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John Saxon, student of Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon co-star, dies at 83

The actor studied judo, Shotokan karate and promoted the popularization of martial arts in America

Enter The Dragon
Bruce Lee and John Saxon on the set of Enter the Dragon.
Photo by Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images

Born Carmine Orrico in Brooklyn, NY in 1936, the teenaged boy who would become John Saxon had great acting ambition from an early age, studying with famed acting coach Stella Adler. Discovered by Universal, he was given $150 a week and his name was changed when he was just 17. Saxon would go on to have a prolific career, performing in over 200 projects, and best known for his work in Westerns and horror—particularly for his role in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

However, he also made his mark in the world of martial arts. He began with judo in the 1950’s and then moved on to Shotokan karate in the 1960’s, studying with Hidetaka Nishiyama. Later, he moved on to tai chi chuan. With this already present martial arts knowledge, he was a natural to be cast in Enter the Dragon (1973). Despite his already lengthy resume, it was his first big role in a breakout film.

After Saxon’s death, The South China Morning Post relayed this story as shared by Saxon. “He [Bruce Lee] asked me to show him my side kick. I had strained my ankle but I showed him. Then it was time to show me his kick. He moved around with a chair and I didn’t know what he was doing. All of a sudden, he slid in front of me and he did a hop, skip and a jump and he knocked me clear across on my heels across the room and the chair fell and broke. I got up, and I saw he was very anxious and quiet and I said ‘it’s OK, I’m not hurt’. He said ‘I know but that was my best chair!’”

Even if Lee was more concerned about his chair than Saxon, Saxon enjoyed working with Lee in Hong Kong on Enter the Dragon. “He took me seriously,” Saxon told the Los Angeles Times. “I would tell him I would rather do it this way, and he’d say, ‘OK, try it that way.’”

While Saxon became associated with genres outside of martial arts as his career progressed, he remained an advocate. He hosted a documentary, The Deadliest Art, in 1990 about the best films to date in the martial arts genre, and in 2005 published a book of his experience filming with Lee entitled, Twelve Weeks in Hong Kong: A Photographic Diary.

Saxon passed away from pneumonia in Tennessee just a few days shy of his 84th birthday.

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