Born: August 5, 1936;

Died: July 25, 2020.

TO be confronted by the razor-sharp claws of movie villain Freddy Krueger, and live to tell the tale, you needed to be something of a survivor. John Saxon not only managed to avoid a gory demise at Krueger's distinctive hands in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven's classic 1984 horror film, but he also went on to appear in two sequels.

As a jobbing film and TV actor, with over 60 years’ worth of credits, Saxon, who has died from pneumonia at the age of 83, exhibited the same tenacity and never-say-die attitude he brought to his Elm Street role. Always employable, often memorable, sometimes exceptional.

He also had appreciative supporters amongst the higher echelons of Hollywood nobility. Quentin Tarantino claimed that Saxon was the only actor to have outperformed Marlon Brando in a movie. Saxon, never shy to own up to his own talents, heartily agreed.

John Saxon was born Carmine Orrico on August 5, 1936, in Brooklyn to a dock worker, Antonio, and his wife, Anna (Protettore) Orrico. "Brooklyn was a tough place to grow up in, but it taught you survival, and if you were ambitious, it taught you to want better things", he once said in an interview.

The anglicised name he adopted for his career was borrowed from the Saxons, a local roller-hockey team he admired for their competence and professional attitude. He would take these attributes into his own career.

That career began in his teens, and by accident, when a modelling agency representative spotted him leaving a Times Square theatre on a day he had skipped school. Soon Saxon’s picture was appearing in glossy teen publications such as Modern Romance.

Once, he had a cover spot in a dime-store detective magazine, in which he was pictured slumped next to a trashcan, clutching a fake bullet wound. The gritty image impressed Hollywood agent Henry Willson, who had launched heart-throbs such as Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter. He invited Saxon, aged 17, to Los Angeles for a screen test.

James Dean-lite roles followed, including the part of a disturbed youth obsessed with his teacher, played by swimming icon Esther Williams. A reviewer said that teen movie fans were intrigued by the handsome actor who played “the mixed-up high school football hero who turns out to be a bit of a sex maniac on the side.”

Words like ‘smouldering’ followed in Saxon’s wake. Appearing opposite Debbie Reynolds in 1958’s This Happy Feeling, he was awarded the ultimate moody, broody moniker of the ‘junior Marlon Brando’. He would, however, also be labelled, less appreciatively, ‘The poor man’s Marlon Brando’.

Eventually aficionados of the compare-and-contrast game got the chance to see Saxon and Brando go head-to-head in the acting stakes. They appeared together in 1966 western, The Appaloosa. A highlight of the film was an arm-wrestling scene between the two men.

“In all modesty, I think I was as good as, if not better than he was,” Saxon claimed. “Partly because he was so disinterested until the last minute.”

As he matured, Saxon progressed from teen-flick idol to more character-driven fare. Nowadays he would probably be castigated for what was seen at the time as a versatile ability to portray a wide range of ethnicities, including a Mexican bandit and a native American chief. A turn as Marco Polo did at least reflect his Italian heritage.

He also worked with many pre-eminent directors, including John Huston. “They used to call John Huston an ‘actor’s director’,” Saxon once recalled in an interview. “But when I worked with him on The Unforgiven in the late 50s, and I asked what he wanted out of one particular scene, he said to me flatly, ‘I just want you to get on that horse, son.’”

More was called from Saxon when he worked opposite Bruce Lee in 1973’s martial-arts classic film, Enter the Dragon.

Saxon, who had trained in karate, met Lee in his Hong Kong home shortly before filming began. He was asked to demonstrate a side kick. He obliged, but it was judged unremarkable by Lee, who proceeded to show him how it should be done. Allowing Saxon to hold a protective shield, Lee then kicked him clear across the room. Saxon landed in a chair, smashing it to pieces. Lee wasn’t unduly concerned about Saxon’s health at that moment, though he was greatly disappointed that his favourite chair was ruined.

Saxon also appeared in the classic low-budget horror Black Christmas and numerous TV shows such as Bonanza, Dynasty and The Bionic Woman. His films included The Electric Horseman, which starred Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.

Probably his most prominent television appearance was in a 2005 episode of ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ written and directed by Tarantino. The two men also worked on the Tarantino-scripted movie From Dusk Till Dawn, which was directed by Robert Rodriguez and starred Tarantino, George Clooney and Harvey Keitel.

Saxon admitted that as he matured, supporting himself and his family became a greater priority than seeking out plum roles. “I was more concerned about my own life in Los Angeles, not necessarily in Hollywood,” he said. “I’d go from something that got reviews in national magazines to the next job that came along. If it paid tuition to a private school, that was fine.”

His first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Gloria Martel, his son, Antonio, and his sister, Dolores.