You’ve probably heard the sad news by now: one of the hardest-working and most memorable performers across the entire genre spectrum, John Saxon, passed away over the weekend at the age of 83.
Born Carmine Orrico, the future Saxon took on this famous screen name in the 1950s while still a teenager — after being discovered by a Hollywood agent — and became something of a teen heartthrob during that period, appearing on pulp magazine covers and sharing the big screen with icons Audrey Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Lana Turner, Sandra Dee, Burt Lancaster, Anthony Quinn and many more.
But it was Saxon’s first major gig in genre cinema — the male lead in Mario Bava’s 1963 giallo The Girl Who Knew Too Much, a.k.a. The Evil Eye — that began a career path that made him one of the most recognizable and beloved actors in horror, action, western, thriller, war and sci-fi movies for more than a half-century.
In the ‘60s, Saxon ditched his teen-idol image to become one of the most recognized character actors in film and TV. But he leveled up in the early ‘70s when he landed one of his most memorable lead roles — co-starring with Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly in Enter the Dragon, in which he was able to put his martial-arts training into the role of good-hearted scoundrel Roper. From there, he clicked easily into action roles, playing heroes & villains, cops & gangsters, and everything in between.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Saxon came into prominence in the horror and science fiction genres, playing Lt. Fuller in Bob Clark’s proto-slasher Black Christmas, the evil Lord Sador in the Roger Corman production Battle Beyond the Stars, a former POW succumbing to cannibalistic urges in Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse, and a shifty literary agent in Dario Argento’s giallo-slasher Tenebrae.
But the actor’s reputation as a genre legend was finally sealed when he took on the role of Lt. Thompson, father of Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), in Wes Craven’s 1984 classic A Nightmare on Elm Street — a role he would reprise three years later for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, and once more in 1994 (playing Lt. Thompson and “himself”) in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. His sole directing effort was a horror project as well — 1987’s Death House, in which he also played the villain — but that didn’t go over so well with audiences (partly thanks to the distributor’s title change to Zombie Death House despite a complete absence of zombies).
Saxon continued to appear in both small and large roles for the next decade, working with Argento again in the Masters of Horror episode “Pelts.” By this point, he had become a major presence on the convention circuit, where fans of multiple generations finally got to meet one of their all-time favorites, and he has frequently been a guest of honor at cons like Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors. Even as he amassed legions of fans, Saxon remained humble and dedicated to his craft.
We stand in awe and respect for the rugged, steel-jawed actor, whose unconventional good looks and intense stare lifted him from his already-popular status as a “that guy” character actor to a charming, roguish movie star. We’ve all got our favorite Saxon role; I’m partial to his Elm Street trifecta, in which we get to see many facets of an otherwise secondary character, as well as the complex man who played him. Pick your own favorite, settle in and thank him for all the good times.