July 25th saw the passing of John Saxon. He leaves behind an amazing career as an actor that covers everything from major studio work to leads in foreign films (particularly Italian ones) as well as decades of featured roles in several classic network television shows. He starred alongside everyone from Marlon Brando to Bruce Lee and was directed by filmmakers as diverse as Otto Preminger, Mario Bava, John Sturges and Wes Craven. As that c.v. suggests, he was an actor who could be counted on for a strong, committed performance in whatever setting he was placed – and as a result, he spent several years working steadily around the world.
As the glowing intro above suggests, he was also a big favorite at Schlockmania headquarters. When you watch a lot of genre fare, you quickly hone in on the pros who never treat a role as if it is beneath them. Whenever you saw the Saxon name in a film or t.v. show’s cast list, you always knew you were going to see a skilled expert giving his all to keep you entertained. The following are five key performances that endeared Saxon to Schlockmania and are a must for anyone interested in his work.
The Appaloosa: Saxon got a Golden Globe nomination for his work in this offbeat western. He plays Chuy Medena, the head of a criminal family who feels slighted by (Marlon Brando) when he won’t sell him his horse. Chuy steals said horse, sparking a war of wills. The remainder of the movie is a battle of masculine pride between the two: Brando does his expected Method thing here, underplaying and mumbling lines, and Saxon counters with a showier, more emotionally intense approach that makes a meal of every line of dialogue. To his credit, the choice works and energizes each of their scenes. Saxon is tons of fun to watch here and stylish direction by Sidney J. Furie provides an excellent visual frame for this clash of thespians.
Enter The Dragon: Bruce Lee is obviously the star attraction of this film but director Robert Clouse was smart to cast a couple of excellent 2nd-string leads in Jim Kelly and John Saxon. You could argue that Saxon has the most interesting hero role here as his character is a playboy martial artist with a self-destructive edge, one who enters the film’s deadly contest to dodge criminal threats over his gambling debts. His knack for moral flexibility gets tested as the story progresses and Saxon’s charm is strong enough to keep us on his side. It’s worth noting that Saxon’s physicality gets an impressive workout here: he brawls side by side with Lee in the epic finale and his fighting chops are credible throughout.
Black Christmas: with his strong frame and ability to project masculine confidence, it’s no surprise that Saxon spent a decent amount of time playing cops. He gets one of his best cop roles in this classic Canadian shocker. Cops in horror movies are often lazy or disbelieving but this one is actually kind, dedicated and pro-active in aiding the film’s heroines as they are menaced by a prank-calling murderer. Saxon fits this role perfectly, instantly selling the audience on the character’s decency and bravery, and the fact that he works so hard actually enhances the horror here because the killer works twice as hard to be clever and lethal, thus upping the chill factor for viewers.
Cannibal Apocalypse: Saxon had a long history in Italian genre fare, with several roles in horror and action films for the likes of Bava, Argento and Umberto Lenzi. You could point to great work from him in films like Violent Naples, The Evil Eye or Tenebrae but Schlockmania’s fave from his Italian work is Cannibal Apocalypse. Why? Firstly, it’s a lead role where he has a dominant amount of screentime as the film’s tormented, cannibal virus-infected protagonist. Second, his typically professional work props up the film’s gonzo comic-book style premise, keeping the viewer engaged no matter how loopy the storytelling gets. Saxon went on record later in his career about his regrets over appearing in this film but he had nothing to be ashamed of: the film wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it does without his stalwart presence.
A Nightmare On Elm Street (trilogy): A bit of rule-bending here as this choice includes not only the original Nightmare On Elm Street but also Saxon’s work in the follow-ups A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. The first shows Saxon bringing a mix of strength and emotion as a good cop up against a supernatural menace, the second has him struggling with the psychological burnout from his battles in the first film and the third places Saxon in meta-mode, transposing the strong and protective qualities of his character in the first two films to the actor himself. It’s a tour-de-force triptych for Saxon, who delivers whatever Wes Craven needs at every juncture, and perhaps the finest work of his latter-day career.
And here’s a few honorable mentions: Battle Beyond The Stars (Saxon as Darth Vader!), Joe Kidd, The Cynic, The Rat & The Fist, Mitchell, Wrong Is Right and the additional films mentioned in the above entries. For t.v., check out his excellent work in shows like Police Story, Kung Fu, Starsky & Hutch (as a vampire!), Dynasty, The Six Million Dollar Man, the Tarantino-helmed episode of CSI and many more.