In Memoriam of John Saxon: The Evolution of His 'Nightmare on Elm Street' Character Lt. Thompson & Why He Was Actually a Good Dad
“You’re hurting, but you’re fine…”
…Those comforting words come from the late John Saxon in the role in which he plays himself in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. At the time he said it, those words were meant to comfort Heather (Heather Langenkamp) as she begins to believe that Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) has transcended from the film world and into her own nightmares. Now, with John having passed away this past Saturday, July 25th, those words feel like a comfort to all of us who loved him.
With nearly two-hundred credits to his name, John Saxon was an icon. He moved to California when he was just 16 and made his TV debut in Medic in 1955. From there, he went on to appear in a ton of well-known features and TV, including Enter the Dragon with Bruce Lee, The Six Million Dollar Man TV series, and many more. Horror fans knew him from films like Tenebrae and Black Christmas (1974) or that time he played a wicked villain in Hellmaster, but most notably, we knew him from the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, in which he plays Nancy’s dad, Lt. Thompson (Donald).
Saxon appeared in three out of the seven Nightmare films. A Nightmare on Elm Street was a hugely influential series for me, as it was for many, one that opened up the dream of becoming a horror writer/filmmaker. Because the film is so iconic, a lot of us horror fans grew up with it, and for many of us, Lt. Thompson and therefore John was our movie dad. He wasn’t the perfect movie dad, but he was our movie dad.
And the thing is, despite his flaws, Donald was actually a pretty damn good dad who evolved quite a bit over the series, yet he’s rarely ever given the credit for that.
In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy’s parents are divorced and she’s forced to live with her alcoholic mother. We don’t know how long Marge (Ronee Blakely) and Donald have been divorced, but Nancy is clearly still feeling the sting of it and seems to hate her parents. From Nancy’s point of view, I get it. When you’re a teenager, your parents are the worst. Every demand they make, every order they give, they sound like prison wardens laying down the cruel hammer of the law. Being grounded to your room feels like a life sentence.
But is Donald really all that bad, or is Nancy just wrong about him?
A Nightmare on Elm Street is told from Nancy’s viewpoint, in a series where parents are always secondary villains, unaware or uncaring of the state of mind of their kids, leaving them to their lonely angst. We don’t even meet Nancy’s parents for the first fifteen minutes of Nightmare, and when we finally do after the murder of Tina (Amanda Wyss), Donald storms into his office upon a weeping Nancy and apathetic Marge, immediately asking Marge what Nancy was doing there. His first words aren’t loving reassurance to Nancy, but frustrated assertiveness with Marge, a stern quality that Saxon excelled at. I used to think this moment painted Saxon as an asshole in the film, and then my parents went through their own divorce. I was also left to live with my mom, and it got to a point where my dad no longer had any say in my life. And while my mother was no abusive alcoholic like Marge, she wasn’t around much, solely focused on her new boyfriend and now husband. I’m not a parent (unless you count fur babies), but if I’ve learned anything from parents, it’s that those who truly love their children want to protect them, even at the cost of making themselves come off as jerks. Donald is so upset that he wasn’t able to keep his little girl from “shacking up with some kids”, that his go-to reaction is to confront Marge with his anger at failing what he probably sees as their parental duty.
Is it controlling? Sure. But does it make sense? Well, you tell me, would you want your kid spending the night with a bunch of kids you didn’t like without you knowing about it, only to find out someone was freaking murdered? Thought so.
But dude, he literally stalks Nancy and uses her as bait to catch Rod (Jsu Garcia) later on! Again, I used to be against Donald here. Now, it makes sense to me.
After my parents got divorced, my dad was forced to live miles away from us. The older you get, the more family starts to feel like everything to you, at least that’s how it’s been for me. Being away from us was tough on my dad, so, even though I wouldn’t say this was “good” behavior, I later found out that he’d often drive by the house, and even left a message of “hello” in the snow of our front yard once. Yeah, I thought that was creepy as fuck at the time, but now I realize that being without us was devastating for him.
So, Imagine how Donald feels, being away from Nancy, the day after her friend was murdered, and you think a dude that knows Nancy well did it? What Donald does in following Nancy and using her as bait isn’t “right”, but in doing so, he’s also looking out for her the only way he knows how. I was relentlessly bullied as a kid, and let me tell you, I would’ve given anything to have a protector like Donald around. I mean come on, John Saxon was a black belt in real life! Aint no bullies going to mess with a black-belt cop dad.
That’s a big part of what made Donald feel like my movie dad. Even though Nancy could certainly take care of herself, he was always there, whether she wanted him to be or not. Think about it, he’s the only parent in the entire nightmare franchise to not completely dismiss their kid. At the end of Nightmare, instead of telling Nancy she’s insane when she calls and tells him to come over and arrest Freddy after she pulls him out of her dream, he soothes her and says he’ll be there, and tells her to get some sleep. Way different reaction than Marge, who’s taking her to loony doctors and slapping bars on the windows. Who’s the real nutjob here, Marge? And when Nancy actually does pull Freddy out of her dream? Boom! Donald is breaking down her door to help. Who cares if he doesn’t actually “save the day,” he’s there.
By the time we get to the third Nightmare film, Nancy can’t forgive Donald for what he did to Fred Krueger and, in turn, her friends, even telling her dad that he “owes” her, despite the fact that Donald and the other parents burning Freddy alive was an attempt to protect them. He doesn’t owe you shit, Nancy! But that’s Donald’s cross to bear, and it’s what’s turned him into an alcoholic bar fly, just like Marge. Saxon’s acting chops are on display here, because he manages to transform from the overbearing father of the first film, to a sympathetic loser who’s lost all sense of worth. While Donald was a misunderstood protector in the first film, here Nancy has had nothing to do with him, and he feels worthless. Nancy sees him for the flawed human he really is. We all go through it. When you’re a kid, you tend to view your parents as enforcers, but once you’re an adult, that all goes out the window. Parents become every-day people, and you start to see them for who they really are, sometimes in ways you wish you hadn’t. It’s a painful process.
You can’t help but feel sorry for Donald when he tells Nancy not to stay away so long next time after saying that he feels like she was trying to forget him. And what parent hasn’t felt that at times once they’re kid is all grown up and out of the damn house? He clearly loves her, and she’s let her anger keep her from having any relationship with him. The truly sad part about that? We as the audience learn Nancy does still love him when she admits it to what happens to be Freddy impersonating her dad, but Donald never gets to hear that, as he once again attempts to be the protector, and once again fails, dying at the hands of Freddy without Nancy knowing what he did for her.
He tried though, damnit. He tried! And he did it knowing his drunk ass probably wasn’t going to make it. Fights with supernatural skeletons with knives for fingers don’t tend to go well. But that’s what real heroes do. They fight when they know they won’t win.
Still, this wasn’t the redemption Donald deserved.
Then came Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which isn’t the “best” film in the franchise, but is certainly the most brilliant. Wes found a way to continue the story he had begun with the first and third films, and wrap it up neatly, not in the world of Elm Street, but in real life. This meant Nancy and her father finally got the resolution they were owed.
In reality, Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon were good friends. So, there’s nothing forced about the film, which sees John comforting Heather at every turn, and showing us the warm side of the real-life actor. He’s the first one to help her when she has a panic attack at the funeral. He’s there for her to discuss her worries about her son Dylan (Miko Hughes) at the park, telling her she’s not crazy and that the thought of Freddy will only get under her skin if she lets it. New Nightmare allows Nancy/Heather and Donald/John to have that father/daughter relationship that they always wanted throughout the films, but could never have thanks to a history of trauma and anger.
That’s the funny thing about getting older and having kids of your own. Even with just having a dog, it was enough for me to realize that most parents are just trying their best despite a constant feeling of the world crumbling around them. That’s all Donald was ever doing. He failed in a lot of ways, sure, but he always tried. Nancy/Heather just never got to realize that until New Nightmare.
Towards the end of New Nightmare, John Saxon has his final moment in the franchise, where he rushes to Heather’s aid in the middle of the night, only for her to slip into an alternate reality where he once again becomes Lt. Thompson, and she, Nancy. In this scene, Donald tells Nancy “I love you, sweetheart. Don’t forget that…now get yourself some rest,” before driving off into the mist as Nancy/Heather whispers that she loves him, too. They’re the words the two never got to share together until now. I used to look at it as a sweet moment between the two characters where their relationship comes full circle, with Nancy/Heather finally realizing that her father only ever wanted to be there for her, but now, with John having passed, it’s taken on a different context. Cool blue mist filling the scene as John says to get some rest before driving off, it feels like Mr. Saxon saying his last words to us as he ascends into Heaven or wherever it is we go after we die, disappearing into the night.
Wherever you are, John, sleep well and get some rest free of nightmares. Thank you for being the TV dad for so many of us horror kids that didn’t know we needed you at the time, but are glad you were there. We're hurting, but we'll be fine.
By Matt Konopka