Action movie enthusiasts today may not know it, but “Enter the Dragon” is the most widely respected martial arts film of all time, being the inspiration for many current action games, movies and television shows, as well as comic books, manga, and anime. John Saxon who starred in the movie with Bruce Lee, died on Saturday from pneumonia in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He was 83.
Saxon and his third wife, Gloria Martel Saxon, moved to Brentwood, Tennessee almost four years ago to get away from the hectic lifestyle of Los Angeles.
“We looked for a place where John could get the medical care he needed,” said Martel-Saxon, “and I could live nearby and walk to see him. The first year was great, we took tours, had dinner with lots of interesting new people we met, and the community even had a John Saxon Film Festival. It was like a vacation we never had.”
Until the very end, Saxon enjoyed meeting and learning about new people. While he often played the bad guy, he was really a very caring guy who had the charisma that drew both male and female fans.
Saxon was born Carmine Orrico in Brooklyn, New York on August 5, 1936. He came from an Italian-American family with a grandmother who spoke no English, and parents who spoke little English.
“When he talked to his grandmother and told her about what was going on in the world, he would mimic and perform for her because of the language difference,” said Martel-Saxon. “That was his earliest training in acting.”
Martel-Saxon noted that at age 12 or 13 we rarely think about what we will do for a living, but at that age Saxon came to realize acting is what he wanted to do after doing a reading of a radio script with some friends.
“After finishing the reading with his friends, John realized he was the best actor,” said Martel-Saxon. “That was when he knew he wanted to act for a living.”
Just a few years later, he was discovered by a modeling scout as he was coming out of a movie theater, which led to a magazine spread in “True Romance.” According to Hollywood Reporter, a layout featuring Saxon in that magazine was seen by legendary Hollywood Agent, Henry Wilson (now being played by Jim Parson’s in Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood”). Wilson discovered Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson.
“He was signed by Universal Studios quickly,” said Martel-Saxon. “They were paid a salary in those days, and John sent money home to help his family.”
In the 1950’s, when Saxon hit Hollywood, actors and actresses were trained by the studios. They paid for acting lessons, voice lessons, dance lessons, and writing lessons. Saxon studied under the great acting teacher Stella Adler. He also worked with many famous directors like Otto Preminger, Vincent Minnelli, George Cukor, and Blake Edwards.
He first gained attention in the movie “The Unguarded Moment” opposite Esther Williams in one of her few dramas, and won a Golden Globe in 1958 for “This Happy Feeling.”
“Some people get started in acting by being extras,” said Martel-Saxon. “John had his first film role in an uncredited part where he stood between Jack Lemon and Judy Holiday as they were fighting in the comedy, “It Should Happen to You.” People actually wrote the studio asking who the good-looking guy was standing between the two stars. He had a fan club before he got to Hollywood.”
John Saxon made more than 200 movies and television shows, with his last performance in the independent film, “God’s Ear” in 2008, for which he won honors for his role. The movie is about autism.
Saxon is survived by his third wife, Gloria Martel Saxon; his son, Antonio with first wife Mary Ann Murphy; his sister; a grandson; and a great grandson.
A memorial to Saxon and Lee will be constructed at Lakeview Cemetery in Seattle, Washington.