Remembering the great cult movie star who died yesterday.
John Saxon, who died yesterday aged 83, is perhaps doomed to be remembered – at least in the mainstream – as the star of Enter the Dragon and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but he was an actor with an extraordinary career stretching back into the early 1950s. Born Carmine Orrico, he was reinvented first as a teen heartthrob and then as the reliable star of genre films and cult classics for over fifty years.
Saxon had a style that was instantly his own – a cynical, slightly pissed-off and pained look that suggested that he knew more about what was going on than anyone else (or in some cases had read the script and knew what he’d let himself in for), and allowed him to be both a laconic hero and a charismatic villain. A lot of films wasted him – they wanted an affordable name actor, but didn’t really give him much to do (I’d include A Nightmare on Elm Street here). But his best work allowed him to develop interesting, quirky characters and his presence was always a welcome one – no matter what the rest of the film was like, you knew it would at least have a strong performance at its heart.
In the Fifties, Saxon appeared with Mamie Van Doren in Running Wild and was a teen delinquent or preppy hero in the likes of Rock, Pretty Baby, The Restless Years and Cry Tough. He was in cult Sixties science fiction films The Night Caller, shot in England, and Queen of Blood for Curtis Harrington, and appeared in numerous Westerns in the Sixties before his appearance alongside Bruce Lee – being the top-billed Western star, but sensibly playing second-fiddle to Lee in reality – in Enter the Dragon propelled him into action movies and a career in Italian cop films like The Cynic, the Rat and The Fist, A Special Cop in Action and Violent Naples. Other early Seventies work included Black Christmas, Raid on Entebbe, the Gene Roddenberry pilot Planet Earth and The Swiss Conspiracy, alsongside guest spots in numerous television shows, including the legendary Starsky and Hutch episode Vampire.
Saxon never quite made it to the upper echelons of Hollywood stardom, but that was to the benefit of his career, artistically at least. In meant that we could enjoy his presence as a lead actor in the likes of Battle Beyond the Stars, Fast Company, Blood Beach, Prisoners of the Lost Universe and The Bees. In the early 1980s, he appeared in two films that would become Video Nasties in the UK – Cannibal Apocalypse and Dario Argento’s last worthwhile movie, Tenebrae. He was a regular in Italian horror, action and sci fi during the 1980s, and from the 1990s on was in numerous horror and lower budget films – some good, some bad, many indifferent, but all benefitting from his presence. His career ended in the late 2000s, with appearances in the Tarantino-directed episode of CSI and the Masters of Horror series, where he was reunited with Argento.
A fine and underrated actor, he will be missed by cult film lovers everywhere.