John Saxon: Teen Pop Idol to Kung Fu Icon

John Saxon was born Carmine Orrico in Brooklyn, the first child of Antonio and Anna Orrico. His mother was born in Caserta, a small city near Naples in Italy. There’s some confusion about John’s age, partly due to his fiddling’ of the dates for his first contract. “I was born on August 5, 1936. Many have it wrong because I made myself a year older to get a Universal contract at the start. If I had been younger it wouldn’t have worked.”

John’s interest in acting started as a teenager and he enrolled in dramatic school in Manhattan and studied with Stella Adler while still at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn. He also did some modeling. When he was 17 famous agent Henry Wilson saw him in a posed shot on the cover of True Romances magazine, signed him and renamed him. Just weeks after arriving in Los Angeles, he secured a contract with Universal Studios. After enrolling at the Universal studios acting school and several screen tests, his first two very small roles were in major releases directed by George Cukor. They were the Columbia comedy It Should Happen to You (1954) staring Judy Holiday and Jack Lemmon (who was making his debut) and Warner Brothers Technicolor Cinemascope remake of A Star Is Born (1954) starring Judy Garland and James Mason. John won his first real part as a rebellious youth in Universal’s Running Wild (1955)with Mamie Van Doren. Bill Campbell co-starred as a cop infiltrating teenage car theft gangs. “That was just a brief part breaking the ice for me. I was under contract at the time and luckily people liked what they saw. I started getting fan mail. I thought might enjoy some success as a young type, as a teen idol for a little while.”

He was third billed as a young sexual psychopath in the Universal Technicolor release The Unguarded Moment(1956) starring the former swimming star Esther Williams and George Nader. “That was my first role of significance. It was an interesting story and script that could be redone quite well today.” John played the football hero son of a misogynist father who was “filling the kids’ head with bad thoughts about women.” This led the teenager to lust after his teacher (Williams) and upset her life with a series of anonymous notes. John capitalized on that notice with further leading roles in mainstream fare, earning wide publicity and a “heart-throb” reputation propelled by regular coverage in teen-oriented movie magazines. “After Unguarded Moment I got a raise in my contract. I was enjoying real prosperity, although of course that was peanuts compared to today.”

Rock, Pretty Baby (1956)
Rock, Pretty Baby (1956)

The film that clinched his teen-idol status was Rock, Pretty Baby (1956), in which Saxon costarred as a member of a struggling rock band with Sal Mineo and that poet-laureate of the Hallmark Cards set, Rod McKuen.

“Rock, Pretty Baby was one of those family music-beach-teenage things,” Saxon explains. “I was about 20. It was an interesting experience, and very successful. We did a sequel the next year, Summer Love (1957).”

The film gave Saxon his first taste of stardom. It also gave him his first taste of the star’s responsibilities. “Rod and I had to tour to publicize the film,” Saxon says, “and we were getting crazy together on this intensive tour. After a while, just the first mention of any of the questions we kept being asked would cause us to burst into laughter. They had to cancel the tour.”

Third billed in Blake Edwards,’ Eastmancolor, Cinemascope This Happy Feeling (1958), he falls for Debbie Reynolds while her attention is set on a famous older actor (Curt Jurgens). He found another prestigious project in Vincente Minnelli’s The Reluctant Debutante (1958) playing another romantic lead and co-starring with the likes of Rex Harrison and Angela Lansbury. The Metrocolor Cinemascope comedy was also his first of several roles opposite Sandra Dee (Alexandra Zuck). “Now I was in the big time. It was my first trip abroad – to Paris – it was a big film with a big director. It was really heady stuff.” Although he concedes the film about classy British parents presenting their daughter to society failed to ignite the box office, John says he loved the experience. “I made a lot of friends and enjoyed the experience of being in Paris. I met a lot of ladies, too,” he adds with a laugh. The Restless Years (1958) a Universal Cinemascope release saw John with Sandra Dee in a soap opera about two troubled small town teens and an over-protective mother. “Sandra and I were becoming like the new young players. They were grooming us that way.” John was on the cover of the Jan., ’59 16 magazine along with (among others) Elvis, Ricky, Frankie, Sal Mineo, and Pat Boone.

The Reluctant Debutante (1958)

Cry Tough (1959) caused some controversy with its rather graphic (for the time) sex scenes but it also gave John one of his meatiest roles of the era as an ex-con lured back into the game by his old gang. The United Artists release was produced by Burt Lancaster’s company “It was based on one of a series of novels by Irving Shulman. I was raised in Brooklyn and recalled seeing a film City Across the River (1949) starring Tony Curtis, based on the same series of novels. So I was in a sequel to a picture I watched about Brooklyn when I was in Brooklyn.” The main characters had been changed from Italian to Puerto Rican but the “gangs and stuff” story followed a similar line. “It was a hard job. I was the lead and in about all the scenes. It was low budget and fast. I think I worked 12-hour days for 20 days. I was exhausted at the end. I think I slept for 12 hours a day for a week. It too was well reviewed. I think Time said I was ‘on the way up.’ I wished I’d kept a copy of that.”

Cry Tough
Cry Tough

The Big Fisherman (1959) a Technicolor Ultra Panavision 70 Disney Buena Vista biblical epic, was one of the odder film experiences for John at that stage of his career. He was second billed, behind Howard Keel as Simon Peter. “That was set in Biblical times. It was silly but fun. I was dressed up in headgear like some Arab prince. It was a big epic and most of the people involved were real old-timers. The producer (Rowland V. Lee) and a few others had started their careers in the silent movie days. I got to realize what a big stretch it had been since that time. I had an Arabian pony — a real monster. The problem was that my horse was supremely faster than the one ridden by Howard Keel so I couldn’t help but get in front of him. Now he was supposed to have just met with Christ, so I was supposed to stay behind him. They’d say don’t go so fast’ and I’d say ‘you tell that to the horse.”

The Big Fisherman
The Big Fisherman

The Unforgiven (1960), a two hour United Artists Panavision color western based on a novel by Alan Lemay, was another high-profile and highly regarded film. John shared screen time in John Huston’s tightly-woven tale of 1850s Texas racism with the likes of Burt Lancaster, Audie Murphy, Audrey Hepburn, and Lillian Gish. Two families are torn when Hepburn is suspected of being an Indian orphan. John considered this as potentially one of his greatest roles and although fourth in the credits he was left disappointed when many of his scenes were cut from the final print. “That was disappointing at the time and I never fully understood what happened until about 30 years later. Although the experience was a real adventure, it finished up a big disappointment because my role was largely truncated. I didn’t discover why I was largely cut until I read a book on Huston and realized he and Lancaster didn’t get along. It turns out I was in the middle of a dispute about the nature of the film between Lancaster and Huston. Huston would add some scenes and Lancaster would have them removed. I did a love scene with Audrey Hepburn where we were snuggling around a campfire and there was a suggestion we had slept together. It seems Lancaster decided he was the romantic hero so he had those scenes cut and then, as a result, more flow-on scenes were cut. It was the first big disappointment of my career but I found out later that Huston was my supporter.” John didn’t harbor any animosity towards Burt Lancaster. “No, I would see him and he was pleasant and well-met. The last time I saw him I was doing a play and he came backstage and we talked.” And he retains fond memories of the production. “We were filming in Durango, Mexico in 1959 and there was a real sense of adventure about it. We were in the wilds of the Sierre Madre. John Huston required that everyone be on the set every day so we’d all drive out together. I got a horse and a .22 rifle and I’d go out in the wilderness looking around. Sometimes I’d wonder if I’d ever get back. I found a few rattlers on the side of the road but I didn’t shoot anything.”

The Plunderers (1960)
The Plunderers (1960)

The Plunderers (1960) has been described as a western version of The Wild One (1953) with Saxon as the young leader of a gang, Jeff Chandler as a one armed Civil War vet hero, and Dolores Hart. It was the first of several films where John adopted a Mexican accent. “That was just a character role in what we called a black-and white program picture.” Other Universal releases were Ross Hunter’s Portrait in Black (1960) with Lana Turner and Sandra Dee, and Posse from Hell (1961)starring Audie Murphy as a lawman, and Saxon as a New York city slicker in the old west. Next John played alongside Hollywood legends James Stewart and Maureen O’Hara in the Cinemascope comedy Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962). “I played the son-in-law to Jimmy Stewart and Maureen O’Hara. It was a fairly small role for me. It was for 20th Century Fox and we filmed it at the end of 61. James Stewart was a very serious actor. I watched him one time do 30 takes of a scene even though the director and everyone else said it was fine. “Jimmy it’s great’ they’d say but he just kept going until he was satisfied. After my first scene he came up to me and said ‘you’re right – spot on’ which was very nice.”

War Hunt (1962)
War Hunt (1962)

John took the lead role as a schizo soldier in Dennis Sanders’ War Hunt (1962) which marked the debut of a young Robert Redford and also starred future director Sydney Pollack. The Korean War film was well reviewed and John agrees with its good reputation. “That was one of the more interesting experiences I’ve had. It made the New York film critics’ top 10 for the year but it was a bit dark and nobody knew what to do with it and so not many people saw it. It still turns up occasionally at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning on TV. It was a depiction of a character a bit like Audie Murphy – a baby-faced, unsuspecting hero. My character was a soldier who really enjoyed going out and killing people when he had to. It was a very interesting character role and I think I did a good job of it.” The film, set in Korea but filmed in Topanga Canyon, offset the more gruesome story by having John’s character care for an orphan boy. He then played Carol Lynley’s Jewish fiancé in Otto Preminger’s all star Panavision epic The Cardinal (1963).

But after a few years of stardom, Saxon began to feel restless. And instead of working on his publicity and sucking up to fan magazines, he simply left.

“I went off to Europe to see what I could do there. I thought it might be more interesting,” Saxon says. He took an acting job in Italy in order to see Europe. He didn’t realize he would be working with one of the world’s most respected horror directors, Mario Bava.

In the early 60s John’s contract expired with Universal and he moved to Italy to broaden his career. “The contract system was being disbanded and there was a real change in the industry. I had no job to look forward to so when an offer came up in Italy I took it.”

Mauro Bolognini’s Agostino (1962) starred Ingrid Thulin as the Venice mother of a troubled teenage boy (Paolo Colombo). Saxon was fourth billed as her lover. The Evil Eye/The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). When I went, I was not aware of him as someone regarded as a master. I found him interesting, but I don’t think I was interested enough in him at that time to explore what he did as a director.”


Saxon was never particularly impressed with the film itself. “The film was one of Bava’s suspense thrillers with comic overtones, and it didn’t work very well. It was not one of his classics.”

But if the film wasn’t interesting, the director certainly was. Bava’s manner on the set was not like that of most other directors. “Bava had a lot of superstitions,” Saxon says. “Sometimes it seemed like he lived in his own personal world of superstition. He was filled with almost occult beliefs about anything: you didn’t do this because it was bad luck.”

The Cavern
The Cavern

Other overseas productions followed including Edgar G. Ulmer’s last film The Cavern (1964) made in Italy and released by 20th Century, Eddie Romero’s WWII drama The Ravagers (1965) filmed in the Phillipines, and John Gilling’s Night Caller from Outer Space/Blood Beast from Outer Space (1966)from England. Italy remains one of his favorite filming locations. “If I were to have a favorite it would be Italy, because of my familiarity with it and because I understand and manage to speak the language to some degree. But look ing back, all the places I’ve worked in that were new and engrossing, like India, China and Russia, I’d like to return to. I’m also partial to returning to Spain and Mexico because I speak a modicum of Spanish as well.”

Saxon felt ready for another change. “I lived in Italy for a while, but after nine months I realized I didn’t want to stay there.”

Saxon returned to Hollywood. He quickly made the discovery that so many other former teen idols had made: “When I came back, people weren’t exactly waiting for me to return.”

Finding that his livelihood as a leading man had come to a dead stop, he reconsidered his career. “I realized I had to use the things I knew were my strengths, and work for character stuff. After all, I hadn’t had a big break in my career. I started over again, this time playing the heavy.” His new career didn’t get off to a smooth start. “When I began, I wasn’t always the first bad guy, sometimes I was the second or third. But I thought I’d be able to spin off from those roles a career as a character actor, playing more than just myself, more than just being a leading man.”

The Appaloosa (1966)
The Appaloosa (1966)

It wasn’t easy for Saxon to become respected enough as an actor to land even decent supporting roles. The breakthrough came on the Western The Appaloosa (1966), in which he played opposite Marlon Brando. It was a breakthrough he made for himself.

“I really pursued the part with Brando against all odds,” Saxon says, “because no one thought I’d get it. My agent suggested to the studio chief that play it, and the studio chief said ‘Are you kidding? This is the Mexican bandit chief playing against Brando. He can’t do that.’ But by one of those Hollywood things, I knew the secretary of the director, who told me that he would be at his office at nine in the morning, and if I wanted to sit there, she would let me. It just happened that the director Sidney Furie walked out of his office, looked at me, and said ‘That’s the kind of guy we need for the part.’ That got me the test, and the test got me the part. And that film gave me credibility as a character actor.”

“Brando was quite magnanimous and unmovie-star like. We improvised and I wrote a great deal of it. He didn’t want to do a portion of the film in the first pages of the script where he was a buffalo hunter among the north plains Indians. He felt the director wouldn’t have the sensitivity to treat the plains Indians in a proper fashion. He wouldn’t do it so it got cut out and so the whole thing started off on a stumble and everything became a little different from the script and we found ourselves changing things and improvising.

“There was a good scene of an arm wrestle that came about because I told them a story about being in Mexico where there was a folklore or myth that in the city prison when it got overcrowded they cleared it out by putting scorpions in the bedding of the prisoners. He thought of a wrist wrestle that involved the use of scorpions and I wrote all the dialogue.” John debunks Brando’s sometimes prickly reputation. “He was terrific to work with — I’m sure other people feel the same way. That was a great creative experience. I haven’t had such an opportunity since.”

Planet of Blood/Queen of Blood (1966)
Planet of Blood/Queen of Blood (1966)

Saxon’s new career as a character actor led him into a world he had known little about: the world of science fiction and horror films. His science fiction career got off to an auspicious start in the Roger Corman mini-budget classic, Planet of Blood/Queen of Blood (1966)

“Queen of Blood was one of the things Roger Corman put together real quick. A director I knew had the opportunity to put a film around special effects the Corman brothers had purchased from some Yugoslavian or Czechoslovakian science fiction film. The film took 10 days to put together. It was just a job when I needed a job. But it, too, has had its own life, and it certainly made some money for the Corman brothers.”

The film may just have been a job when Saxon needed a job, but it led to his discovering that he liked science fiction.

“I like horror and science fiction because I feel they have a little glimmer of perception about something in the human pysche, in human nature, that ordinary naturalistic drama doesn’t turn up. I get a little kick out of scripts that have something like that.”

A new contract with Universal led to more roles in TV series and in some of the earliest feature length films made expressly for television. The Doomsday Flight (TV Movie 1966) and Winchester 73 (TV Movie 1967) with Tom Tyron. Magnificent Thief (1967) starring Robert Wagner and Istanbul Express (TV Movie 1968) starred Gene Barry. Both were filmed in Europe. He married Mary Ann Murphy in ’67 and they had a son. They later divorced and he married Liz Phillips.

Istanbul Express (TV Movie 1968)
Istanbul Express (TV Movie 1968)

He portrayed Marco Polo in episode 26 of The Time Tunnel (“Attack of the Barbarians”), originally broadcast on March 10, 1967, and was a guest actor on Bonanza in 1967 (“The Conquistadores”). In episode 19, season 5 of The Virginian (“The Modoc Kid”) Saxon appeared in the title role alongside a young actor, appearing in one of his first speaking roles, Harrison Ford. And in 1969 he appeared in (“My Friend, My Enemy”).

In For Singles Only (1968), a Sam Katzman production, Saxon’s character bets his friends that he can score with Mary Ann Mobley. I Came, I Saw, I Shot (1968), co-starring Antonio Sabato, was Saxon’s first Italian western and Death of a Gunfighter (1969)co-directed by Don Siegel, starred Richard Widmark, Lena Horne, and Saxon as the sheriff. His first TV series starring role was in The Bold Ones: The New Doctors (TV Series 1969–1973) “That was a series about new aspects of professions at the time. It was originally a three-part evolving series and E.G. Marshall and myself played doctors. I was a thoracic surgeon and it dealt with heart transplants and some of the other breakthroughs that were happening at that time. The storylines were quite similar to what people watch today on ER. It was a very good show.”

Joe Kidd (1972)

John was up for the Sonny Corleone role in The Godfather (1972) but he scored a leading role opposite his old acting school buddy Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd (1972)and got to use an impressive Mexican accent. “The script was written by Elmore Leonard which meant absolutely nothing to me at the time I worked on the film, because I hadn’t ever read any of his books then; now I’ve read almost all of them. The character I played, Luis Chama, was kind of based on a more recent event in the 1960s, not the 1860s.” The 1960s case involved a New Mexican who went to a courthouse and in retaliation for the loss of land grants to the people of New Mexico burned present day land records.

John played a similar character from the 1860s. “One thing I didn’t like about the film, and I don’t really remember if the script made it this way or it came about from the director, or from Eastwood, but since there had to be, I guess, just one hero,’ Chama’s character was tarnished with inferences of being a phony, not a man with the people’s interest at heart.”

The film which had the most lasting influence on John’s career was Enter the Dragon (1973) where he was top billed with the legendary Bruce Lee.

Actor John Saxon on the set of the movie 'Enter the Dragon
Actor John Saxon on the set of the movie ‘Enter the Dragon

There’s even an action figure of John as his character Roper. “I’ve been in more than 100 movies and countless TV shows but everyone, all over the place, comes back to ENTER THE DRAGON. I think it will be on my tombstone — Here Lies Roper’ although I hope I get the chance to do something more serious to be recognized for. ENTER THE DRAGON was a film I almost didn’t do at the last minute because I thought it wasn’t enough of a role — that it was a stuntman’s job.” John believed the film needed more scenes to explain the characters and set the scene for the martial arts fights, some acting sequences to mix with those of the action kind. “Eventually in discussions with producers things prevailed and we suggested they do these extra scenes much of which didn’t appear in the movie anyway. I guess they must have been right in the first place!” With the advantage of hindsight, John now has no regrets about continuing in the role and says he found Bruce Lee pleasant to work with. “It is for sheer visibility the thing I’m most recognized for.

I was in England a short while back and people came to see me because I was in ENTER THE DRAGON. Some people say it changed their lives.” As Roper, one of the competitors in an elaborate martial arts tournament on an island fortress, he got to match his black belt skills alongside the most famous exponent of martial arts, and although he later turned more to tai-chi he was often called on in films to perform in karate fights. Although most often quizzed about this and other high-profile roles, the cumulative effect of more than 100 films and 200 TV appearances make John a recognizable face. “It creates an effect of people looking on the street — either they know me or they think they know me. People can be very nice. The main problem is when people say ‘what did I see you in?’ It can become like doing a resume. You say, did you see this, did you see that?,” he laughs. “I’m amazed at how many fans, not just my own, who really seriously watch and take movies very seriously and write me letters from things I’ve done 20 years ago or five years ago that they remember very well. I must confess that’s a very uplifting kind of feeling to have what you do appreciated with some lasting quality and durability.”

Bob Clark cast Saxon as a cop in Black Christmas (1974). The Warners release has probably still not received the kudos it is due for launching a new style of horror movie. “That kicked off FRIDAY THE 13th, HALLOWEEN and all of those films with the guy (killer) in a mask and a holiday setting. Science fiction and horror were taking over from westerns and I thought at the time that we were on to something.” In retrospect it seems to have all the cliches of the slasher genre — it is set in a sorority house, young sexually-active women are the prime tar gets of a crazed killer, it happens over a holiday period, the killer uses obscene phone calls to terrorize his victims. John played the detective investigating the murders. Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey and Keir Dullea were the other lead actors. The Canadian-made thriller went on to become one of the country’s highest grossing films to that time but it struggled to gain a footing in the US. “When they brought it out in the States they thought the title was misleading, that it was about a black family or something. So they changed the title and the promotional campaign. It didn’t do much so Bob Clark insisted they go back to its original title and so it came out again and did very well.

Black Christmas (1974)
Black Christmas (1974)

Saxon was cast as Lieutenant Kenneth Fuller. a kind Canadian cop who tries in vain to capture an unidentified creep, who’s been terrorizing a sorority house (Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin were among the tenants) with obscene phone calls while stalking and killing them one by one. As any Black Christmas fanatic knows, Saxon was set to play the role, but was replaced by actor Edmund O’Brien. Later he was called in at the last-minute to replace the ailing O’Brien, agreeing to fly into Toronto overnight – learning the lines for his first scene on the plane.

“I arrived at about midnight in Toronto and was taken to the set, which was the scene in the park where I have the megaphone, you know, and 1 think I finished at about three in the morning or later.” Saxon recalls. “It was a last-minute decision. I don’t know if (O’Brien] was ill or if he was drinking or what it was, but it was an emergency call that got me back into the show.”

Black Christmas became the third largest grossing movie in Canada at the time. But despite its initial success, the film was bizarrely re-titled and re-released to foreign markets under the name Silent Night, Bloody Night (because Warner Bros. felt that viewers would think it was “a movie about black people, thereby narrowing the market, according to Saxon). That absurdity and poor international box office returns aside, Saxon feels (as do many genre cinephiles) that Black Christmas nevertheless went on to inspire an entire subgenre: the slasher movie, which obviously includes Halloween. John Carpenter’s seminal horror film was based on a similar premise and released five years after Clark’s movie.

“Shortly thereafter, I remember seeing other films with names I can’t remember that had the same gimmick,” says Saxon. “I didn’t really go to see any of the movies like Friday the 13th, and so on, but I’m pretty sure they had a springboard from Black Christmas in a way.”

 Planet Earth
John Saxon as Dylan Hunt, Planet Earth.

The Gene Roddenberry TV pilot, Planet Earth (1974), in which Saxon starred as a 20th-century man in the year 2133. Saxon feels the film, like his character, was simply ahead of its time. “Planet Earth, which came years before Star Wars, had many elements similar to that film: it showed different species, different civilizations–they were civilizations of the mind. My agents couldn’t understand-they thought it was crap. But I saw something interesting there. I think the show was just a little early to be successful.”

Planet Earth was not a success, either with the critics or with the networks. Saxon feels people misunderstood the film. “There was a sense of humor in Planet Earth. Some critics thought it was unintentional humor–the schmucks didn’t realize it was intentional; they couldn’t see science fiction and humor going together. Science fiction at this time was seen as dark and foreboding. But there has always been a dark humor in science fiction. The network got scared because of the critical reaction. Roddenberry forsaw this, and had been pressured by the networks. He told me he was worried because the script had humor in it, and I told him not to worry.”

Planet Earth fit Saxon’s paradigm for good science fiction. “The show included a veiled comment on something that sometimes arises in society-in this case, it was on the women’s movement. In the pilot, there was an enclave of humanity in which women had finally achieved their fondest achievement-they had domesticated men the way some might say men have now domesticated women-but they didn’t like it. Unfortunately, the men had lost their sexual vigor. In other words, the women had achieved their objective, but it didn’t work out for them.”

Although the network wasn’t fond of the pilot, they still liked the idea of John Saxon waking up 180 years in the future. Another pilot was made. This one was called Strange New World, and this time there was no Gene Roddenberry.

“The network tried to do the show a second time they thought it was a good show, but not done the right way. They wanted something fresh and different.

The second pilot was different, but critics didn’t treat it differently. It was panned, too. Even Saxon didn’t like it as much as the first because the humor was gone.

Moonshine County Express (1977) Italian Poster
Moonshine County Express (1977) Italian Poster

John’s busy schedule saw him cast in at least five films a year through the mid-1970s. He was in the tough action drama Mitchell (1975) with Joe Don Baker, was a gangster double-crossing friends in The Swiss Conspiracy (1976) with David Janssen and Elke Summer, joined the impressive cast in the top-rated TV miniseries Once an Eagle (TV Mini-Series 1976–1977) and was a regular face on TV, turning up in many prominent guest spots. John found himself venturing into drive-in fare in the popular Moonshine County Express (1977)which followed the exploits of the daughters of a murdered moonshiner competing with their father’s former rival who they believe was responsible for his death. “That was a clora of Burt Reynolds’ films with car chases, southern whisky runners and so on. I can’t say much about it. It was just a job but it was fun and again it’s got a bit of a following.” John was top-billed and starred alongside William Conrad, Claudia Jennings, Jeff Corey and Maureen McCormick. Raid on Entebbe (TV Movie 1977)was a high-profile TV mini-series and gave John the chance to play a real character. “That was a three-hour mini-series version of when Israeli paratroopers rescued a plane hijacked in Uganda. I played General Benny Peled, the man who was the head of the Israeli airforce. I don’t know if I looked like the actual character. I never met him but I never heard anyone complain.” John was in strong company with Charles Bronson, Peter Finch and a young James Woods and the top-rated series garnered positive reviews and Emmy nominations.

The Bees (1978)
The Bees (1978)

One of the worst was The Bees (1978), a New World quickie rushed out to beat Irwin Allen’s The Swarm to the screen. If nothing else, it was a memorable experience for Saxon, who had the lead.

“I had to work with loads of bees. They all had their stingers taken out; you have to do that to each bee individually. There were dozens and dozens of people with exacto knives running around cutting the stingers out of anesthetized bees. Bees are nice people, and, in fact, as a result of the film I now have a colony of bees, but when you’re in a closed room with hundreds of thousands of bees, you have to remove their stingers, because if they chose to get mad, the results could be fatal.”

In the film John played one of the scientists trying to stop the spread of deadly South American bees which had been smuggled into the US. He starred opposite John Carradine who adopted a terrible fake German accent. With cheap effects and some dubious support actors, the film would have been bad enough anyway, but when the main characters start communicating with the bees (who send a warning about destroying the environment) we get into genuinely bizarre territory. But the experience wasn’t all bad for John. “I never got stung — in fact I actually kept some bees in the hills near my home after that film.”

The Glove (1979)
The Glove (1979)

The Glove (1979) was a low-budget action film about a villain inflicting damage on various people with an iron glove, and was directed by Ross Hagen. The next year Fast Company (1979) was a rare non-horror role for David Cronenberg who got to pursue his interest in racing cars. John stars in the Canadian-shot action film with William Smith. “I did enjoy that. I’m very fond of working in Canada – Canada has been good to me over the years. I think Cronenberg was really terrific. The film I did with him was not a horror film but I wished I had been able to work with him on one of his horror films. It was not something he wrote and it was not consistent with his other work. He takes enormous risks with his other work. I wanted very much after reading THE BROOD to do it (the role went to Oliver Reed). That appeals very much to me – the psychological aspect of it. It has a psychological truth that pushed it into the realm of being horror-inspiring.”

His old friendship with director Sydney Pollack led John to a supporting role in The Electric Horseman (1979), “I took that at the last minute. I was about to start a TV show and when I had the chance at that role I begged-off and took it instead. I was the head of a big conglomerate who didn’t speak much but it was a good role working with good people.” Robert Redford, as a rodeo star who steals a horse, Jane Fonda and Willie Nelson headed the cast with John fifth in the credits. “I enjoyed it but it was not easy having last worked with Redford and Pollack when I was the star. Now the whole thing was reversed but it was a good role and quite successful.”

Although Saxon has played a variety of heroes-including one of the three martial arts superstars with Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly in Enter the Dragon-he is still most fondly remembered by genre fans for his villainous roles. Probably his best remembered villain is in Battle Beyond the Stars (1980).

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Saxon doesn’t anticipate many more villainous roles for a while. “I think I’ve had my fill of villains. I don’t think I could go back to that. It’s not that I’ll never play another villain. It’s just that to me at that time, that was laughs and fun. Now it wouldn’t be fun. You change and you have other kinds of things occur, other directions, closer to other feelings. It’s not that I couldn’t do it if I had to, but I wouldn’t get as much of a kick out of it.”

Blood Beach (1980) was another horror but with a nice dose of tongue-in-cheek humor rather than tongue-in-phone effects. “There was a nice fellow directing it (Jeffrey Bloom) and I enjoyed working on that. I thought it played quite well.” John plays another police chief trying to sort out some bizarre mystery, in this case a monster lurking under the sand and munching on beach visitors. He also gets to say the classic line: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, you can’t get across the damn beach.’ “Yeah, that was a take-off of JAWS. It wasn’t bad.”

Blood Beach (1980)
Blood Beach (1980)

In Beyond Evil (1980) he and Linda Day George played the not-so-proud owners of a house haunted by its former inhabitant. From the start John realized its limitations. “I remember arguing with them. I said about the effects, ‘forget that stuff, you haven’t got enough money to do it properly. Concentrate on the characters and the tension.’ I’d love to do a horror film that’s truly horrific on some way. There’s so many film and horror buffs out there today that they’re not frightened anymore.

Cannibals in the Streets (1980), was never significantly distributed in this country. But Saxon stands by his reasons for doing the film.

“Cannibals in the Streets included the elements that attract me to science fiction. In the film, the cannibalism was a metaphor for some of the darker aspects of human nature; it was directly related to Vietnam. The cannibalism was like rabies–one who is bitten becomes infected and spreads the disease.”

Cannibals in the Streets (1980)
Cannibals in the Streets (1980)

In the film, Saxon plays a Green Beret who contracts a virus in Vietnam that turns him into a cannibal. Back in the States his appetite for flesh drives him to commit unspeakable acts that only a Romero zombie would condone. The film includes scenes of violence so graphic that the film was rated X. But the violence doesn’t trouble Saxon.

“The nature of the film is violent. The violence is justified,” Saxon says.

As for cinematic violence in general, Saxon has mixed feelings. “I think it’s the old story: when the violence follows the dictates of some kind of psychological logic, when it follows the dictates of the story, I don’t mind. But when the violence merely follows the dictates of the box office, become a little queasy, a little disgusted. It’s not the violence itself that’s disgusting; I just think, Oh, that again.”

While John was relieved of involvement in the most gruesome scenes, the film eventually found a market. “It was a European production aimed at a particular market at the time Germany, Japan, Korea — where for a brief period they all had rather exotic far-out tastes. And sure enough a friend from Korea told me my film was a big success. I asked which film and he mentioned that one. I thought ‘oh God.’ That was one at the time I wished I hadn’t done.”

Dario Argento’s Tenebrae/Unsane (1982) saw John play the agent of an American novelist. “That was only a brief job. I only got to see it for the first time a few months ago. It was a cute part for me – a pushy literary agent — but I was not sure what I was there for. I know he (Argento) has the best reputation and has sort of taken on the mantle of another guy I worked for, Mario Bava, many years ago. But I don’t know his work that well. He seemed an odd sort of a guy he certainly was wired like many directors are. I haven’t seen him since.” In ’82 the first of John’s two roles for veteran director Richard Brooks came in Wrong Is Right (1982) a satirical jab at TV and government links to terrorism that boasted a stellar cast including Sean Connery, Katharine Ross, Leslie Nielsen and Dean Stockwell. “Richard Brooks was right onto things but he was getting to the stage where he wasn’t tuned into audiences. He maybe knew too much and his films were going over the heads of the audience. But it was very well written and intelligent.”

Fever Pitch (1985)
Fever Pitch (1985)

His second role with Brooks followed in Fever Pitch (1985) playing the sports editor to columnist Ryan O’Neil who became a little too close to the subject when researching a piece on gambling.

“My problem is that I play characters, but I still look like a leading man. I don’t look like one of the guys who usually fit into character types-in Fever Pitch. I’m not the kind of guy most directors would cast as the sports editor, who’s the buddy of the hero. The fact that I still have too much of a leading man look prevents me from getting a lot of good character parts in big films. On the other hand, it opens up other things.”

John united with blaxploitation veterans Fred Williamson and Richard Roundtree in the typically action-packed The Big Score (1983)that saw unconventional cop Williamson breaking all the rules to track down drug dealers.

He made several TV movies in this era and also appeared in the acclaimed mini-series Half Slave, Half Free/Solomon Northup’s Odyssey (1984) based on the true story of a black man born free but captured and sold into slavery. He appeared on several episodes of FANTASY ISLAND and also sold an episode he wrote for the series.

Although he saw most of the fame go to Robert Englund for his portrayal of Freddy Krueger, John was top-billed in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which is now rightly regarded as a horror classic. He played disbelieving cop Lt. Donald Thompson whose on-screen daughter became the target of Freddy’s finger-knives. It represented another of those times when John realized he was working on something a bit special in the horror genre. “I liked the material a lot and I very much liked the idea of dream reality having a significance that was equal if not greater than everyday reality. Once I was on the film I wasn’t quite so sure how it was turning out but I was very pleased and surprised when I finally saw it. I realized Craven had worked very hard on it, not only in what I had done but everything else I didn’t see and in post-production. I was very impressed with that first film.”

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

After missing the first sequel, with Wes Craven back on board as writer, John returned for the second Freddy Krueger sequel, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)regarded by some as one of the best of the series. “I’d say one and three are the best. I’ve seen a bit of four which I marveled at the beginning of, Renny Harlin directed it. The first 15 minutes or so were brilliant cinematically and then the same thing happened and it just lost me.

I think the first was perhaps the best, three was kinda interesting. I thought with the effects, everyone just got caught up in the ability and license in that particular kind of movie that had to do with dreams and they spent more time and gave more attention to the effects than in building a credible, psychological story. That’s just my take. I thought with the original it started out with real promise.” But the cult following that followed Freddy Krueger and horror movies in general intrigues John Saxon. “I canvassed the set one time during the making of number three asking everybody, including Robert (Englund), about what it meant. I came up with a design for the story using the ingredients I had seen and putting it together in a psychological framework. Nobody much liked it at New Line,” he laughs. “I don’t really know why people go to that (horror). There’s some desire in everyone to be frightened. That’s what people go to horror movies for — they have to renew themselves every so often.”

His busy late 80s schedule also included a starring role in the hit TV series FALCON CREST as Tony Cumson. He also scored roles in DYNASTY and the soap ANOTHER WORLD. John got to realize a long term ambition when he came to direct Death House (1988) although the circumstances were far from ideal. Saxon plays Colonel Burgess, the government agent in charge of the evil prisoner experimentation. At first, the drugs used are of a benign nature, but Burgess decides it’s a good opportunity to test something far more controversial. The new drug is designed to create a super army of aggressive soldiers, one willing to tear apart the enemy with their bare hands. In typical fashion, the drug turns out to have decidedly unpleasant side effects and proves highly contagious. Consequently, an epidemic breaks out causing the majority of inmates to mutate into bloodlusting ghouls.

Death House (1988)
Death House (1988)

The project was initially offered to me as an actor,” Saxon explains. “They said they were about to go into production almost immediately and didn’t have a director. so I replied that I’d do the part if I could direct. They agreed. It was as quick and as simple as that.

“I had wanted to direct for a while,” he admits. In fact, I thought about it for many years but had cold feet about the idea. Like some things in life, there comes a time when a situation occurs, you don’t have time to think about it, so you do it. There’s no question. though, that having worked as an actor for so long, having years of film experience, is extremely useful. Yet I wasn’t sure how much I would know.”

True to low-budget form, however, once Saxon signed on. there was very little preparatory time. “I had a week for guiding a rewrite, completing the casting, visiting locations, checking out the special effects and so on. I managed to cover a lot of groundwork,” he states.

“It had unfortunately a problem after I finished directing it of warring factions of ownership and it kept it inhibited from being shown when it should have been shown. It was shot in ’87 and I think it came out too late and the market had changed.”

My Mom’s a Werewolf (1989) was a comic break from the action material that dominated his work in the late 1980s. John played the Smooth owner of a pet store who infects mother Susan Blakely with his werewolf disease. “Susan was very pleasant to work with but that was really for kids. The director was a little daffy but it was pretty successful. It’s funny, something intelligent and well written like WRONG IS RIGHT is not a success but this is.” John appeared in a succession of direct-to-video action films, most regularly cast as the villain but sometimes upholding the law.

My Mom's a Werewolf (1989)
My Mom’s a Werewolf (1989)

Blood Salvage (1990) was one of the better examples of this era with its rural gothic depiction of a car scrapyard dealing in human body parts collected from crash victims (look closely and you’ll even see Elvis back in the building). “That was interesting, but a very bizarre and gory story. We shot it in Georgia and I think I worked on it for about two weeks. It was made by some graduates of film school. Ray Walston was the only other Hollywood actor in it. The most important roles were played by locals. Some were interesting, some not up to supporting a movie. What I most recall about it was that the sets were wonderful. It probably deserved a bit more attention but because it was gory it doesn’t get played on TV too much.” In most of these straight to video films John was cast either as a cop/agent or the villain. “I do tire of playing villains. I would like to probably do the rest of my career without a villain. In some cases I will do them if they are offered and they represent a good job but I’m hoping I can create a more human side to the type of performances and roles I have.” Many of his films in this era were made for cable TV. “Cable gets into niches too, like the erotic thriller. They’ll pencil in everyone’s idea of an erotic thriller. The independent films sometimes do the best. As the name suggests, they try to be different and try something on its own merits.”

Aftershock (1990) saw John join a who’s who of direct-to-video favorites, including Michael Berryman, Richard Lynch, Russ Tamblyn and Elizabeth Kaitan who played a sexy alien sent to earth to find out about peace but instead finds herself on the run from military dictators who have assumed control after WWIII. More titles included Crossing the Line (1990)a decent motorcycle action film from director Gary Graver, The Arrival (1991) with John in familiar territory as an FBI agent in pursuit of an alien that has invaded its host and turned him into a younger homicidal maniac, and Hellmaster (1992)

Hellmaster (1992)
Hellmaster (1992)

Though Saxon has a long list of movie and TV credits he still cites Black Christmas as his favorite genre role to date. “I’m a bigger fan of Black Christmas simply because I did like the idea. When I read the script of Nightmare on Elm Street … I don’t remember that I was too crazy about everything in the Script,” he admits. “Black Christmas really is a drama about people with different conflicts with one another, like Olivia had in the sense of abortion, which at that time was pretty risky.”

Psychotronic Video#40
Rue Morgue#63

5 thoughts on “John Saxon: Teen Pop Idol to Kung Fu Icon

  1. Saxon, like Big Bill Smith, was an actor who all over my childhood/ Movies and television. So loved him in Battle Beyond the Stars and Tenebre. he made his character in Cannibals in the Streets quite likable and tragic. Sorry to hear he wasn’t impressed with Bava’s Girl Who Knew Too Much. Love him in that, as he plays against his type.

    Liked by 1 person

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