John Saxon, who skipped school one day as a teenager and stumbled into a long film and television career that included recurring roles on “Falcon Crest” and other series and a featured role opposite Bruce Lee in the martial-arts classic “Enter the Dragon” in 1973, died on Saturday in Brentwood, Tenn. He was 83.
His son, Antonio, confirmed his death but did not specify a cause.
In a career that began in the 1950s, when he often played teenage-heartthrobs, Mr. Saxon accumulated almost 200 film and TV credits, including “Enter the Dragon,” in which he played a gambler competing in a martial arts tournament. That film gave him a chance to employ the martial arts skills he had been honing for years, but the work, he told Black Belt magazine, was harder than he expected.
“We might do a fight sequence 10 times in a row just for rehearsal,” he said.
“I was putting away guys like crazy,” he added, “but in order to make it look real I damn near killed myself.”
Mr. Saxon was a supporting player in mainstream films like “The Electric Horseman” (1979), starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. But he was also known to B-movie horror fans from titles like “Beyond Evil,” “Cannibals in the Streets” and “Blood Beach,” all from 1980. In 1984 he upgraded his horror-film credentials considerably by appearing in Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which quickly acquired cult status.
In that movie he played the father of one of the young people targeted by the murderous Freddy Krueger. Mr. Saxon reprised the role in the sequel “Dream Warriors” (1987) and also appeared in “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” (1994), a meta riff on the earlier movies.
If Mr. Saxon rarely had a leading role in his long career, he did work with top directors, including John Huston, and he had stories about all of them.
“They used to call John Huston an ‘actor’s director,’” Mr. Saxon told United Press International in 1988, “but when I worked with him on ‘The Unforgiven’ in the late ’50s and I asked what he wanted out of one particular scene, he said to me flatly, ‘I just want you to get on that horse, son.’”
Mr. Saxon was born Carmine Orrico on Aug. 5, 1936, in Brooklyn to Antonio and Anna (Protettore) Orrico. He told The Knoxville News-Sentinel of Tennessee in 1997 that he had based his stage name on a Brooklyn roller hockey team he admired, the Saxons.
“They were extraordinary; they looked like a professional team,” he said. “Their efficiency and their competence meant something to me.”
Mr. Saxon, who grew up in Brooklyn, said his career began one day when he missed school and went to the movies. Coming out of the Times Square theater, he was spotted by a modeling agency representative, and soon his picture was in magazines like Modern Romance. One photo caught the attention of Henry Willson, a noted Hollywood agent, and at 17 (he fudged his age on the contract to make himself a year older) Mr. Saxon was off to Los Angeles for a screen test.
His first film credits were in 1954, and in 1956 he was one of the leads in “The Unguarded Moment,” as a troubled teenager obsessed with his teacher, played by the swimming star Esther Williams.
“The teenagers at the theater yesterday were obviously impressed by the dark good looks of John Saxon, the mixed-up high school football hero who turns out to be a bit of a sex maniac on the side,” Marjory Adams wrote in a review in The Boston Globe.
Words like “smoldering” and “brooding” were often affixed to his name in reviews of his early work. In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther called his character in “This Happy Feeling” (1958), which starred Debbie Reynolds, “a junior Marlon Brando.”
“The poor man’s Marlon Brando” was another phrase he was tagged with, but Mr. Saxon said he had never understood the comparison.
“There is one way you might compare me favorably with Brando,” he told U.P.I. years later. “We have both worked long enough to have seen what can be achieved when the medium is working at its best. And we’ve probably seen it at its worst.”
Mr. Saxon actually worked with the real Brando in “The Appaloosa,” a 1966 western that included an arm-wrestling match between the two. Mr. Saxon considered his work in the film among his best performances.
“In all modesty, I think I was as good as if not better than he was,” he told The News-Sentinel, “partly because he was so disinterested until the last minute.”
Mr. Saxon’s role in “The Appaloosa” was evidence of an attribute that kept him working during that period, when Hollywood was less concerned about cross-racial casting than it is today: He played a Mexican bandit. (He was Italian-American.) In a 1967 episode of “The Time Tunnel,” one of many TV series on his résumé, he was Marco Polo. Two years later, on “Bonanza,” he played an Indian chief.
In addition to his recurring role on “Falcon Crest” in the 1980s, Mr. Saxon was a regular on “The Bold Ones: The New Doctors” from 1969 to 1972.
Mr. Saxon’s first marriage, to Mary Ann Murphy, ended in divorce. He married Elizabeth Phillips in 1987; that marriage also ended in divorce, in the 1990s.
In 2008 he married Gloria Martel, who survives him. His other survivors, in addition to his son, include a sister, Dolores.
Julia Carmel contributed reporting.