LOS ANGELES -- Veteran actor John Saxon still has that intense, brooding look that earned him the label the 'poor man's Brando' back in the 1950s, when movies were manufactured the way Henry Ford assembled automobiles.
But Saxon, 50, says he never heard the comparison -- or thought of himself that way -- even when he and the genuine Marlon Brando appeared in the 1965 Western, 'The Appaloosa.'
'What do you mean, 'poor man's Brando'?' Saxon asked, a little incredulously. 'I've heard myself described before as 'the poor man's John Derek.' But never Brando.'
Yet, the similarities are there. One can hear it when he speaks in that occasional sing-song inflection, and that Brandoesque tension, conveying a precarious balance between disdain and distress, is visible.
Audiences can see for themselves in his portrayal of the womanizing Tony Cumson on the CBS-TV series, 'Falcon Crest.'
'There is one way you might compare me favorably with Brando,' Saxon said. '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.'
By his own estimation, he rates as memorable only 10 performances out of some 60 film appearances, including turns as Bruce Lee's foil in 'Enter the Dragon' and the Machiavellian corporate boss in 'The Electric Horseman.'
The titles of some of his other movies are eloquent enough description of the distaff side -- 'Rock, Pretty Baby' or 'Cannibal Holocaust.'
However, for Saxon, acting in the great and not-so-great is all part of the same business, as well as working for directors of every stripe.
'They used to call John Huston an 'actor's director,'' Saxon recalled, '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.' Nothing more than that.'
Saxon got on the horse and rode until Huston and Burt Lancaster could huddle somewhere and figure out where the production was headed.
On the other end of that spectrum was Otto Preminger, whose bullying tactics are legendary among actors.
'I worked with Otto on 'The Cardinal,'' Saxon said, 'and everything you ever heard about his behavior on the set, I saw. I tried a certain accent, and he started shouting, 'Vhere do you get that accent? I never heard myself such an accent.' I guarantee you, if he'd thought it up himself there would have been no problem.'
Saxon put himself in the director's chair last year with the feature 'Death House,' the story of one man's revenge against a Mafia figure, along with the requisite sex-violence-horror angles.
The script, written as a UCLA film project, was brought to his attention by a friend. Saxon went ahead with the project and recruited a cast including Tony Franciosa, Henry Levin and Dennis Cole.
The plot has an everything-but-the-kitchen sink quality to it. Cole plays a man framed by a mobster (Franciosa) after a sexual escapade with the mobster's girlfriend.
In prison he finds a deadly chamber of horrors, with gruesome experiments being conducted on Death Row inmates. Saxon plays a CIA agent who throws a wrench into the experiments.
He began editing the film in late December and it is tentatively scheduled for release in mid-1988.
'The truth is the experience is one of flying by the seat of my pants,' he said of the venture. 'I just didn't have the time to make elaborate preparations. I've done it before, in television to some extent, and in some movies. ... We were rewriting constantly, sometimes on the set.
'That's OK by me. I think it's a good capacity to have.'
Considering all the occupational hazards, Saxon emerges as an actor fully aware of the pitfalls that come with the praise, and on one pragmatic count, he himself makes the comparison to Brando.
'Yes, I have made a fair amount of money in my time,' he said. 'I look at the money that Marlon made, and you know, he lost so much of it in his ranching business, and Lord knows what happened to him in his Tahiti venture.
'When you get right down to it, we who call ourselves actors have to do it.'