One of the most dependable and recognizable character actors of the 20th century, John Saxon played intense men of action on both sides of the law in a wide range of films, including "The Appaloosa" (1966), "Enter the Dragon" (1973) and "The Electric Horsemen" (1979). A teen idol in the 1950s, his darkly handsome looks allowed him to tackle a wide variety of ethnic types, from Arab princes in "The Big Fisherman" (1959) to Mexican bandits in Joe Kidd (1972) and Italian mobsters and cops in a long list of gangster films from that country. His team-up with Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon" and the proto-slasher "Black Christmas" (1974) gave him cult cache, which led to a second career as a horror star from the 1970s onward, most notably in "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984). Still active in his seventies, Saxon remained an audience favorite for tough guys, bad men and those who generally meant business.
Born Carmine Orrico in Brooklyn, NY on Aug. 5, 1936, he was the first child of dockworker, Antonio Orrico, and his wife, Anna Protettore. He developed an interest in acting while a student at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, and soon divided his time between his basic studies and drama training under the famed Stella Adler in Manhattan. He also modeled on occasion for magazine covers; one such photograph allegedly caught the attention of Hollywood agent Henry Willson, who represented Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, among other movie heartthrobs. According to some reports, Willson brought the teenager to Hollywood, where he landed him a contract with Universal. He also provided a new moniker for his client - John Saxon - which he would use throughout his long career.
Uncredited bits in the Judy Garland/James Mason incarnation of "A Star is Born" (1954) preceded his screen debut as a naïve teen in the youth-oriented crime picture, "Running Wild" (1955). With his dark complexion and brooding demeanor, he quickly became a non-threatening crush object for teen girls in tame rock and roll pictures like "Rock, Pretty Baby" (1956) and its sequel, "Summer Love" (1958), as well as family films like "The Reluctant Debutante" (1958) with Rex Harrison and Angela Lansbury. The latter was one of three films to pair him with ingénue Sandra Dee; the others were the nostalgic romance "The Restless Years" (1958) and producer Ross Hunter's glossy murder mystery, "Portrait in Black" (1960).
Like many of his fellow matinee idols, Saxon longed to be taken seriously as an actor, and sought out more dramatic roles that would serve as a better showcase for his talents. The first of these was "The Unguarded Moment" (1956), a pulpy psychodrama with Saxon as an unbalanced student obsessed with his teacher (swimming star Esther Williams). But over time, Saxon slowly moved out of the teeny-bopper fare, though traces still lingered, like his romantic Arab prince in the Biblical epic "The Big Fisherman" (1959). The drama "Cry Tough" (1959) gave him a rare shot at a lead as a Puerto Rican ex-con trying to stay out of trouble, while John Huston's "The Unforgiven" (1960) cast him as a half-breed cowhand struggling with racial prejudice. Despite the capability with leading roles and ethic types that both films showcased, as well as a 1958 Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer -which he shared with James Garner and Patrick Wayne - Saxon's standing in Hollywood was in decline. None of the films save "The Big Fisherman" had done well at the box office, and by 1961, his contract with Universal had run out. He soon joined the growing line of American actors headed for Europe to make a go in its booming film industry.
For the next three decades, Saxon would split his time onscreen between the United States and Italy. In his home country, he would come to be known as a dependable character actor, while in Europe, he was a leading man whose Hollywood connection made him a viable commodity. His Italian efforts began with "Agostino" (1962), a highly stylized version of Oedipus, with Saxon as a playboy who entertains Ingrid Thulin while her son (Paolo Colombo) broods on the seashore. This was followed by the entertaining "Evil Eye" (1965) for suspense master Mario Bava, and the claustrophobic "Cavern" (1964) for low-budget auteur Edgar G. Ulmer. Back in the States, Saxon played character roles in a wide variety of films, from a psychopathic American GI in Korea in the suspenseful "War Hunt" (1962), to a boyfriend with a wandering eye in the Fred MacMurray family comedy "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation" (1962), to a spaceman beset by an alien vampiress in Curtis Harrington's "Queen of Blood" (1966).
The hours and miles logged as a journeyman actor seemed to pay off in 1966 with "The Appaloosa," a gritty Western with Marlon Brando as a buffalo hunter who loses the title horse to Saxon's sadistic Mexican bandit. Reviews were effusive in their praise for his performance, and Saxon netted a Golden Globe nomination as well as a Bronze Wrangler from the Western Heritage Awards. The attention also brought him back to work in America; he was top-billed as a chief surgeon alongside E.G. Marshall and David Hartman in "The Bold Ones: The New Doctors" (NBC, 1969-1973), and co-starred with Clint Eastwood in "Joe Kidd" (1972), in addition to a wealth of TV guest appearances.
In 1973, Saxon was top-billed in Warner Bros.' "Enter the Dragon," the first American motion picture to star Hong Kong martial arts sensation Bruce Lee. Though entirely a vehicle for Lee's jaw-dropping skills and magnetic persona, Saxon held his own as a gambler who joins Lee and fellow kung fu champ Jim Kelly in a clandestine fighting competition on a mysterious island. The result was the first genuine blockbuster of Saxon's career, and assured him cult status for the remainder of his career. Post-"Dragon," Saxon spent much of the '70s criss-crossing the globe for roles; he appeared in two failed science fiction pilots for Gene Roddenberry called "Planet Earth" (NBC, 1974) and "Strange New World" (ABC, 1975), as well as dozens of TV episodes. In Canada, he was top-billed alongside Margot Kidder in Bob Clark's truly frightening psycho-thriller "Black Christmas" (1974). Saxon also continued to return to Italy to play tough guys on both sides of the law in pictures like "Blazing Magnum" (1976) and "Violent Naples" (1976). He even reteamed with his "Reluctant Debutante" co-star, Rex Harrison, for a heist movie shot in India called "Shalimar" (1978). Saxon closed out the decade as a cold-hearted industrialist in Sydney Pollack's "The Electric Horseman" (1979), which would be his last major motion picture for several years.
The 1980s marked a period of intense activity for Saxon, though mostly in low-budget horror films on both sides of the Atlantic. Highlights during the period were the Roger Corman-produced "Battle Beyond the Stars" (1980), with John Sayles' script providing him some moments of light humor and high theatrics as an intergalactic villain who requires constant replacement of his limbs. "Tenebre" (1982) was a gory thriller from Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, while Richard Brooks tapped Saxon twice for the low-wattage black comedy "Wrong is Right" (1982) with Sean Connery, and the gambling drama "Fever Pitch" (1985) with Ryan O'Neal. Low points from the decade were undoubtedly "Cannibal Apocalypse" (1980), a grisly Italian-made gorefest with Saxon as a Vietnam vet who develops a taste for human flesh after his stint as a POW, and "Death House" (1987), a low-budget horror film that should have marked Saxon's directorial debut, but he either abandoned or was fired from the project.
Along the way, there were recurring turns on "Dynasty" (ABC, 1981-89) as a scheming Arab businessman in bed, both literally and figuratively, with Joan Collins' Alexis Carrington, and "Falcon Crest" (CBS, 1981-1990) as Lorenzo Lamas' father, but the most successful of his projects from the decade was Wes Craven's "A Nightmare on Elm Street." Saxon played a small town sheriff who decades earlier helped to kill a local child killer (Robert Englund) by burning him to death, and now finds his daughter (Heather Langenkamp) among the murderer's targets from beyond the grave. An exceptionally chilling entry in the '80s-era slasher craze, it was a massive hit on the horror circuit. The franchise also offered Saxon some choice opportunities to flex his acting talents. In "A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors" (1987), his sheriff has been reduced to an alcoholic shell of a man over the carnage unleashed by his vigilante actions in the first film, while in "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" (1994), he played both his sheriff role and himself on the set of the latest entry in the series.
Saxon continued to work steadily throughout the 1990s, mostly in low-budget genre pictures on both sides of the Atlantic. There were occasional returns to the mainstream, like a four-episode arc on "Melrose Place" (Fox, 1992-99) as Daphne Zuniga's lawyer, and a counterfeiting ringleader in "Beverly Hills Cop III" (1994). His enduring status as a cult favorite earned him a choice cameo as an FBI agent in Robert Rodriguez's action-horror film "From Dusk Till Dawn" (1996); that film's author and co-star, Quentin Tarantino, would re-team with Saxon almost a decade later for the fifth season finale of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (CBS, 2000- ). Tarantino gave Saxon a juicy role as a kidnapper who buries George Eads' crime scene investigator alive, forcing the team to race against the clock in order to save him.
As Saxon entered the fifth decade of his acting career, he showed no signs of slowing down. Cult filmmaker Monte Hellman directed him in a segment of the horror anthology "Trapped Ashes" (2006), while Dario Argento again tapped his talents for an exceptionally gory episode of "Masters of Horror" (Showtime, 2005- ). Saxon also claimed two late-inning honors from independent film festivals during this period; the indie drama "The Craving Heart" earned him a Best Supporting Actor trophy from the Action on Film International Festival, while "God's Ears" (2008), a boxing story about a fighter with autism, brought him honors from Method Fest. Saxon also received the rare chance to explore comedy as a retiree who becomes involved with the mob after mistakenly finding a shipment of drugs in "Old Dogs" (2009).