For years, I’ve always said that John Saxon is an extremely underrated and far too overlooked actor. He’s been in more than one hundred films and has countless T.V. appearances under his belt. But you may be asking already, who the heck is John Saxon? Before I detail the highlights of his career that made him famous (in my eyes), let’s take a brief look at his life before his cult movie stardom. John was born on August 5, 1935 as Carmine Orrico, son of Antonio and Anna Orrico, in Brooklyn, New York. Why his named changed to John Saxon is unknown, but my guess is that his parents changed his name to sound more American as many immigrants to this country did upon their arrival.
Now I did as much research as I could about John via the web (where I currently live, getting a book about the man would’ve taken a century at most) but there just isn’t a lot, and that is a total shame! The best biography I could seek out jumped from his birth then straight to the start of his acting career! It seems that John’s entire life is to remain an eternal mystery as even a bio written by Leonard Maltin only seems to cover Saxon’s major films. What I can tell you from the small number of mixed facts I have found is that John started off his illustrious career at an early age. As a teenager, John began attending a dramatic school in Manhattan while simultaneously going to school at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn. During this time, John starred in several plays and did some modeling on the side.
A Hollywood agent from Universal Studios saw some of John’s modeling photos in “True Romance” magazine and called the youth up. Soon, John, at the age of seventeen, had a stock contract with Universal and was on his way to becoming a star! John started off with a few uncredited roles in “It Should Happen to You” and “A Star is Born,” but soon graduated to bigger and better films (err… at least bigger films). His first big role was in 1955, when he played Vince Pomeroy in “Running Wild.” (John also had a recurring role in “Gunsmoke” during this time.) After that he was bumped up the acting ladder a notch after co-starring with Esther Williams in “The Unguarded Moment” (1956). John began to prove himself as a great actor at this point and quickly began adding leading roles to his growing resume.
By 1958, John had been the lead actor in five feature films and was a highly publicized “teen-age” heart throb in movie magazines. Once the 1960’s came around, John was doing a lot of character roles and really exploring the world of acting. His talent had grown considerably by the time his contract with Universal was up in 1961, so John went back to his roots in Italy and tried his hand at a European acting career. He returned back to Los Angeles after a year and began doing more character acting. While John did manage to do more “normal” films, he was soon sucked into the cult movie universe. His first real b-movie was “The Night Caller” (a.k.a. Blood Beast From Outer Space) in which aliens realize that Earth’s droves of woman are quite suitable for mating purposes.
A year later, John would star alongside the likes of Basil Rathbone, Dennis Hopper, and Forrest J. Ackerman (!) in “Queen of Blood” (a.k.a. Planet of the Vampires), probably the best of the space vampire films (the thriving sub-genre that it is). In this film, astronauts rescue an alien being and soon discover that she has a penchant for draining people completely of blood. By the time the space-vamp claims a third victim, they finally decide to kill her. However, it appears that the “Queen of Blood” has laid a ton of eggs! When the astronauts try to warn scientists back on Earth, they ignore the inherent danger of said eggs and take them for study! (This would be a sort of recurring theme in the mainstream “Alien” films starring Sigourney Weaver.)
Let’s fast forward now to the 1970’s, the pinnacle of John Saxon’s career. John was very active during this decade and had many guest appearances on T.V. He was on seemingly every popular T.V. show in this time period: “Starsky and Hutch,” “Wonder Woman,” “The Bionic Woman,” “The 6 Million Dollar Man,” “The Rockford Files,” “Fantasy Island,” and many more! The biggest thing to happen to Saxon was his co-starring role alongside Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon” (1973). John gives a memorable performance as Roper, a highly charismatic martial artist and gambler who enters a full contact martial arts competition for money (Let’s just say he has a few loans to pay off). John’s biggest scene in the film is where he challenges the massively muscled Bolo Yeung to a fight. With a mixture of karate and street fighting, John conquered his mighty opponent and cemented himself as a cult movie icon!
John would continue to make cult and b-films straight on through the 70’s with “Black Christmas” and “Mitchell.” The latter is a goofy crime drama starring Joe Don Baker that managed to find it’s way onto “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” (Yes, it is that bad.) The late seventies would bring us John Saxon in “The Glove” (1978) and “The Bees” (1979), two films that have almost faded into obscurity. 1979 also had John in “The Electric Horseman” which also starred Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, and Willie Nelson. If this is any indication, it seems that John really loves acting and takes on any role he can find. Very few actors have managed to balance both Hollywood mainstream roles and cult movie appearances as well as John has. He was like the Bruce Campbell of our parents’ generation (minus the Three Stooges antics and copious amounts of fake blood of course.)
While the seventies seemed to put John on the map, the 1980’s were probably the most prolific years of his life. He kicked off this new decade by starring in Roger Corman’s “Battle Beyond the Stars.” Saxon plays Sador, an intergalactic warlord that threatens a small planet. The only thing stopping this evil ruler are seven futuristic mercenaries from a variety of worlds. In that same year, John would play Vietnam war vet Norman Hopper in “Cannibal Apocalypse.” In this film, John and a few fellow soldiers slowly succumb to a long dormant cannibal virus they contracted during the war. Filled with lots of violence and gobs of gore, this is one wild and crazy movie! Rather than being a villain in this film, John is more like an anti-hero. The majority of the film involves his struggle to keep his cannibalistic urges in check. He’s a good man at heart, but eventually, even he can’t fight off the urge for fresh flesh any longer. At the film’s finale, John’s character dies in a very heart wrenching manner, with his soon to be cannibalistic wife at his side.
In 1981, John had a small role as a police captain in “Blood Beach,” in which a creature drags beachgoers down into the sand and eats them. This underrated and sometimes much maligned little horror film also features Burt Young (the infamous Pauly from the “Rocky” films). In that same year John starred on the popular T.V. show “Falcon’s Crest.” He stayed with the show for year and left, but then returned in 1986 through 1988. In 1982, John starred in Dario Argento’s “Tenebre,” continuing his trend of acting in both American and Italian films. He also secured a role on “Dynasty” that year, playing Rashid Ahmed. At this point, it seemed that John was about to fade into obscurity until 1984. A horror director named Wes Craven decided to make a little horror film called “A Nightmare On Elm Street.”John played Lt. Donald Thompson, an officer whose daughter is having horrible nightmares, brought about by a dream demon known as Freddy Krueger.
The film went on to spawn six sequels (two of which feature John Saxon in his original role, namely “Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors” (1987) and “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” (1994)) but they didn’t do much to elevate John’s career. John Saxon finished up the 80’s with several more genre films including “Hands of Steel” (1986), “Welcome to Spring Break” (1988), and the comedic “My Mom’s a Werewolf” (1989). John also sat in the director’s seat during this decade when he made “Death House” in 1987. This was John’s first and last time as a director, and “Death House” has since faded into obscurity almost completely. (And only moments after I typed that out, I discovered that “Death House” is coming to DVD on 9/14/04!) And let’s not forget John’s T.V. appearances throughout the 80’s: “The A-Team,” “Murder She Wrote,” “The Scarecrow and Mrs. King,” “Magnum P.I.,” “Monsters,” “Matlock,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Ray Bradbury Theater,” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents!” Jeez, does this guy ever stop acting?!
As the 80’s came to a close, John began to shy away from the horror and sci-fi genres. His filmography in the 90’s only boasts a handful of genre films including “Blood Salvage,” “Hellmaster,” “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” and “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.” While the latter two broke into the mainstream, John’s only other major Hollywood credit of this decade was “Beverly Hills Cop III.” John also slowed down on the T.V. roles, appearing only in “Melrose Place” and “Kung-Fu: The Legend Continues.” Currently, John is still quite an active thespian. His last film was 2003’s “The Road Home” which also stars Bo Hopkins and Wilford Brimley. (What?! Wilford Brimley is still alive?! He was old when I was born God bless him!) And from the limited information I have gathered, it appears that John’s son Antonio has tried his hand at acting. You can see Antonio and his father in 1994’s “Killing Obssession.”
John Saxon is a highly talented actor and despite some of films he’s been in, he has always maintained his dignity. Through his entire lifetime, John has starred in every kind of genre film and has managed to continuosly cross back and forth between mainstream and low budget films. Not many people can still pull that off these days and remain a credible screen presence. From charismatic thief, to strained war veteran, to worried parent, to evil villain, John has played each on film and has succeeded in making those roles believable and memorable. Perhaps one day John will grant fans like myself a chance to learn more about his seemingly mysterious life with an autobiography (hint, hint). But until that day comes, he will remain as one of cinema’s greatest enigmas!