John Saxon has appeared in nearly 200 roles in the movies and on television in a more-than half-century-long career that has stretched over seven decades since he made his big screen debut in 1954 in uncredited bit parts in It Should Happen to You (1954) and George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954). Born Carmine Orrico on August 5, 1936 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Italian immigrants Antonio Orrico and Anna (née Protettore), he studied acting with Stella Adler after graduating from New Utrecht High School.
He was discovered by talent agent Henry Willson, the man most famous for creating and representing Rock Hudson (as well as a stable of “beefcake” male stars and starlets), who signed him up after he saw Saxon’s picture on the cover of a magazine. Willson brought the 16-year-old to Southern California, changed his name to John Saxon, and launched his career. Saxon made his television debut on Richard Boone’ series Medic (1954) in 1955 and got his first substantial (and credited) part in Running Wild (1955), playing a juvenile delinquent. In the Esther Williams vehicle The Unguarded Moment (1956) (one of her rare dramatic parts), the film’s marketing campaign spotlighted him, trumpeting the movie as “Co-starring the exciting new personality John Saxon.”
By 1958, he seemed to have established himself as a supporting player in A-List pictures, being featured in Blake Edwards’s comedy This Happy Feeling (1958) headlined by Debbie Reynolds and Vincente Minnelli’s The Reluctant Debutante (1958) with Rex Harrison and Sandra Dee. In the next five years, he worked steadily, including supporting parts in John Huston’s The Unforgiven (1960), the James Stewart comedy Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) and Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal (1963) while having first billing in the B-movies Cry Tough (1959) and War Hunt (1962). Fluent in Italian, he made his first pictures in Italy in the period, Agostino (1962) and Mario Bava’s The Evil Eye (1963). Despite his good work with major directors, he failed to make it as a star.
By 1965, he was appearing in the likes of “Blood Beast from Outer Space” (1965), albeit, top-billed. A more emblematic picture was Sidney J. Furie’s The Appaloosa (1966), in which he appeared in Mexican bandito drag as the man who steals the horse of Marlon Brando, another Stella Adler student. The “ethnic-looking” Saxon would reprise the role, of sorts, in John Sturges _Joe Kidd (1972) in support of superstar Clint Eastwood. In those less politically correct times, many an Italian-American with a dark complexion would be relied on to play Mexicans, Native Americans and other “exotic” types like Mongols. Saxon played everything from an Indian chief on Bonanza (1959) to Marco Polo on The Time Tunnel (1966).
From 1969 to 1972 season, he was a star of the television series The Bold Ones: The New Doctors (1969), playing the brilliant surgeon Theodore Stuart. When the series ended, he took one of his most famous roles when Bruce Lee demurred over casting Rod Taylor as he was too tall. A black belt in karate, Saxon appeared as Roper in Enter the Dragon (1973). He has continued to play a wide variety of roles on television and in motion pictures ever since.