In Memoriam: John Saxon, Golden Globe Winner, 1935-2020

by Philip Berk July 26, 2020
Actor John Saxon, Golden Globe nominee, 1935-2020

John Saxon in Los Angeles, 2004.

Giulio Marcocchi/Getty Images

Although John Saxon, who passed away at the age of 83, won a Golden Globe as New Star of the Year in 1958, his career is best remembered not for his memorable performances but for his longevity as an actor.  Over a period of over 60 years he appeared in no less than 200 movies and remained active even right before his death, his last movie After the Thunderstorm delayed by the current pandemic.

Saxon was one of the stable of young actors Universal nurtured alongside Rock Hudson and John Gavin in the 1950s. Even though he was discovered by agent Henry Wilson, John was not just a pretty face; he had studied acting with Stella Adler in New York. But of course, his first films capitalized on his appeal to teenage audiences.

Gaining attention for playing a small part as a disturbed football player in Esther Williams’ Unguarded Moment, he was rewarded with his first important role as Debbie Reynolds' love interest in This Happy Feeling. His stock went up when MGM borrowed him for Vincente Minnelli’s The Reluctant Debutante as Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall’s prospective son-in-law. And when Disney wanted him for The Big Fisherman, he was given the star treatment by Universal, who top-billed him in half a dozen films. He was loaned to Hecht Hill Lancaster for John Huston’s The Unforgiven, for a key role in support of Audrey Hepburn and Burt Lancaster. But after playing a supporting role in Lana Turner’s Portrait in Black, the studio somehow lost interest. He was second-billed in two Audie Murphy westerns and then relegated to guest appearances in TV anthology series.

He looked elsewhere for opportunities. He starred in an ambitious movie made in the Philippines, The Ravagers, but had a small role in Terry Sanders’ War Hunt, a highly acclaimed student film that established Robert Redford as a leading actor. That in turn led him to work in Italy, in films by Mario Bava and Mauro Bolognini.

Returning to Hollywood he had a supporting role in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinalwhich won the Golden Globe as best motion picture drama and which spelled the end of his career as a juvenile. Then, out of the blue, Marlon Brando chose him for a co-starring role in The Appaloosa, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe as best supporting actor. That recognition resuscitated his career, and he spent the next 15 years guesting in successful TV series becoming one of Hollywood’s most reliable character actors.

Returning to features in 1972 he had a key role in Clint Eastwood’s Joe Kidd and a smaller one in Jane Fonda’s Electric Horseman. which led to starring roles in a number of forgettable programmers.

His two most memorable films of this later period were in Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street and Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.

Of his television roles, the two that stand out are the powerful Middle East tycoon in ABC’s Dynasty and Lorenzo Lamas' father in CBS' Falcon Crest.

Saxon, who was born Carmine Orrico, was the eldest of three children of an Italian immigrant house painter. His wife Gloria Martel Saxon revealed that he died of complications from pneumonia just short of his 84th birthday. "I was so sure he'd hold out until the 5th of next month," she told CNN. "He was a fighter, he was a sensitive, supportive, and generous person to not only his friends but to a lot of people that needed support and help.”

Always a friend of the Hollywood Foreign Press, he will be remembered.