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Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Quarter-Century of Krueger: The All-American, Bullet-Headed, Saxon Mother's Son

John Saxon is better than you. Let's just get that out of the way right now. My favorite of all the Elm Street actors (besides Robert Englund, of course), the great John Saxon is a legend of genre and exploitation cinema. And as far I'm concerned, a hero. To this day, this swarthy gentleman remains one of my favorite B-movie actors of all time.

One look at John Saxon would reveal to anyone with a couple of brain cells to rub together that his name is not really John Saxon. No, he was born Carmine Orrico, and in my very own neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. In fact, there was an old lady on my block growing up who constantly claimed to have babysat him frequently when he was just a kid. Pretty cool, if you ask me.

Oddly enough, my first exposure to the greatness of Saxon was thanks to his recurring role on the '80s prime time soap Falcon Crest, one of my mom's favorites. It was a bit later that I discovered he was also Nancy's father in A Nightmare on Elm Street. But the story goes back way further than that...

Saxon originally left Brooklyn in the early 1950s to become a model. It was in this capacity, appearing on the cover of True Romance magazine, that he was spotted by a Hollywood agent. In those days of studio control and contract players, matinee idol looks were prized even more than they are today--in fact an actor could get away with average ability if he looked the way Saxon looked. Not to say that he was a hack or anything, but I don't think anyone would confuse him with Paul Newman or Marlon Brando...

He started out with a few walk-on parts, including a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance in A Star Is Born (1954). In 1958, he captured a Golden Globe for "Most Promising Newcomer", an award he shared with James Garner.

But the coming decade brought change to the American movie industry. The studio system was collapsing, and the age of the auteur was coming in. It became more difficult for an actor to trade mainly on his looks. However, this led to some interesting detours in Saxon's career path. Firstly, he began finding work in his ancestral homeland of Italy, where looks were still as prized in leading men and women as they were in Hollywood's heyday.

After a decidedly mainstream turn in the acclaimed western The Appaloosa alongside Brando, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1967, the second interesting twist in Saxon's career began to occur. The burgeoning world of underground, grindhouse and exploitation cinema that rose following the vacuum left by the demise of the studios, embraced him with open arms.

The true highlight here would have to be Enter the Dragon (1973), which put Saxon on the map as a grindhouse icon. A real-life black belt, he had no trouble at all playing the token American, Roper, in this classic Bruce Lee vehicle. From there, he became a bankable name within a certain realm of moviemaking. His fans remember him from films like the original Black Christmas (1974), as well as other low-budget horror cult faves like The Bees (1978), Beyond Evil (1980) and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980).

Combining his horror experience with his longtime connection to Italian cinema, Saxon was brought on board in 1982 to be a part of Dario Argento's Tenebre, arguably the director's finest giallo effort. Saxon plays Bullmer, the hat-obsessed literary agent to Anthony Franciosa's main character Peter Neal. Aside from NOES, this is without doubt his highest profile horror appearance--and one of the reasons Robert Rodriguez remembered him some 14 years later when casting for From Dusk Till Dawn.

It was in 1984, however, that Saxon appeared in the movie for which he is most likely best remembered to this day, particularly by horror fans. As Nancy's dad, the unflappable Lt. Donald Thompson, Saxon plays a commanding supporting role. While in part your typical "ineffectual grown-up authority figure" trope so common in slasher flicks, Saxon's impressive screen presence took it to another level, and made Thompson an especially memorable character.

I don't know about you, but I shed a little tear every time I watch him get killed by the skeletal Freddy in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, the sequel in which he reprised the role three years later. He also holds the distinction of being one of the only non-teenagers killed by Freddy in the series.

Saxon continued to work regularly in Italy, on American TV, and in low-budget horror throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and right up to the present day. This year alone, he starred in the comedy Old Dogs, the Sci-Fi Channel original War Wolves with Adrienne Barbeau, and the yet-to-be-released comic mystery City of Shoulders and Noses alongside the likes of Lou Ferrigno, David Proval, Sybil Danning, Ruth Buzzi and Nick Turturro.

After just turning 74 earlier this month, John Saxon continues to go strong, making regular convention appearances to meet fans of NOES and his many other films. For someone who's tangled with both Bruce Lee and Freddy Krueger, that's not bad at all...


Sam G said...

Love John Saxon. He also had a part in the Joe Don Baker film "Mitchel" most folks will remember from MST3K.

Matt-suzaka said...

Big fan of the golden skinned genre actor since I was a little kid. I knew him best from Nightmare and Enter the Dragon of course, and I have always enjoyed him in every role I have seen him play. His charisma and charm are so prevalent whenever he is on screen, and his genre cred is legendary.

I very recently got to meet him at a convention in Connecticut a few months back, and while being older than shit, he was still cooler than everyone else in the room. He was beyond nice and I got to talk with him about a review I did for The Glove (the first blog I ever wrote!), and he was just so candid and polite...a true gentlemen. His tan still stands up to this day as can be seen on in my facebook pics, and the color difference between him and myself is quite hysterical.

Thanks for showing love to such a genre film icon!

B-Sol said...

My pleasure, Matt! Where was this CT convention?? I've been living here for seven years and haven't heard of one!

Matt-suzaka said...

It was Monster Mania, Brian. It was in Hartford which is kinda close to where I live. Good con, a lot of space, a lot of stuff, but not a lot of good legit DVD sellers, unfortunately. Guest list was fantastic though, Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Bruce Campbell, Sexy Saxon, and a slew of others were in attendance.

B-Sol said...

Ahhh...I see. It's coming to Cherry Hill, New Jersey next weekend, and I think I might stopping by on Saturday.

Matt-suzaka said...

They put on a good con from what I saw at the Connecticut one. A couple of friends and I usually go to Chiller in Jersey and those are always fun, but they are real tight as far as space goes and they jam way too much shit into all of the rooms. Nothing worse than trying to navigate a con with some of the attendees that choose not to shower. Ever.

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