Actor John Saxon, who starred in three “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies for the late Wes Craven, died Saturday of pneumonia in Murfreesboro, Tennessee with his wife Gloria by his side.
Saxon is mostly known for playing the role of the degenerate gambler, Roper, in the 1973 Bruce Lee classic “Enter the Dragon” for Warner Bros. The film centered on a martial arts tournament that took place on an island owned by the villainous Mr. Han.
Saxon was discovered by talent agent Henry Willson, who also discovered and launched the careers of Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, and was portrayed by Jim Parsons in the Netflix miniseries “Hollywood.” Saxon’s breakout performance was as a disturbed high school football star in 1956’s “The Unguarded Moment” and is billed in the film’s credits as “the exciting new personality John Saxon.”
Saxon was born Carmine Orrico on Aug. 5, 1936, the eldest of three children of an Italian immigrant house painter in Brooklyn. He was married three times, first to screenwriter Mary Ann Murphy, then to actress Elizabeth Saxon, and lastly to Gloria Martel, whom he remained loyal to till his death.
I had the good fortune to host John Saxon at the American Cinematheque – screening his Bruce Lee epic “Enter the Dragon” and the Marlon Brando western “The Appaloosa,” for which Saxon earned a Golden Globe nomination. He was a great guy full of stories. https://t.co/DuZL2FBnJw
— Larry Karaszewski (@Karaszewski) July 26, 2020
Saxon’s career spanned several decades, beginning in 1956 when he appeared as a disturbed high school football star who taunted Esther Williams in “The Unguarded Moment.”
Saxon appeared as a Mexican bandit alongside Marlon Brandon in the 1966 film “The Appaloosa,” a role that earned him a Golden Globe.
Saxon got his start as a contract player for Universal in the 1950s, eventually carving out space for himself as a teen idol with films like Rock, Pretty Baby, Summer Love, and multiple pairings with Sandra Dee. But he also wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty playing a creep, psychopath, or killer, and from there, the man just worked. From, say, 1956 to 1966—when he notched one of many career horror milestones by starring in Curtis Harrington’s early stuck-on-a-spaceship-with-a-monster flick Queen Of Blood—Saxon racked up a massive 20 credits in TV and film. And the subsequent decades were no less prolific; blessed with a face equally adept at the sleazy sneer or heroic stalwartness, Saxon was a constant blessing to the world of genre film.
I used to play basketball with a bunch of actors back in the day & all of them said the one actor that nobody would ever f*** with was John Saxon. Black belt, Bruce Lee protege and bad ass. Very nice guy & friendly, but everyone in Hollywood knew not to mess with him. pic.twitter.com/EW7WEvZxRk
— dave smith (@davesportsgod) July 26, 2020
In 1973′s “Enter the Dragon,” Saxon played Roper, a gambler who participates in a martial arts tournament. The film marked the first mainstream movie appearance of Lee, who died in July 1973 at the age of 32.
Saxon scored one of his most high-profile roles in 1973, when he leveraged both his skills as a proficient martial artist, and as a well-known American actor, to score the role of down-on-his-luck gambler Roper in Enter The Dragon. (Supposedly, Saxon leveraged his relative fame over his cast members during negotiations in order to ensure that his character, not Jim Kelly’s, survived to the end of the film; given that Dragon turned Jim Kelly into a star, and Bruce Lee into a superstar, while John Saxon just went on being John Saxon, the joke was probably on him.)
Despite his lack of martial arts skills, Saxon told the Los Angeles Times in 2012 that Lee “took me seriously. I would tell him I would rather do it this way, and he’d say, ‘OK, try it that way.‘”
John Saxon appeared in nearly 200 roles in the movies and on television in a more-than half-century-long career that has stretched over seven decades since he made his big screen debut in 1954 in uncredited small roles in It Should Happen to You (1954) and George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954). Born Carmine Orrico on August 5, 1935 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Italian-American parents, Antonio Orrico and Anna (née Protettore), he studied acting with Stella Adler after graduating from New Utrecht High School.
He was discovered by talent agent Henry Willson, the man most famous for creating and representing Rock Hudson (as well as a stable of “beefcake” male stars and starlets), who signed him up after he saw Saxon’s picture on the cover of a magazine. Willson brought the 16-year-old to Southern California, changed his name to John Saxon, and launched his career. Saxon made his television debut on Richard Boone’s series Medic (1954) in 1955 and got his first substantial (and credited) role in Running Wild (1955), playing a juvenile delinquent. In the Esther Williams vehicle The Unguarded Moment (1956) (one of her rare dramatic roles), the film’s marketing campaign spotlighted him, trumpeting the movie as “Co-starring the exciting new personality John Saxon.”.
By 1958, he seemed to have established himself as a supporting player in A-List pictures, being featured in Blake Edwards’s comedy This Happy Feeling (1958) headlined by Debbie Reynolds and Vincente Minnelli’s The Reluctant Debutante (1958) with Rex Harrison and Sandra Dee. In the next five years, he worked steadily, including supporting roles in John Huston’s The Unforgiven (1960), the James Stewart comedy Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) and Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal (1963) while having first billing in the B-movies Cry Tough (1959) and War Hunt (1962). Fluent in Italian, he made his first pictures in Italy in the period, Agostino (1962) and Mario Bava’s The Evil Eye (1963). Despite his good work with major directors, he failed to succeed as a star.
By 1965, he was appearing in the likes of Blood Beast from Outer Space (1965), albeit, top-billed. A more emblematic picture was Sidney J. Furie’s The Appaloosa (1966), in which he appeared in Mexican bandito drag as the man who steals the horse of Marlon Brando, another Stella Adler student. Saxon would reprise the role, of sorts, in John Sturges Joe Kidd (1972) in support of superstar Clint Eastwood. In those less politically correct times, many an Italian-American with a dark complexion would be relied on to play Mexicans, Native Americans and other “exotic” types like Mongols. Saxon played everything from an Indian chief on Bonanza (1959) to Marco Polo on The Time Tunnel (1966).
From 1969 to 1972 season, he was a star of the television series The Bold Ones: The New Doctors (1969), playing the brilliant surgeon Theodore Stuart. When the series ended, he took one of his most famous roles when Bruce Lee demurred over casting Rod Taylor as he was too tall. A black belt in karate, Saxon appeared as Roper in Enter the Dragon (1973). He continued to play a wide variety of roles on television and in motion pictures, with key roles in 1974’s classic slasher Black Christmas (1974), 1984’s groundbreaking A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and the 1990s self-referential horror films Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996).
Was a celebrity player (along with Betty White) on the final week of the cult-classic game show Whew! (1979) (when the show was known as “Celebrity Whew!”).
Interesting Notes About John Saxon
Was discovered by Henry Willson who saw him in a posed shot on the cover of True Romances magazine.
John Saxon was cast because he had a black belt in karate.
Had one son with his former wife Mary Ann Saxon: Antonio Saxon.
Was fluent in Italian. He worked on and off in that country since the early 1960s.
He was the son of Anna (Protettore), an Italian immigrant, and Antonio Orrico, who was born in New York, to Italian parents. John had roots in Calabria.
Attended and graduated from New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, New York in 1953.
He starred in two films about Genghis Khan: Gengis Khan (1992) and Genghis Khan: The Story of a Lifetime (2010).
He starred in four films which feature the word “Blood”: Blood Beast from Outer Space (1965), Queen of Blood (1966), Blood Beach (1980) and Blood Salvage (1990).
He was a lifelong liberal Democrat.
Alumnus of Stella Adler Studio of Acting.
He was proficient in archery due to his job during high school working at a Coney Island archery concession as a spieler.
One day when he was cutting class he was discovered by a male model agent while leaving the local movie house. He went on to model for magazine covers like True Romances which led to his Hollywood career.
Studied dramatics for six months with Betty Cashman at Carnegie Hall before he flew to Hollywood where he was quickly signed by Universal and attended the studio’s workshop for 18 months.
When John Saxon arrived on-set, he thought, and acted as if, he was the star of the movie.
Bruce Lee trained the women playing Han’s daughters so they could overpower John Saxon.
The scene where Han takes Roper down to his underground opium factory via his “guillotine lift” was the last scene John Saxon shot.
The crew filmed fight scenes for eight days in a row. John Saxon recalled, “I got to tell you, after those eight days I had enough of doing a karate movie.”
Farewell #JohnSaxon. Met him once as a kid when my father was dating actress Mariette Hartley and we stopped by Universal to visit her friend Saxon directing an episode of episodic TV. Never saw anyone who looked under so much pressure and realized directing must be a tough job. pic.twitter.com/ljXVEA4opU
— Eric Red (@ericred) July 26, 2020
Many of the fight scenes were choreographed, rehearsed and filmed in eight days straight, which took its toll on John Saxon.
Originally, Han was going to kill Roper, and Williams and Lee would fight Han’s army at the end. Roper’s and Williams’ roles were reversed by John Saxon’s agent.
Originally, Roper was meant to fight Han and die, and Williams was supposed to survive through to the end, fighting Han’s men with Lee. John Saxon’s agent complained to the producers, so Roper was the one who survived.
The initial flashback sequences reveal the motivation for each of the principal characters going to Han’s Island. Kelly is on the run from the police, Saxon is on the run from the mob but Lee, in addition to his intelligence gathering mission, seeks revenge for the murder of his sister and restoring the honor of the Shaolin temple.
Warner Brothers wanted to call the movie “Han’s Island” because it thought international audiences would be confused by an action movie titled “Enter the Dragon”. Other alternate titles were “Blood and Steel”, this was a first draft script title, and “The Deadly Three”, a reference to Bruce Lee’s, John Saxon’s, and Jim Kelly’s characters.
He is survived by his sons Antonio and Lance; grandson Mitchell; great-grandson John; and sister Dolores.
Train Hard, Fight Easy!