starting from the time the hitcher is brought aboard to the time he is thrown off, and are there any interesting anecdotes you would like to provide about that shoot?
This took one full day as I recall. As I have said before, Ed is a very competent actor. He and everyone was well prepared and we just shot it. And shot it and shot it from every angle in that cramped van. The blood tube took some getting used to, but that was Ed's responsibility. I made sure the blade was taped on the cutting edge. Took Tobe's arm and tried to slice it off before I would let them whack away at me. Tobe came out okay, so I couldn't object. I really only insisted that I try it on Tobe just to see what he would do. Turns out he was game. Thought it was great fun. Did the same thing with the chainsaw, but Tobe was expecting it then and it wasn't quite as good a joke.
The "Chainsaw Family" house would likely be a point of interest to genre fans and movie afficionados alike. Where is it located, if it's still standing? And if so, does it receive visitors from tourists who want to "see where it was all filmed"?
I hear it is in Kingsland, Texas, where it has been reborn into a restaurant. I doubt they play up the "We've always been in meat!" angle.
Even though your character Franklin is killed towards the end of the film, he makes a brief appearance as a wheelchair-bound skeleton in Tobe Hooper's 1986 sequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II. What is your opinion of that film, and what changes, if any, would you have suggested to Hooper?
Sorry, I never saw Tobe's sequel.
After Chainsaw, you appeared in other roles, such as in the 1977 thriller Rolling Thunder with William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones, in which you have a dinner scene with both. What highlights of that experience would you like to impart?
A neat thing happened on the set. We filmed in San Antonio. First day was at the airport and I met William Devane. Bill had a TV Movie that had played a few months before that was based on the Louie Naiser book about my friend and fellow Theatre Unlimited actor, John Henry Faulk. Bill Devane played John Henry. When I met Bill, things were pretty hectic, so I told him that I had a John Henry story and when we got some time, I wanted to tell it to him. A few days later, we were having lunch out under some huge pecan trees (every day is a picnic on the set), when I started telling about how John Henry Faulk who was then in his late sixties would hold court in the kitchen of Theatre Unlimited whenever we took a break, and tell us young stud actors what it was like to be thirty years old, in New York and at the top of your game. John Henry was president of the American Federation of Radio Artists (before TV changed the union to AFTRA from AFRA) in New York City. He had a top rated morning talk show on the biggest station in town, and life was good. Then came a pipsqueak grocer in the Midwest who decided that John Henry was a Fellow Traveler kind of communist and got John Henry blacklisted. Read your history about this, it could happen again folks. It was one of the sorriest periods of our American History.
Well, John Henry stood up on his hind legs as he was taught in Austin and said, "Bullshit." He fought it. He fought Senator Joseph McCarthy and the whole Blacklist Gang, and it cost him dearly. He won, but it was after years and years of legal battles. All the money was gone, so when he got a judgment, there was nothing to collect. By then the grocer was dead and bankrupt, John Henry lost his talk show immediately, his family took a little longer to lose, but lose them he did. He had moved a few times, wound up on radio in Dallas, and then moved to Austin. His lawyer wrote a book called Fear On Trial and recouped some of the legal fees. Devane's TV movie was based on that book. Well, I was telling the folks at lunch, about John Henry's latter day exploits in Austin, and I said, "And then John Henry took a small role in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Devane lit up like a Christmas tree, pointed his finger at me and said "That's where I've seen you!" Folks, you couldn't touch me with a ten foot pole for quite a while after that.
You made an appearance as an orderly in the most recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel. How did you make it back to the Chainsaw fold after all these years?
Well, let's see. I had some time on my hands, having ridden down one more electronics company and hadn't really started looking for real work again yet when I listened to the Texas Film Commission's recorded production hot line and found out that Kim Henkel was Producing, Directing and had written a Chainsaw sequel. I brushed off my resume and headshot and went downtown to the house Kim had rented as an office. The place was one of Austin's older restored homes, wooden, two stories, large wrap around porch. This house had been remodeled into lawyer's offices and had been used as such in its recent past. Well, without calling or anything I just went on in and found an intern, young college age girl, installed at the reception desk at the foot of the stairs, (inner sanctum upstairs). Every salesperson would immediately know that this was the GATEKEEPER. Object is to get past her.
So I smiled, handed her my headshot, probably about the thousandth one she had seen, and asked if I could see Kim. She sort of smiled, I don't really think it was a smirk, and told me how busy he was and how I couldn't possibly and then I said, "It's all right, I am an old friend, he'll see me, take it on up and I'll wait outside." Well, first thing you know, Kim came outside and we had a grand time catching up on all kinds of stuff. I said, "Kim, I want to play." It turns out that Kim had been thinking about writing a part in for John, his brother in law, who was Grandpa in the original TCM, and Marilyn had also contacted him, so he got the germ of an idea in his head and went off and wrote a little scene for the three of us, as Kim says, "just for the real Chainsaw fans."
The years have rolled by, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series has kept on trucking. In your opinion, have the sequels been a compliment or a detriment to the original film?
Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. I am flattered, and I think it is kind of neat that a thirty-year-old film still has the impact it did when the words jumped off the page and out of our mouths. I am told the others don't come up to the original. In truth, I don't know. The only sequel I have seen is Chainsaw IV, and I knew someone who was in it.
The online horror community, as united or divided as it may be, has indesputably enabled new appreciation of classic horror films from "years gone by" to surface. What is your opinion of the state of the horror genre vis-as-vis the internet?
The internet is a great tool for communication. Without this venue, we probably would never get to have this exchange. You would have to rely on rumors and the same old stories you have all heard told at "fan conventions." I think those folks ran out of stories about '75 or so. Communication is usually a good thing. Unfortunately, people don't always tell the truth, and I think on the internet, you must be especially vigilant.
Some folks--well, mostly folks who are parents and people who are concerned with the "welfare of children"--are shocked at the horror movie stuff that is out there. I share that concern, but at the same time, I know that most people who watch, especially the younger audience, know exactly what they are seeing. It is called entertainment. Just last week I met a young girl, turns out she is a high school drama teacher (it is all about perspective; she is young to me). This educated young lady was talking about Chainsaw and how bad it was, but of course we had to let the kids see it because it was a "true story." I just laughed and told her not to believe everything she sees in the movies. Same goes for the internet. Keep your perspective, look upon it as entertainment and have some fun.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is also enjoying a "rebirth" of sorts because of the recent Special Edition DVD. What is your opinion of this latest presentation of the film, and are there other additions you wish had been included?
There is a new version out? What happened to the Beta version?
Right now in the cinematic horror realm, the talk is all-sequel, much like it was in the 80's. Currently, there's a new Jason movie coming out, a new Michael feature in the plannings, a new Pinhead due for video, another Tall Man installment and maybe a new Freddy flick, et al. If a new Texas Chainsaw Massacre were to be considered, what story-wise preferences would you, as a prominent cast member of the original, extend to the makers of such a project?
Thanks for thinking I might have some input on a Chainsaw sequel. It really doesn't work that way. The person who puts up his or her money and risks it all gets to decide what goes in it. But, if they were to ask, I do have a sequel to end the series. I think I will keep that one under my hat until I decide to do it my own self. I did hear Marilyn talk once about a sequel where she gets out of an insane asylum and goes on a revenge trip. That might be fun.
Thank you again for your time, Mr. Partain! Any closing words to fans?
If there are any people out there who have waded through all of these questions and answers (by the way, I think the questions were better than some of the answers), then my hat is off to you. You are truly Chainsaw fans, and I am proud to know you. I have found Chainsaw fans in the most bizarre places. You folks wind up in all walks of life and I defy anyone to categorize the "typical Chainsaw fan." One quick story on finding 'Saw fans.
I worked for about ten years as a Regional Sales Manager for Zenith Electronics Corporation out of Chicago. I was always in Austin, but the company was in Chicago. I took care of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, but I digress. One day, Zenith fires the old Vice President of Sales and brings in a new guy from another Zenith division. I go to Chicago to meet the new guy. I go to the fifth floor, down Mahogany row, walk in to his office, actually his front anteroom with his office in back of his secretary and her GATEKEEPER desk. The secretary is about twenty-three, attractive blonde, very prim and proper. She takes one look at me, stops, drops her mouth wide open and in a voice that is heard all over the fifth floor she yells "You....you....you're the guy!!!!!" and she keeps saying that and pointing her finger at me until my new boss comes out. So much for traveling incognito in the corporate world.
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