You never know what’s going to happen with an audition,” actor Ted Levine remembers of the first time he portrayed Jame Gumb, The Silence of the Lambs villain also known as “Buffalo Bill.” “I just pulled something out. It was scary. It felt kind of magical.”
“I read with the three final guys who were going to be Buffalo Bill,” says Brooke Smith, who played Catherine Martin, the U.S. senator’s daughter whom Gumb abducts in the movie. “When Ted walked in, it was so crazily obvious. I asked him, ‘What the hell did you do in that audition? You were so amazing.’ He was like, ‘Well, you know, I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do, so I just drank a lot of coffee.’ He was amazing.”
Three decades have passed since the film first graced silver screens on Valentine’s Day in 1991. While critics and film buffs have rightly parsed every eerie eye twitch Anthony Hopkins made in his Oscar-winning portrayal of the nefarious, cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the behind-the-scenes story of Levine’s harrowing, intimidating interpretation of the puzzling murderer Gumb who struts naked, plies Martin with lotion and raises moths (and “skins his humps,” to use the grisly description of the way he kills given by Jodie Foster’s Special Agent Clarice Starling) remains largely untold. Without minimizing the brutality of the character – director Jonathan Demme was insistent on honoring real-life victims – Levine and Smith both have fond memories of making the movie, which went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards the following year, as well as several Criterion Editions’ worth of fascinating revelations about how they filmed their scenes, how the movie’s success affected their careers and what they mean to them now.
“I read the script, and the script was great,” Levine recalls of why he wanted the role. “I read the book, and the book was better. I re-read the script, and realized it was pretty damn good. I met Jonathan and everything fell into place.”
In his 1988 book, The Silence of the Lambs – which revolved around his Red Dragon character Hannibal Lecter, who coyly assists Starling in finding Gumb, a man whose identity he knows – author Thomas Harris introduces Gumb with a police-like description: “white male, 34, six feet one inch, 205 pounds, brown and blue, no distinguishing marks.” He had a deep voice, thinning hair and budding breasts, the latter due to hormones. The naturally baritone Levine, who would later play Captain Stottlemeyer on Monk and appear in American Gangster and Shutter Island, was 33 at the time the film came out and, as his camcorder scene revealed, a bit leaner than Harris’ description. As for why he wanted the role, the actor explains, “I figured I could do a good job because I was pretty fearless in those days.” He would soon test his mettle when he began studying up for the role.
Although Harris, who has not given an interview since 1976 and politely declined to speak with Rolling Stone, has never officially identified Gumb’s inspirations, the character is an amalgam of sorts of several different serial killers. FBI Special Agent John Douglas revealed in the movie’s extras that Gumb’s first scene was inspired in part by Ted Bundy, who also wore a fake cast and would ask potential victims for help, only to clunk them on the heads when they got to his car. Gumb’s penchant for skinning his victims with the intention of crafting a “woman suit” potentially came from Ed Gein, who killed two women and exhumed bodies for the same purpose, also inspired Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Leatherface and Psycho’s Norman Bates. The way Gumb kept his victims in a pit in his basement came from Gary Heidnik, who killed two of the six women he kidnapped in the mid-Eighties.