Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. John Saxon, B-movie stalwart

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. John Saxon, B-movie stalwart
Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

John Saxon has died. A veteran actor, whose battles alongside Bruce Lee, and against Freddy Krueger, were just two major highlights of a 60-plus year career, Saxon appeared in nearly 200 films and TV shows. He played killers, teen heartthrobs, cops—a lot of cops—and many other parts during his long tenure in Hollywood and abroad, exploring pretty much every angle on genre cinema in the process. Per The Hollywood Reporter, Saxon died of pneumonia earlier today. He was 83.

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.

That’s especially notable in his relationship with horror films, and even more especially with the slasher movie, which was rapidly gestating during that period. During one of his first trips abroad, Saxon fell in with Mario Bava, starring in his first giallo picture, The Girl Who Knew Too Much. 10 years later, he helped pioneer the North American take on the formula with Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, with his Lt. Fuller serving as the precedent for a staggeringly long line of ineffective slasher movie cops. (He did slightly better, ironically, when faced with a more powerful and supernatural foe; sure, Saxon doesn’t save the day in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street, either, but at least he made a better showing of himself.)

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.) Still, being John Saxon didn’t seem like it was such a bad thing to be, either: he knocked out another several dozen credits before the decade was out, including scoring a role as Roger Corman’s idea of Darth Vader in Battle Beyond The Stars. (In fact, looking over Saxon’s credits from this era, and who he was working with, it’s king of shocking to see he only ended up showing up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 a single time, for 1975's Mitchell.)


John Saxon was a “Hey, it’s that guy!” among “Hey, it’s that guy!”s, the kind of actor who could go from hanging out with The 6-Million Dollar Man one week, to hunting down Italian knife murderers the next. His face—and those eyebrows!—are burnt into five decades of genre film, a comforting presence even when you didn’t recognize a single other name in the cast. His name might not have always been a guarantee of quality—too many credits, with too-low budgets, for that always to be the case. But seeing him pop up—even with just a winking cameo, as in From Dusk Till Dawn or Wes Craven’s New Nightmare—was often like having an old friend pop buy to reminisce about the good, old, bloody days.