John Saxon, an actor and martial artist best known for his roles in Enter the Dragon and Nightmare on Elm Street died on July 25 at the age of 83. The actor’s wife Gloria confirmed his passing to The Hollywood Reporter and said he died of pneumonia in Murfreesboro, Tennessee on Saturday.
Saxon was known as a tough guy, a Brooklyn native who starred opposite Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon and appeared in three different Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Over a span of six decades, Saxon appeared in around 200 projects and was best known for his work in Westerns and horror movies. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the 1966 film The Appaloosa.
He is survived by his wife, Gloria Martel, his sons Antonio and Lance, his great-grandson John and his sister Dolores, The Hollywood Reporter wrote.
Here’s what you need to know:
Saxon Was an Italian-American Who Was First Signed as a Model Before Becoming an Actor
Saxon, whose real name was Carmine Orrico, was born on August 5, 1936 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were dock worker Antonio Orrico and Anna and he had two younger siblings. According to The Hollywood Reporter, his high school job was at a Coney Island archery concession. When he was still in high school, attending New Utrecht High School, Saxon skipped class and was spotted by a modeling agent. He told LA Times in 2012, “I started doing jobs for magazines, like Modern Romance, all the Macfadden publications. I did about a dozen of them in one year.”
One of his photo shoots caught the eye of Hollywood agent Henry Willson and he signed with him at the age of 17. The photo shoot in question, Saxon said, was one in which he played “a Puerto Rican guy who had been shot and was leaning against a [garbage] can with his girlfriend looking at him.” He then flew out to Los Angeles and signed a contract with Universal, launching his career.
2. He Began Acting in 1955 & Then Appeared in a Series of Roles as a Character Actor, Often Playing a Law Enforcement Figure
His first real role was in 1955’s Running Wild where he played a young delinquent. He then appeared in a series of movies as a supporting actor where he played characters of different ethnicities, including as a Mexican bandit in The Appaloosa and Marco Polo in the 1966 movie The Time Tunnel.
Because he spoke Italian, Saxon appeared in quite a few Italian movies. Screenwriter Larry Karaszewski said although Saxon never quite made it to the level of some of the other actors in his generation, he “has had this outstanding career and he’s made hundreds and hundreds of movies and TV shows.”
“I can’t think of anybody who has had such an electric career,” he continued. “He never made it quite in the realm of [Steve] McQueen or James Coburn. But he is the cool guy.”
3. In Addition to Working With Lee, He Worked With Many Well-Known Actors Like Marlon Brando & a Young Johnny Depp
He told the LA Times that he enjoyed working with Lee in Enter the Dragon, Lee’s last movie before his death at the age of 32. Saxon said, “[Lee] took me seriously. I would tell him I would rather do it this way, and he’d say, ‘OK, try it that way.’” Saxon was also a martial artist and began practicing judo in 1957. He then began training in karate in Los Angeles until around 1968 and said he stopped training shortly before obtaining his black belt.
He also said he enjoyed working on The Appaloosa, which he believed was one of his best films, primarily because of the opportunity to work with Brando. “He was a friend,” Saxon told the LA Times. “I took him to dinner one night. He said, ‘I am going back to New York — do you have a coat?’ I said, ‘Sure, I got a coat.’ He never gave me back the coat.” Saxon added that unfortunately, Brando was only working on the movie for the paycheck:
This was to me a terrific role and something I was ready for, but he was despondent. He said he had lent a whole bunch of money to his father, and what he was saying to me was that his father ruined his life by losing all of his money. He was kind of bored in the picture.
While filming Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, Saxon worked with a 17-year-old Johnny Depp, offering him advice.
4. His Wife Shared Some Stories About Saxon’s Days in Acting & Said He Was Occasionally Considered Too Muscular
Saxon and his wife Gloria moved into a senior living community, The Heritage at Brentwood residence, in Tennessee early in 2019. An article in October 2019 shared how the residence chose to honor Saxon with a film festival seeing as many residents were fans of his movies.
Saxon married his third wife Gloria Martel in 2008. He was first married to screenwriter Mary Ann Murphy, from 1967 to 1979, then to actress Elizabeth Saxon from 1987 until 1992. In a 2019 interview, Gloria said the movie industry was different than it is now and Saxon was sometimes thought to be too muscular for some roles. “This was before the days of Arnold Schwarzenegger,” she said. “John worked out all the time and some producers thought he was too big.”
She also said Saxon was a mature and experienced actor fluent in Spanish and Italian. She shared that although he frequently played the role of villains, “I think they missed out putting him in more films with humor.” She said his good looks meant he received a lot of fan mail throughout his career. “He’s still handsome today,” she added. “Look at his teeth.”
5. Fans Took to Social Media to Post Tributes to the Late Actor After His Passing
After news of Saxon’s death broke online, many people took to social media to post tributes to the actor’s prolific career. One person wrote, “Just heard about John Saxon. The guy was electric in everything he was in. RIP.” Another said, “RIP to the legend John Saxon . An absolute legend and what a career. John Saxon was THE MAN !!”
Investor Ross Gerber, the co-founder and CEO of Gerber Kawasaki, wrote, “So sad to see this. I spent a lot of time at his house as a kid and have many memories of him. A karate legend. True Hollywood actor. RIP John Saxon.” One Twitter user posted, “Everyone is talking about Enter The Dragon and Nightmare On Elm Street, but no one is talking about MITCHELL?!? Seriously, though, wonderful actor who classed up any movie he was in by sheer presence alone. Rest in peace, John Saxon.”
Another tribute reads, “John Saxon was a master of playing strong action characters while remaining convincingly human, all within a diverse range of settings. I’m reminded of his second fiddle role to Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd, then playing a similar role to Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon the next year.”