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John Saxon, Hollywood cool guy, remembers his 'Dragon' days

The veteran actor has scores of movies and shows under his belt, but the Bruce Lee classic 'Enter the Dragon,' which screens this week, is one of his favorites.

October 21, 2012|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • John Saxon stays fit. The actor got his start as a teen model when after an agent spotted him in New York.
John Saxon stays fit. The actor got his start as a teen model when after an… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

John Saxon might never have come to Hollywood nearly 60 years ago if he hadn't played hooky from his high school in Brooklyn one day to see a movie at the venerable Paramount Theatre at Times Square.

In a story that seems ripped out of a movie script, Saxon ("A Nightmare on Elm Street," "The Reluctant Debutante") was spotted by a male modeling agent as Saxon was walking out of the Paramount. "He gave me his card," he said.

"I started doing jobs for magazines, like Modern Romance, all the Macfadden publications. I did about a dozen of them in one year."

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One color image, which Saxon says portrays him as "a Puerto Rican guy who had been shot and was leaning against a [garbage] can with his girlfriend looking at him," caught the attention of Hollywood agent Henry Willson, who had discovered such hunks of the day as Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter. Saxon was called into an office at Macfadden to talk with Willson on the phone.

Saxon, who was all of 17, got permission from his parents to sign a contract with Willson. After saving some money, Saxon flew to Los Angeles to seek his fame and fortune. Within three weeks Willson had him in meetings at the studios. "I did a scene with an actress at Universal and they said, 'OK.'" Suddenly he had a contract at what he recalls was $150 a week for 40 weeks a year.

This Thursday at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre, Saxon will discuss his career with screenwriter Larry Karaszewski ("Ed Wood") between screenings of the 1973 martial arts classic "Enter the Dragon," in which Saxon starred with Bruce Lee, and the 1966 Marlon Brando western "The Appaloosa," for which the actor earned a Golden Globe nomination as a brutal Mexican bandit.

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Saxon "has had this outstanding career and he's made hundreds and hundreds of movies and TV shows," Karaszewski said. "I can't think of anybody who has had such an electric career. He never made it quite in the realm of [Steve] McQueen or James Coburn. But he is the cool guy."

And he's still pretty cool as he sits in the living room of the Brentwood hills home he shares with his wife, Gloria. At 76, he is fit, trim and brimming with machismo.

Saxon believes "The Appaloosa" is one of his strongest films, and it gave him the opportunity to work with Brando, whom he had known since he was a teenager.

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"He was a friend," he said. "I took him to dinner one night. He said, 'I am going back to New York — do you have a coat?' I said, 'Sure, I got a coat.' He never gave me back the coat."

Brando, unfortunately, was doing the movie only for the payday, Saxon said. "This was to me a terrific role and something I was ready for, but he was despondent. He said he had lent a whole bunch of money to his father, and what he was saying to me was that his father ruined his life by losing all of his money. He was kind of bored in the picture."

Saxon loved working in Hong Kong with Lee in "Enter the Dragon" because "he took me seriously. I would tell him I would rather do it this way, and he'd say, 'OK, try it that way.'"

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But the director, Robert Clouse, wasn't quite so amenable when Saxon came up with dialogue and action he thought would work better in certain scenes. "He actually wrote about me later in ways that were not favorable," Saxon said.

Even when he was an unknown teenage actor, Saxon stood up for himself among Hollywood's elite. "I don't know where I developed the chutzpah," he said.

He recalled disagreeing with veteran MGM swimming star Esther Williams, who was making a rare dramatic turn in Universal's 1956 film "The Unguarded Moment." Williams was playing a high school teacher, with Saxon as her obsessed student. "She was trying to tell me how to do something," he said. "And I was saying no, no, no."

Saxon's skirmish with Williams didn't hurt his career. Universal gave him special billing in the film's end titles: "co-starring the exciting new personality John Saxon."

"It was as if I was a huge star you have to watch for," Saxon said, smiling. "All of a sudden, I had a jump in my price at the studio."

For more information go to http://www.americancinematheque.com.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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