The iconic image of Jason Voorhees has become a staple of popular culture, yet before the hockey mask became a symbol of fear the character was just a scared young boy. In Sean S. Cunningham’s 1980 original, Jason had drowned in Crystal Lake in 1957 due to the negligence of a group of camp counselors, prompting his mother to exact bloody vengeance on those whom she felt were responsible. Whilst the character later became the antagonist of the franchise and the focal point of each subsequent movie, Jason was first portrayed by a fourteen year old called Ari Lehman. Born in New York on May 2nd 1965, Lehman spent most of his childhood in Westport, Connecticut. His earliest passion was for music and studied classical and jazz on piano, which would ultimately lead to a scholarship at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.
Lehman had also developed an interest in acting and, after discovering that auditions were being held in Westport for a family movie called Manny’s Orphans, decided he would try out for a role. The movie, directed by fellow New Yorker Cunningham, was a blatant attempt to capitalise on the success of The Bad News Bears, which had been released by Paramount Pictures in 1976. Desperate to escape the stigma of his first production, the rape-revenge exploitation picture The Last House on the Left, Cunningham and his screenwriter, Victor Miller, had developed two sports comedies; Here Come the Tigers and Manny’s Orphans. Despite only being a minor role, Lehman’s performance had made a suitable impression on Cunningham and, some time later, would be contacted regarding another project. Friday the 13th told of a once-popular summer camp that had reopened after many years but, during the renovations, the counselors are killed off one-by-one by an unseen assailant.
The final twist would reveal that the murderer was in fact a seemingly sweet middle-aged woman, whose son had drowned in the lake over twenty years earlier. Cunningham’s own son, Noel (who would work as a producer on two of the later sequels), was first considered for the role but eventually the producers decided to call in Lehman, who was approaching his fourteenth birthday. At his audition, Lehman was accidentally handed the wrong notes for his character and, believing the role to be that of Jack (later portrayed by Kevin Bacon), was shocked to discover a sex scene. The young child would be disappointed, however, when he learned that his part had no dialogue and would only be featured once in the movie. For his audition Lehman was asked one key question by the director, ‘Can you swim?’ Landing the minor role of Jason, Lehmen was led to the make-up workshop of Tom Savini who, with the help of his assistant, Taso Stavrakos, began to create the deformed creature that was Jason.
Lehman soon found himself surrounded by an array of props and monsters that Savini had created for his previous projects, which would include various gruesome body parts. For several weeks, Lehman was subjected to an uncomfortable make-up process, in which a mask and deformed head were designed, which were then fixed with dentures and plaster, that was applied over his skull. During this time, Lehman saw many of the FX gags that would later play a role in the success of the movie being brought to life as Savini, working from a budget of almost $20,000 to create the numerous impalements and mutilations. Some time later, Lehman made his way to where Friday the 13th was being filmed at Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco in Blairstown, New Jersey, for a sequence in which Jason is shown drowning in the lake. During his short time on set, he witnessed the shooting of several of the movie’s key sequences, including the death of both Bacon and Harry Crosby, whose body would be discovered pinned to a door by several arrows.
Despite only being hired to shoot one scene, Lehman would be required to work on an additional sequence after the filmmakers were inspired by the final shot of Brian De Palma’s Carrie, in which Sissy Spacek’s character reaches out her hand from beyond the grave to provide one last scare for the audience. Thus, after the killer has finally been dispatched the movie’s heroine, portrayed by Adrienne King, wakes up adrift on the lake when suddenly Jason’s rotten corpse jumps out of the water, dragging her down under the surface. Once again, Lehman found himself in Savini’s make-up chair for an application that would be more graphic and disturbing then his first appearance. By the time the cameras were rolling for the additional scene principal photography had come to an end and the temperature in the water had dropped significantly. Lehman found himself standing waist-deep in the lake, covered in a thick layer of mud and wearing only a jockstrap. At Savini’s suggestion, Lehman had kept his distance from King prior to the shooting of the sequence in order to provoke an honest reaction from his co-star. His idea worked as, the moment Lehman leapt out of the water, King reacted with pure terror.
Between each take, Lehman would reapply a new layer of mud from the bottom of the lake and, after several different attempts, Cunningham was satisfied with the scene and Lehman was finally able to climb out of the water. Perhaps not surprisingly, Lehman chose not to pursue an acting career after completing work on Friday the 13th. Instead, he returned to New York and continued to study playing jazz on piano, before enrolling at New York University, where he was taught by the likes of Vladimir Shafranov. Having gained acclaim for his work as a keyboardist performing reggae with his group, the Ari Ben Moses Band, Lehman was introduced to the horror movie convention circuit in 2002 and discovered the cult following that he had gained through his role as Jason. This would prompt him to form a new band entitled First Jason, in tribute to his breakthrough role and legacy within the horror genre. Over thirty years after making his brief-yet-memorable appearance as Jason Voorhees and Lehman continues to promote his part in the franchise, not only paying tribute to his character in his music but also contributing to the likes of Crystal Lake Memories and His Name Was Jason: 30 Years of Friday the 13th.