Icelandic Heroes of the Silver Screen - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Icelandic Heroes of the Silver Screen

Icelandic Heroes of the Silver Screen

Published May 9, 2008

Peter Ronson
One Hollywood box-office smash and then retirement, Peter Ronson aka Pétur Rögnvaldsson was the ultimate one hit wonder. He landed a role in the big budget Journey to the Centre of the Earth in 1959, opposite such star names as James Mason, Pat Boone and Arlene Dahl, but then turned down all subsequent movie offers.

Ronson played Hans, the dependable, Icelandic guide. Hans was tall, strong and laconic and weirdly attached to Gertrude the duck, and every watching ten year old idolised him. Squeaky clean teen-idol Boone couldn’t compete. Ronson even got to deliver his dialogue in Icelandic.

As Hans, Ronson had the opportunity to show his prowess against prehistoric monsters or rather back projected lizards with rubber crests and frills glued on. After the movie he faced another physical challenge – competing for Iceland in the 110m hurdles in the Rome Olympics in 1960. For the record, he clocked in at 15.2 seconds and came sixth in his heat. Plenty of sportsmen try to break into movies (OJ Simpson, Vinnie Jones, Eric Cantona) but there aren’t many who take the opposite route.

Gunnar Hansen
Since Boris Karloff back in the 1930s, the man behind the monster has often proved the opposite of his cinematic face. So it is with Gunnar Hansen, the iconic Leatherface in Tobe Hooper’s groundbreaking horror movie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Leatherface is a brutish, inbred, Texan cannibal. Hansen is a mild mannered journalist, poet and historian born in Reykjavik.

Hansen is undeniably effective as the chainsaw-wielding killer. His workman-like despatch of one victim with a lump hammer is particularly chilling, even if the final scenes, in which Leatherface chases the heroine and a very fat passing trucker in and out of the lorry and down the highway, do conjure up the Benny Hill theme tune.

He turned down a part in West Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes to concentrate on his writing. He published a well re ceived book about America’s barrier islands, their ecology and inhabitants, but the lure of schlock was strong. Since the late eighties, Hansen has built himself a career in mostly straight-to-video horrors like Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Hellblock 13 and Witchunter. Next up? Hansen goes back to his roots with The Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre, currently in pre-production.

Jóhann Pétursson
Jóhann Pétursson is more obscure than the other actors in this series but nevertheless had a long acting career. It spanned nearly forty years, from 1943 to 1980, but he made just three films in that time. Not surprisingly, his 2.34 metre (7’8’’) stature had him typecast as a giant.

The first film was a Danish art house movie called Hjertetyven. Then in 1950 he appeared in the kitsch fantasy, Prehistoric Women, a mix of sling-shot-wielding amazons, a pterodactyl that looks like a duck and the discovery of fire. Jóhann is Guaddi: “savage, merciless and possessed of Herculean strength…the most feared thing in the prehistoric world”, as the ever-present narrator tells us. He makes bonecrunchingly short work of a tiger but can’t cope with tribesmen with flaming torches. The whole thing is nonsense of course but kind of fun with a couple of beers.

Thirty years later he showed up in Carny, alongside such star names as Jodie Foster, Gary Busey and the old film noir fall guy, Elisha Cook Jr. Carny would have been familiar territory for Jóhann, as he spent many years in carnivals in several countries, often billed as The Viking Giant.

In trying to find out a little more about him, I asked a friend who was related to an exceedingly tall man if this were him. No, came the reply, but he rented a room from my great grand parents in Dalvik. Only in Iceland…..

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