The world lost a commanding presence over the weekend with the passing of John Saxon, a beloved cult actor whose career stretched back to the 1950s and encompassed a wide range of Westerns, sci-fi, crime dramas, horror (including three Nightmare on Elm Street movies), and so, so much more.
Considering Saxon was active for seven decades in the biz, it’s hard to narrow down a handful of favourites to recommend, though it was made a little easier since we wanted to keep it to Gizmodo-type projects — fantasy, horror, and sci-fi. With that in mind, please consider this genre-specific list merely your jumping-off point into the wild, wonderful world of all things John Saxon. If you’re already a fan, please share your favourite titles and memories of his best career moments (including his extensive TV career, which we barely get to touch on here) in the comments.
1) A Nightmare on Elm Street films
Slasher movies from the 1980s tended not to include many cops or parental figures. While 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street does ultimately pit final girl Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) against the dreaded Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), her divorced parents — mum Marge (Ronee Blakley) and dad Donald (Saxon) — play a big part in the story. Not only do they share a tragic secret about Freddy’s origins, Saxon’s no-nonsense character is also a local police lieutenant, meaning he’s running point on the investigation when the killer starts knocking off Elm Street teens in their dreams.
Lt. Thompson proved such an important presence in Nancy’s story that he returned for 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, which sees Nancy, now a grad student, trying to help troubled teens who’re being targeted by you-know-who. She calls on her dad to help end the terror, believing if Freddy’s bones are properly buried he’ll stop slaughtering kids; unfortunately, though Freddy’s skeleton has been long hidden, it’s still capable of coming to life (thanks to some awesome stop-motion animation) and committing murder. But even with his character’s on-screen death, Dream Warriors wasn’t the end of Saxon’s Nightmare run. In 1994, he had a cameo as a fictional version of himself in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the director’s meta twist on the horror franchise that imagines the evil spirit that inspired Freddy has forced its way into reality.
Dario Argento’s 1982 giallo film may not have the instant name recognition of Suspiria, nor does it contain any witches — but it’s still set in the director’s signature waking-nightmare version of the real world, right down to its eerie synth score by members of Goblin. Anthony Franciosa stars as best-selling crime author Peter Neal, whose publicity tour brings him to Rome just as a series of brutal murders seemingly inspired by his books begin to rip through the city. Saxon has a small but important role as Neal’s literary agent, Bullmer, though none of his prominent plot points (including his gruesome demise) compare to the excellently quirky moment where Bullmer excitedly does a little dance to show off his brand-new Italian fedora to his client.
3) The Evil Eye
Twenty years before Tenebre, Saxon worked with another Italian horror legend — the great Mario Bava — on 1962 thriller The Evil Eye, aka The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Saxon plays a doctor in Rome who becomes drawn into a strange murder case when he gets involved with a pretty American tourist who believes she’s witnessed a murder, then is apparently taunted by the unknown killer in the aftermath. The Evil Eye is considered to be the first giallo film and was highly influential to the genre moving forward, with its striking cinematography (a Bava trademark) making it feel like an extra-stylish twist on all the noir films that came before.
4) Enter the Dragon
Technically, 1973’s Enter the Dragon isn’t really an Gizmodo film. But we’re including it here because it most certainly is a cult classic, and in addition to being martial arts legend Bruce Lee’s most famous movie — it might just be Saxon’s, too. Dude could fight!
5) Black Christmas
Saxon once again plays a police lieutenant in the context of a murder mystery in Bob Clark’s holiday chiller, one of the very first slasher films. Unlike in A Nightmare on Elm Street a decade later, Saxon’s character, Lt. Fuller, doesn’t have to deal with a killer who operates in another dimension; this time, the creep’s hiding upstairs in the sorority house the entire time! Of course, nobody knows that until the end, so we get to see Lt. Fuller leading search parties, coordinating surveillance, and installing the most high-tech phone-tapping technology that 1974 could offer, in an earnest effort to prevent the prank-calling maniac from claiming any more victims.
6) Cannibal Apocalypse
For a brief, spectacularly weird moment in cinematic history, cannibal movies were all the rage. In 1980, director Antonio Margheriti (a reliable purveyor of delicious trash) blended that most gore-gasmic of horror substrains with the Vietnam War genre, and Cannibal Apocalypse, also known by the name Cannibals in the Streets, was born. Saxon holds down the centre of a truly ridiculous movie through the power of sheer charisma, playing a Vietnam vet who starts to suspect the unhinged people his unit encountered back in the jungle may have passed on an infection that makes them crave human flesh, and not in a polite, Hannibal dinner party kind of way. This form of cannibalism is feral and aggressive and absolutely skews into zombie territory — let’s just say there’s a reason the word “apocalypse” is part of the movie’s title.
7) “The Feminum Mystique,” Wonder Woman
This list is mostly focusing on Saxon’s movie career, but he also racked up an impressive amount of TV credits over the years, with guest roles on shows like Starsky and Hutch, The Six Million Dollar Man, Dynasty, Fantasy Island, and The A-Team. He also appeared in several TV movies, including a pair of Gene Roddenberry projects, 1974’s Planet Earth and 1975’s Strange New World. But just for fun, we’re highlighting Saxon’s guest-starring turn on “The Feminum Mystique,” a two-part episode during Wonder Woman’s first season, back when the show was set in the 1940s.
Saxon puts on a German accent to play a Nazi spy obsessed with tracking down Wonder Woman’s invisible jet and the fantastical metal (“feminum”) that her bracelets are made from. (Later, he gets put under the Lasso of Truth and spills all his secrets.) This episode also features a young Debra Winger as Wonder Woman’s niece, Drusilla, aka “Wonder Girl” — which, of course, opens up the plot for “Nazis mistake Wonder Girl for Wonder Woman” shenanigans galore, as well as a most unsuccessful Nazi invasion of Paradise Island.
8) Battle Beyond the Stars
This Roger Corman-produced space-stravaganza features a script by future Oscar nominee John Sayles that riffs on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a soaring James Horner orchestral score, and special effects designed by future King of the World James Cameron. But more importantly for our purposes, it co-stars Saxon as an epic intergalactic baddie named Sador, a guy so odious he’s been extending his life for far too long using stolen body parts. He also has a planet-busting weapon he uses freely to bend dissidents to his will. If that all sounds familiar, note that Battle Beyond the Stars came out in 1980, and any similarities to other “Wars” among the “Stars” are definitely not coincidental. At any rate, it’s still fun to revisit, and Saxon is a joy to behold as the universe’s most flamboyantly evil villain.