Many men have played Jason Voorhees over the decade, but Ted White created the mold that so many others would copy.
On October 14th, actor and stuntman Ted White passed away at the age of 96. White may have not been a household name, but he had a long and fascinating career. In his early life he was a Marine, before doing stunt work and a minor uncredited acting role in 1949’s Sands of Iwo Jima. It was there that he befriended the legendary John Wayne and became his stunt double. His career would also see him double for big names like Clark Gable and Fess Parker, while also continuing to do small acting roles in popular movies and TV series such as Major League and The Andy Griffith Show. In 1984, Ted White would land his biggest role, as the hockey masked serial killer, Jason Voorhees, in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.
Regarded by many fans to be the best entry in the twelve film franchise, The Final Chapter does everything right that a simple slasher is supposed to do, while also offering a few surprises. One of those surprises would be the performance of a twelve-year-old Corey Feldman as Tommy Jarvis, a character that worked so well that it would push Feldman to 80s stardom and make Tommy Jarvis a recurring part of the next several installments. Another surprise was the addition of Ted White as the film’s masked villain.
Jason Voorhees is famously not in the first Friday the 13th, but in its first two sequels, Voorhees was played by Warrington Gillette, Steve Dash, and Richard Brooker. For the fourth film, director Joseph Zito offered White the role of Jason due to his size. At 6’4”, Ted White would be the tallest man to play Jason at that point. While Ted White may have had the size to play Jason, it’s still a bit of a surprise that he got the role, considering that he was 58 years old when the film was released. For comparison, Richard Brooker was only 28 when he put on the mask, and fan favorite Kane Hodder was 32. Ted White was amazingly a quarter of a century older than those who would come before and after him. These days having an older man under the mask of a horror icon isn’t so strange. James Jude Courtney, who played Michael Myers in the last three Halloween films, is 65, but it makes sense, as he is also the same age of the character he is playing. In 1984, Jason Voorhees is meant to be 38, two whole decades younger than Ted White.
The casting of an older actor to play Jason was a bold choice, but you would never know that a man near 60 was underneath the hockey mask. Ted White’s movements were swift and graceful, while also being powerful at the same time. In Friday the 13th Part 2 and Friday the 13th Part 3 Jason is portrayed more as a backwoods hillbilly. He hunches over, he lumbers and limps. He looks almost silly when he runs. White’s portrayal was something different. It’s a bit of the grace of Nick Castle’s Michael Myers in the original Halloween combined with the power of Gunnar Hansen’s Leatherface in the first The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Together it created a Jason we’d never seen before, one that is more menacing and seemingly unstoppable.
While the second and third films hide Jason for most of the runtime until the big final girl showdown, Ted White’s Jason is more out in the open. We get a good look at him straight away when he wakes up in the morgue and dispatches of a horny coroner and nurse. We see it all go down when Jason pops up out of Crystal Lake at night and kills a female victim by stabbing her from underneath her raft. The first two sequels made Jason scary by keeping him in the shadows or filming him from the chest down. Director Joseph Zito realized he had a Jason that was more scary when seen; that’s how powerful Ted White’s presence was.
So much of the success of Jason Voorhees in The Final Chapter goes into how he’s written. This one’s not afraid to go after kids, as he spends much of the finale trying and failing to kill young Tommy Jarvis. No other Jason has tried to kill a kid. Another part of his success is a result of the killer’s design. Makeup effects guru Tom Savini, who created the deformed look of young Jason for the first Friday the 13th’s jump scare dream finale, came back to recreate the design in the most horrific way possible, making Jason’s eventual face reveal the most frightening of the franchise.
Most of what makes Jason Voorhees so memorable in this entry, however, comes down to Ted White. Even though we don’t see his deformed face until the very end, we can still feel Jason’s anger. Though Jason never speaks, White gives him a sinister grunt. Kane Hodder would convey Jason’s rage by taking heavy breaths. White conveys it with his body language, shown in the speed at which he turns and slams through a door, or the power with which he runs. His Jason would be the last one to run until the 2009 reboot, as Jason would die at the end of this film, and resume life as a fast walking zombie in later sequels.
Which brings us to Jason’s big death scene. The Final Chapter was originally supposed to be just that, and Jason truly does die in the climax. Ted White is scary as hell as he chases young Tommy and his teenage sister, Trish (Kimberly Beck). He towers over his prey. Just as impressive though is the moment where Tommy, who has shaved his head and dressed up as a young Jason in order to confuse the killer, gets Jason to stop in his tracks. You can’t see Ted White’s face through the mask, but you can feel Jason’s bewilderment in this quiet moment as he is face to face with who he used to be. White plays Jason as a vengeful beast for the entirety of this film, but in this scene, he becomes his most human. There’s a sense of longing as Jason slowly moves towards Tommy, his neck cocked upward, a hesitant arm reaching out. For a few seconds, Jason Voorhees is just a boy who wants his old life back. Then, with a whack of a machete and more memorable practical effects from Savini, Jason is dead.
Jason Voorhees was so scary in this film, that when the series resumed with 1985’s Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, fans were outraged at the copycat killer storyline. They wanted Jason. In the second film, we first meet an adult Jason, wearing a burlap bag on his head. In the third film, Jason picks up his hockey mask for the first time, close to the film’s end. In Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Jason Voorhees becomes the fully developed character we all know, thanks to the performance of Ted White. His portrayal would be so memorable that it would create the template for every actor who played Jason afterward. No more would he be a lumbering, goofy hillbilly. Now he was the personification of unbeatable terror. Ted White created that. Everyone else just tried to recreate it.