Saxon had one of those stealth careers – I’m guessing most film buffs didn’t think too much about Saxon (I’ve got to be honest – I know I didn’t), but when they did, were taken aback to realise how much he’d made and how consistently good he was.
His co-stars ranged from Bruce Lee and Audie Murphy to Mamie Van Doren and Salma Hayek; he worked with directors from John Huston and Sydney Pollack to Wes Craven and Dario Argento; he helped invent the teen pic and the slasher.
In tribute, Stephen Vagg was going to do a top ten films of Saxon’s career – but there were so many credits to choose from that instead he decided to do the top twelve stages of John Saxon.
1) Male model Saxon
Saxon had a lot of talent as an actor, but he broke into the business because of his looks. Born Carmen Orrico, he was raised in Brooklyn when glimpsed by a modelling agent who asked if he would like to pose for some pictures; this led to him appearing on several magazine covers, one of which was spotted by legendary agent and sex predator Henry Willson (recently played by Jim Parsons on Netflix’s series Hollywood). Willson had a taste for managing young hunks with silly stage names – his client list included Rock Hudson, Rory Calhoun, Troy Donahue and Tab Hunter – and the agent signed young Carmen, changed his moniker to “John Saxon” and got him a long-term contract at Universal starting at $150 a week. Saxon was only seventeen-years-old – one of the first male models-turned-actors.
2) Juvenile Delinquent Saxon
The young Saxon had a scowling, broody teen quality that was in fashion in mid-‘50s Hollywood (see James Dean). Accordingly, Universal started him off in juvenile delinquent parts in Running Wild (1955) with Mamie Van Doren and Unguarded Moment (1956). The latter is especially interesting, featuring a script co-written by Rosalind Russell and starring Esther Williams in a rare non-swimming part; it’s a decent woman-has-a-stalker thriller, surprisingly harsh on the misogyny of men in 1950s America (Russell’s influence?). Saxon got a special “and introducing” credit and he was off to the races.
3) Teen Idol Saxon
Saxon’s next big break was playing the lead in rock musical Rock Pretty Baby (1956), alongside Sal Mineo. This is a jaunty, energetic teen film, with a surprisingly hot late-night beach kissing scene between Saxon and co-star Luana Patten. It became a sleeper hit for Universal, who rushed Saxon into a sequel, Summer Love (1957). Looking back, Saxon isn’t entirely comfortable in these teen roles – his hairline started receding early – but they established him as a baby boomer heartthrob, and any toehold’s a good one in Hollywood.
Universal were delighted – they had their own James Dean, only cheap! – and rushed him into “A”s, albeit usually as a love interest to the female ingenue. He romanced Debbie Reynolds in This Happy Feeling (1958), a Blake Edwards movie not many people remember (possibly because Reynolds is meant to have a crush on Curt Jurgens), then performed similar duties with Susan Kohner in The Big Fisherman (1959), a Biblical epic not many people remember (possibly because it wasn’t directed by Cecil B. De Mille). He did three films opposite Sandra Dee: The Restless Years (1957), a teen melodrama that is like a cross between Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman; The Reluctant Debutante (1958), a glossy MGM comedy directed by Vincent Minnelli, with Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall; and Portrait in Black (1960), an enjoyable Ross Hunter melodrama co-written by Aussie Ivan Goff, starring Lana Turner and Anthony Quinn. He also played an aw-gee-it-isn’t-his-fault delinquent in Cry Danger (1959).
It had been a rapid rise for someone plucked off a magazine cover, but none of these films were massive hits and Saxon never quite broke through as a front-rank star. The public never took to him the way they did, say, Sandra Dee, who was little-known when she made her first film with Saxon, but by number three was among the ten biggest box-office draws in America. Universal seemed to lose enthusiasm for him as a potential star. Maybe he was too “ethnic” looking. Too associated with teen roles. Maybe he didn’t want it. Maybe there were no suitable parts. In the long run, it probably worked out best for Saxon – he never would be as popular at the box office as teen idols like, say, Sandra Dee, Pat Boone or Troy Donahue, but he would go on to have a far more versatile, rich career than either.
4) Cowboy Saxon
Saxon had what were once known as “swarthy” good looks, i.e. he was a bit dark – which led to his casting as an Indian in The Unforgiven (1960), John Huston’s erratic incest-overtones race drama. The film was heavily flawed – one of those stories that tries to be liberal and just ends up being really racist – but kicked off a series of roles in Westerns for Saxon: a juvenile delinquent cowboy tormenting Jeff Chandler in The Plunderers (1960) (co-starring future nun Dolores Hart); a coward hanging out with Audie Murphy in Posse from Hell (1960); a Mexican chasing Marlon Brando in The Appaloosa (1966) (Saxon’s own favourite role – and he steals the movie from Brando); the lead in a spaghetti Western, One Dollar Too Many (1968); a part in the first “Alan Smithee” movie Death of a Gunfighter (1969); a Mexican revolutionary fighting Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd (1972); an evil cereal baron in The Electric Horseman (1979). That’s not a bad track record – how many people made Westerns with Sydney Pollack, John Sturges, Sidney Furie and Alan Smithee?
5) Sgt Saxon
Most male stars of the ‘50s and ‘60s found themselves in uniform on screen at some stage or another. Saxon turned in a remarkable performance as a psycho soldier who loves killing in the Korean War drama War Hunt (1962), in which he was top-billed, though the film is remembered today mostly for being an early Robert Redford feature. Saxon also soldiered arms for directors Edgar G. Ulmer in The Cavern (1964) and Eddie Romeo in The Ravagers (1965), and was a general in one of his last movies, War Wolves (2009).
6) Comedy Saxon
Saxon was never known as a comedy actor, but to his credit, he was always trying to extend his range and wound up playing a few comic roles. He’s genuinely funny as James Stewart’s son-in- law in Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962), and was top-billed in Sam Katzman’s little-seen swinging sex comedy, For Singles Only (1968).
7) Italian Saxon
By the early 1960s, it was clear Saxon was not going to be a star – but it was also evident he was going to remain in work as a leading man and character actor (and he would until the 2000s). He went to Italy to play the lead in Agostino (1962), and he would work on and off there throughout his whole career, particularly in the ‘70s.
8) Slasher Saxon
Saxon had an incredible track record when it came to appearing in iconic slasher films. He starred in the first giallo – Mario Bava’s Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) – and would later feature in two even more legendary productions: Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), which popularised so many horror tropes, and Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the first of that franchise. Saxon’s other horror credits include Beyond Evil (1980), Blood Beach (1981), Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (1982), and the Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino vampire flick From Dusk Til Dawn (1996) plus lots of others… Few other actors of his generation have as fine a track record in this genre. Why did he appear in so many? I guess for starters he was willing – he wasn’t snobby. He made a good on-screen cop and there’s always roles for a cop actor in a slasher film. He could also seem scary so made an excellent red herring/villain.
9) Sci-fi Saxon
Saxon isn’t known as a sci-fi actor, but he worked a decent amount among the egg cartons. I’ve got two personal favourites. Queen of Blood (1966) is a Roger Corman-financed piece which intercut footage from an old Soviet Union sci-fi flick with new Curtis Harrington-directed footage starring Saxon, Dennis Hopper and Basil Rathbone. Number two is another Corman effort, Battle Beyond the Stars (1981), for me the best film from New World Pictures, lifted into classic status with its John Sayles script, James Horner score and superb cast, including Saxon. He also pops up in cult-y sci-fi movies like Night Caller from Outer Space (1965), Gene Rodenberry’s Planet Earth (1974) and Strange New World (1975), and Prisoners of the Lost Universe (1983).
10) TV Saxon
I think Saxon was one of those actors who just wanted to work, no matter what. Accordingly, he cranked out a lot of TV, a heap of TV movies (including one of the first – Doomsday Flight (1966)) and many, many, many guest shots on TV shows – Bonanza, Petrocelli, Fantasy Island, Dynasty… even a short arc on Melrose Place.
11) Action Saxon
Arguably the genre for which he is best remembered, due to one movie in particular. Okay yes, no one watches Enter the Dragon (1973) for the John Saxon fight scenes, and yes, I am aware he is my white man surrogate, but I do genuinely feel he adds a lot to the film. He’s actually got the best character to play, because you’re never sure which way he’s going to go. And tell me that final exhausted nod to Bruce Lee at the end isn’t awesome. The huge success of this picture saw Saxon in steady demand for action movies for the rest of the decade, albeit mostly on a trashy level – some of the more notable include Mitchell (1975), a bunch of Italian poliziotteschi movies, Raid on Entebbe (1977) as Billy Peled, Moonshine County (1977) and The Bees (1978) for New World, the Bollywood Shalimar (1978), Fast Company (1979) for David Cronenberg (!), and Running Scared (1980) with Judge Reinhold. He worked a lot in the straight-to-video market of the 1980s.
12) Richard Brooks Saxon
Saxon spent most of the ‘80s and ‘90s doing TV and straight-to-video, but also pops up in the last two movies by Richard “I-always-go-on-about-being-a-marine-even-though-I-spent-most-of-that-time-making-movies” Brooks: Wrong is Right (1982) and Fever Pitch (1985). Saxon also played Brooks in the TV movie Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story (1995). It was a very random footnote to an extremely eclectic career.
RIP John Saxon. You seemed to work with a lot of A-grade directors having a bad day, but you rarely gave a bad performance and your resume is quite remarkable.