Exploring: John Saxon

Born Carmine Orrico on August 5, 1936 and sadly departing this Earth just a few days ago, John Saxon is my favorite actor of all time. This isn’t hyperbole. This is fact, as Saxon unites nearly every one of my favorite film genres. You can always count on him to deliver the goods, no matter how small the movie gets.

The son of a Brooklyn dock worker, Saxon studied under Stella Adler and was originally set to be a matinee idol. How did that happen? Agent Henry Willson saw Saxon’s picture on the cover of a detective magazine and at the age of 17, he had a new name and was making $150 a week from Universal Studios.

After eighteen months of waiting, Saxon played alongside Mamie Van Doren in Running Wild (he appeared in uncredited roles in It Could Happen to You and the 1954 version of A Star Is Born). After The Unguarded Moment, where he is set up as the supposed stalker of Esther Willaims, he got a raise to $225 a year.

After Rock, Pretty Baby and its sequel, Summer Love, he lived up to the promise of being a star for the teenage girls. He starred opposite Sandra Dee in This Happy Feeling and The Reluctant Deubtante before finding his heart in character roles, starting in John Huston’s 1960 film The Unforgiven.

In 1962, Saxon made his first movie in Italy, a country he would return to throughout his career. A year later, he would appear in Mario Bava’s nascent giallo The Girl Who Knew Too Much, then globetrot back and forth, making The Cardinal for Otto Preminger (the movie that destroyed The Other author Tom Tryon) in Hollywood, The Ravagers in the Philippines, Night Caller from Outer Space in England and then went back to La La Land to make Queen of Blood. Heck, he even went to Bollywood before anyone knew what that was to make 1978’s Shalimar with Rex Harrison and Sylvia Miles (The SentinelThe Funhouse).

You can say that Saxon’s movies got smaller here, but for me, his roles from the late 60’s on define so many of the movies of my life. There’s Saxon as Mr. Roper, the gaijin ass-kicker alongside Bruce Lee in the movie that broke him in America, Enter the Dragon. Here he is in Italian Westerns like One Dollar Too Many. Giallo? He’s in Strange Shadows In An Empty Room and Tenebre, two of the best there are (well, Shadows is a weird mix of all kinds of movies in one). Slashers? He’s in one of the very first, Black Christmas.

Saxon is a dependable cop or crook in movies like Special Cop in ActionViolent Naples, hell even Mitchell.

I grew up on John Saxon. He was all over my television, whether he was beating up The Six-Million Dollar Man (he even got a toy made of his character Day of the Robot character, which was called Maskatron instead of Major Frederick Sloan; he also played Nedlick, the alien who got Steve Austin to battle Bigfoot), as a vampire fighting Starsky & Hutch, getting on The A-Team twice, being on both Falcon Crest and Dynasty and even being part of a whole series of Gene Roddenberry TV movies.

The first time I realized that Saxon was the same actor I loved in so many movies was when he played Sandor in Battle Beyond the Stars, a movie that dominated the daydreams of my pre-teen years.

Then came the role most people of my generation know him for, Lt. Donald Thompson in the A Nightmare on Elm Street films (he’s in the first, the third and appears as himself in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

Here are a few more of my favorite Saxon roles. Do yourself a favor and check them out.

Moonshine County Express: Gus Trikonis — who directed The Sidehackers — case Saxon as a karate fighting, moonshine running race card driver battling William Conrad alongside Susan Howard, Maurine “Marcia Brady” McCormick and the absolutely perfect Claudia Jennings.

The Bees: Yes, the same maniac that made Demonoid, Alfredo Zacarías, cast Saxon alongside John Carradine, Angel “The Teacher” Tompkins and Claudio Brook — yes, Simon of the Desert — in a war against killer bees.

Fast Company: Sure, you’re ready for William Smith, Claudia Jennings and Saxon in a racing film. But are you ready for one directed by David Cronenberg?

The Glove: Ross Hagen — Rommel from the aforementioned The Sidehackers — directed this sheer slice of bizarre, as Saxon plays a detective trying to stop Roosevelt Grierfrom killing his old prison guards with a giant spiked glove. Bonus points for casting Keenan Wynn, Joanna Cassidy, Old Hollywood star Joan Blondell, Aldo Ray and Michael Pataki, making this an all-star cast in the way that I mean all-star. That is, only character actors that I obsess over.

Cannibal Apocalypse: Saxon plays Norman Hopper, a man bitten in Vietnam that brings home his cannibal curse, starting with a teenager that tries to seduce him. Antonio Margheriti brings the gore in this one.

Blood Beach: Jeffrey Bloom made Flowers In the Attic and several Columbo TV movies before this backward riff on Jaws. “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…you can’t get to it!” yelled the posters and Saxon. Burt Young and the always wonderful Marianna Hill answered the call of, well, whatever was under the shifting sands of an LA beach.

The Scorpion with Two Tails: Nearly ten years after he had the best four year run of giallo in the history of the genre, Sergio Martino made a new film for the form, featuring Saxon as an archeologist studying Etruscan graves. Originally made for Italian TV, it was instead shown in theaters.

Desire: Eddie Romero, the man who put the green into Blood Island, worked with Saxon in 1982 to make this movie where a young Filipino girl falls for a man who might be her father. Of course, maybe daddy is Mr. Saxon.

Prisoners of the Lost Universe: Everyone knows Terry Marcel from Hawk the Slayer, but he also made this film with Richard Hatch, Kay Lenz, some cavemen and the man who tries with all his might to make it watchable: John Saxon.

Hands of Steel: Working with Martino yet again, this movie would have been the death of Saxon had it not been for him being a stickler for Screen Actors Guild rules. He would only appear in scenes shot in Italy, as the U.S. part of the film was a non-union shoot. Otherwise, he would have died along with Claudio Cassinelli in the tragic helicopter crash that marred this film. That said — I still love this strange little movie, an oddball potluck mix-up of Over the TopRambo: First Blood Part II and The Terminator. Also: the main character’s name is Paco Queruak.

Zombie Death House: Directed by the man himself, starring his Tenebre co-star Anthony Franciosa and combining the zombie, prison and mobster genres all into one film, this movie would be so much better had it a decent budget and more than nine days of shooting. I would have loved to have seen what else Saxon could have done.

My Mom’s a Werewolf: A rare comedy turn for Saxon finds him playing Harry Thropen, a mysterious pet store owner who turns Susan Blakely into a suburban lycanthropicMILF. I really think that my insanity cast this film, which has John Schuck, Diana Barrows, Marilyn McCoo and Ruth Buzzi all chewing up the scenery as if they’re doing dinner theater at the Slaughtered Lamb.

Nightmare Beach: Umberto Lenzi may have disavowed this film, seeing it as an inferior remake of his Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, but I absolutely love every single moment of this film, which has Saxon cast against type as a bad cop battling a biker back from the grave who has a chopper with an electric chair on the back of it.

Blood Salvage: Saxon plays a dad who should have just stayed home instead of taking his family on a backwoods vacation.

From Dusk Till Dawn: When you get rich and famous like Tarantino and Rodriguez, you can either cast your films with A-list talent, use your favorite grindhouse performers or just do all of the above. Here, Harvey Keitel, Salma Hayek, Juliette Lewis and George Clooney share screen time with Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Fred Williamson, Marc Lawrence and Saxon.

Saxon also appeared in everything from major Hollywood movies like Beverly Hills Cop III to VHS era-stuff like The ArrivalHellmaster and a late model 1993 Italian Western  I’ve become obsessed with finding: called Jonathan of the Bears. Directed by Enzo G. Castellari, it co-starred Bobby Rhodes, Franco Nero, David Hess and Andy Sidaris’ best villain, Rodrigo Obregón.

Television was also another home for the star, seeing him appear five times on Gunsmoke, six times on Fantasy Island, three times on Murder, She Wrote and in the TV movies Winchester ’73, Istanbul Express, The Intruders and many more, including the Dario Argento-directed episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror.

Perhaps the strangest Saxon story is that he wanted to write an Elm Street sequel called How the Nightmare Began which was all about how therapist Frederick Krueger was wrongly blamed for a series of murders that were really committed by the Manson Family. The script sold on eBay a while back and I wish that it was really a movie.

A lifelong liberal Democrat, a Black Belt, a former Coney Island archery game carnie and a man who was still acting until the last few years of his life, including appearing as the villain of a Tarantino-directed episode of CSI.

Saxon has so many roles that I’ve neglected at least a few of them. But that’s the beauty of a career this rich. There’s always something new to discover.

I found out Saxon died as I sat at the drive-in and it brought a tear to my eye. Do me a favor and pay tribute to the man by watching one of his films as soon as possible.

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