A Cop on Elm Street
A survivor of the teen-idol syndrome, John Saxon has established himself as a character actor and hero of horrors in such pictures as Queen of Blood and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
By William Rabkin
Published in Fangoria #44.
There are zombies stalking the streets of Hollywood. Somewhere deep inside, they must know they were: once nice kids from Salina, Kansas, and Farmville, Virginia, but in their hollow eyes you can now only see despair. It wasn’t a virus from a passing comet that created these zombies, and it wasn’t a new strain of rabies. It was a disease far more insidious and far more deadly. A disease called instant fame.
When they were young, they had a taste of success: they played the youngest daughter on a situation comedy or the beach hero’s beatnik sidekick. For a moment, everyone knew them. For a moment, they were stars. When the moment ended, the nice boys and girls from Salina, Kansas, were out on the streets. No one remembered them.
Those who had nothing else to turn to lived on the shadows of their former glory. But not every teen idol became a Hollywood zombie. Some were tenacious enough to re-establish themselves. John Saxon escaped the syndrome of youthful fame so completely that today the very idea of him as a teen idol seems absurd. John Saxon, the steely-jawed hero of The Bees, was the heartthrob of a million teenage girls? John Saxon, Heather Langenkamp’s stony policeman father in A Nightmare on Elm Street, once caused mass swooning in teenyboppers? The man-eating Vietnam veteran hero of Cannibals in the Streets was once the girl-chasing beach partier of Rock, Pretty Baby? But it’s true: John Saxon was a teen idol.
He escaped becoming a zombie by making zombie movies… and stalker movies and alien movies and underground-monsters movies and any other picture that caught his fancy. Saxon got his start in Hollywood when he was only 17 years old, playing teenage hoods in movies like Running Wild. “My success followed shortly after I began acting,” he recalls. “I was under contract at seventeen-and-a-half. At eighteen-and-a-half, I started getting fan mail. I thought I might enjoy some success as a young type, as a teen idol for a little while.” The film that clinched his teen-idol status was Rock, Pretty Baby, in which Saxon costarred as a member of a struggling rock band with Sal Mineo and that poet-laureate of the Hallmark Cards set, Rod McKuen.
“Rock, Pretty Baby was one of those family music-beach-teenage things,” Saxon explains. “I was about 20. It was an interesting experience, and very successful. We did a sequel the next year.” The film gave Saxon his first taste of stardom. It also gave him his first taste of the star’s responsibilities. “Rod and I had to tour to publicize the film,” Saxon says, “and we were getting crazy together on this intensive tour. After a while, just the first mention of any of the questions we kept being asked would cause us to burst into laughter. They had to cancel the tour.” But after a few years of stardom, Saxon began to feel restless. And instead of working on his publicity and sucking up to fan magazines, he simply left.
“I went off to Europe to see what I could do there—I thought it might be more interesting,” Saxon says. He took an acting job in Italy in order to see Europe. He didn’t realize he would be working with one of the world’s most respected horror directors, Mario Bava. “I first went to Italy to do Bava’s film, The Evil Eye. When I went, I was not aware of him as someone regarded as a master. I found him interesting, but I don’t think I was interested enough in him at that time to explore what he did as a director.”
Saxon was never particularly impressed with the film itself. “The film was one of Bava’s suspense thrillers with comic overtones, and it didn’t work very well. It was not one of his classics.” But if the film wasn’t interesting, the director certainly was. Bava’s manner on the set was not like that of most other directors. “Bava had a lot of superstitions,” Saxon says. “Sometimes it seemed like he lived in his own personal world of superstition. He was filled with almost occult beliefs about anything: you didn’t do this because it was bad luck.” Soon after finishing The Evil Eye, Saxon felt ready for another change. “I lived in Italy for a while, but after nine months I realized I didn’t want to stay there.”
Saxon returned to Hollywood. He quickly made the discovery that so many other former teen idols had made: “When I came back, people weren’t exactly waiting for me to return.” Finding that his livelihood as a leading man had come to a dead stop, he reconsidered his career. “I realized I had to use the things I knew were my strengths, and work for character stuff. After all, I hadn’t had a big break in my career. I started over again, this time playing the heavy.” His new career didn’t get off to a smooth start. “When I began, I wasn’t always the first bad guy, sometimes I was the second or third. But I thought I’d be able to spin off from those roles a career as a character actor, playing more than just myself, more than just being a leading man.”
It wasn’t easy for Saxon to become respected enough as an actor to land even decent supporting roles. The breakthrough came on the 1966 Western The Appaloosa, in which he played opposite Marlon Brando. It was a breakthrough he made for himself. “I really pursued the part with Brando against all odds,” Saxon says, “because no one thought I’d get it. My agent suggested to the studio chief that I play it, and the studio chief said ‘Are you kidding? This is the Mexican bandit chief playing against Brando. He can’t do that.’ But by one of those Hollywood things, I knew the secretary of the director, who told me that he would be at his office at nine in the morning, and if I wanted to sit there, she would let me. It just happened that the director [Sidney (The Entity) Furie] walked out of his office, looked at me, and said ‘That’s the kind of guy we need for the part.’ That got me the test, and the test got me the part. And that film gave me credibility as a character actor.” Saxon’s new career as a character actor led him into a world he had known little about: the world of science fiction and horror films. His science fiction career got off to an auspicious start in the Roger Corman mini-budget classic, Queen of Blood. “Queen of Blood was one of the things Roger Corman put together real quick. A director I knew had the opportunity to put a film around special effects the Corman brothers had purchased from some Yugoslavian or Czechoslovakian science-fiction film. The film took 10 days to put together. It was just a job when I needed a job. But it, too, has had its own life, and it certainly made some money for the Corman brothers.”
The film may just have been a job when Saxon needed a job, but it led to his discovering that he liked science fiction. “I like horror and science fiction because I feel they have a little glimmer of perception about something in the human psyche, in human nature, that ordinary naturalistic drama doesn’t turn up. I get a little kick out of scripts that have something like that.” It was Saxon’s appreciation of that glimmer of perception that attracted him to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. “I liked the idea that dreams had an equal weight, an equal reality with ordinary reality,” Saxon explains. “I think the idea has a lot of validity, although the film is not a scientific thesis, but an entertainment film.” Craven and Bava aren’t the only important genre directors who have cast Saxon in their films. Bob Clark (Deathdream, Porky’s) cast Saxon as a cop in one of his last genre films, Silent Night, Evil Night.
“That was one of the times I thought that I was able to determine that a film was going to be successful, just as I did with Nightmare on Elm Street. I was right. The film did quite well and still has a following-it seems to have lasted a long time. I thought Bob was a good director. Now he’s gone on to do big and hugely important films.” Saxon has found that the people around him don’t understand why he’s attracted to horror films and space adventures. “I remember things I’ve done that my agents would shake their heads over: material similar to Star Wars, only preceding it by years.”
One such project was the Gene Roddenberry TV pilot, Planet Earth, in which Saxon starred as a 20th-century man in the year 2133. Saxon feels the film, like his character, was simply ahead of its time. “Planet Earth, which came years before Star Wars, had many elements similar to that film: it showed different species, different civilizations—they were civilizations of the mind. My agents couldn’t understand—they thought it was crap. But I saw something interesting there. I think the show was just a little early to be successful.” Planet Earth was not a success, either with the critics or with the networks.
Saxon feels people misunderstood the film. “There was a sense of humor in Planet Earth. Some critics thought it was unintentional humor—the schmucks didn’t realize it was intentional; they couldn’t see science fiction and humor going together. Science fiction at this time was seen as dark and foreboding. But there has always been a dark humor in science fiction. The network got scared because of the critical reaction. Roddenberry foresaw this, and had been pressured by the networks. He told me he was worried because the script had humor in it, and I told him not to worry.” Planet Earth fit Saxon’s paradigm for good science fiction. “The show included a veiled comment on something that sometimes arises in society—in this case, it was on the women’s movement. In the pilot, there was an enclave of humanity in which women had finally achieved their fondest achievement—they had domesticated men the way some might say men have now domesticated women—but they didn’t like it. Unfortunately, the men had lost their sexual vigor. In other words, the women had achieved their objective, but it didn’t work out for them.” Although the network wasn’t fond of the pilot, they still liked the idea of John Saxon waking up 180 years in the future. Another pilot was made. This one was called Strange New World, and this time there was no Gene Roddenberry.
“The network tried to do the show a second time—they thought it was a good show, but not done the right way. They wanted something fresh and different. The second pilot was different, but critics didn’t treat it differently. It was panned, too. Even Saxon didn’t like it as much as the first because the humor was gone. Not all of Saxon’s genre films have been as well received even as these two pilots. At least one, Cannibals in the Streets, was never significantly distributed in this country. But Saxon stands by his reasons for doing the film. “Cannibals in the Streets included the elements that attract me to science fiction. In the film, the cannibalism was a metaphor for some of the darker aspects of human nature; it was directly related to Vietnam. The cannibalism was like rabies—one who is bitten becomes infected and spreads the disease.” In the film, Saxon plays a Green Beret who contracts a virus in Vietnam that turns him into a cannibal. Back in the States his appetite for flesh drives him to commit unspeakable acts that only a Romero zombie would condone. The film includes scenes of violence so graphic that the film was rated X. But the violence doesn’t trouble Saxon. “The nature of the film is violent. The violence is justified,” Saxon says.
As for cinematic violence in general, Saxon has mixed feelings. “I think it’s the old story: when the violence follows the dictates of some kind of psychological logic, when it follows the dictates of the story, I don’t mind. But when the violence merely follows the dictates of the box office, I become a little queasy, a little disgusted. It’s not the violence itself that’s disgusting; I just think, Oh, that again.” Not all of Saxon’s genre films are in the class of A Nightmare on Elm Street. One of the worst was The Bees, a New World quickie rushed out to beat Irwin Allen’s The Swarm to the screen. If nothing else, it was a memorable experience for Saxon, who had the lead. “I had to work with loads of bees. They all had their stingers taken out; you have to do that to each bee individually. There were dozens and dozens of people with exacto knives running around cutting the stingers out of anesthetized bees. Bees are nice people, and, in fact, as a result of the film I now have a colony of bees, but when you’re in a closed room with hundreds of thousands of bees, you have to remove their stingers, because if they chose to get mad, the results could be fatal.”
Although Saxon has played a variety of heroes—including one of the three martial arts superstars with Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly in Enter the Dragon—he is still most fondly remembered by genre fans for his villainous roles. Probably his best remembered villain is in Battle Beyond the Stars. “Battle Beyond the Stars came by real quick right after Cannibals in the Streets. A friend of mine was producing the film and he said we have this part that hasn’t been filmed yet, it films the last week of shooting, do you want to do it as a lark? It looked like fun, so I did it. Ironically, It’s turned out to be a significant movie for my career: in Germany, the film is named after the character I played.”
But Saxon doesn’t anticipate many more villainous roles for a while. “I think I’ve had my fill of villains. I don’t think I could go back to that. It’s not that I’ll never play another villain. It’s just that to me at that time, that was laughs and fun. Now it wouldn’t be fun. You change and you have other kinds of things occur, other directions, closer to other feelings. It’s not that I couldn’t do it if I had to, but I wouldn’t get as much of a kick out of it.” Now Saxon intends to concentrate on more rewarding roles in bigger pictures. He appeared as the lead villain in the Jane Fonda/Robert Redford film The Electric Horseman, and he’s currently playing Ryan O’Neal’s buddy in the Richard Brooks’ gambling movie, The Fever. But he has to fight to win these roles. “My problem is that I play characters, but I still look like a leading man. I don’t look like one of the guys who usually fit into character types—in The Fever I’m not the kind of guy most directors would cast as the sports editor, who’s the buddy of the hero. The fact that I still have too much of a leading man look prevents me from getting a lot of good character parts in big films. On the other hand, it opens up other things.” What kind of other things? “I had the lead in the series The Bold Ones in which I played a doctor. I think I could be a good senior detective type in a TV series. Certainly I’ll be doing more science fiction and fantasy—not necessarily because I’m looking for it, but because the genre seems to be strong. There are a lot of things being done, sword-and-sex, sword-and-sorcery: strong, imaginative films seem to have taken hold.” What Saxon wants more than anything else is to play a variety of roles. “To me, the character stuff I do enables me to do anything. This year, I did a couple of episodes of Dynasty as an Arab oil magnate along with a variety—and I really mean—a variety of other roles: I was a captain in the Navy, a Mickey Spillane-type writer in fact, I had a dream last night in which I played an Eastern Indian and in the dream I commented. ‘Gee, wasn’t I good?'”