Tom Laughlin, sensationally popular star of ‘Billy Jack,’ dies at 82

Once upon a time, "Billy Jack," created by its star Tom Laughlin, was a cultural institution.
Once upon a time, “Billy Jack,” created by its star Tom Laughlin, was a cultural institution.

Not many people today know the name Tom Laughlin, but once upon a time he was massive. In the ‘70s, he rose from a faintly recognizable staple of drive-in cinema to a major cultural force when his film “Bill Jack,” which he directed, co-wrote and starred in, became a surprise box office juggernaut.

Laughlin died Dec. 12 at the age of 82 after battling illness, according to his website. He was surrounded by his family in Thousand Oaks, California.

Laughlin’s story is one of the strangest in Hollywood — a tale of sudden success and sudden downfall that all but erased him from the zeitgeist. He began acting in the 1950s, and made his screen debut in 1957’s regional drama “The Delinquents.” Its director, a young Robert Altman, would later describe him as “an unbelievable pain in the ass,” which sounds about right, as you will discover.

Laughlin was a regular of TV and low budget junk cinema. Probably his highest profile gig in his early years was playing “Loverboy” in the 1959 “Gidget” film. Around that time is when he first turned to directing, debuting with 1960’s “The Proper Time,” concerning a boy with a speech impediment.

He first introduced what would become his signature character, Billy Jack, in 1967’s “The Born Losers,” a more-or-less straight-up exploitation film (albeit one that, atypically, runs nearly two hours). It concerns a mysterious wanderer (Laughlin) who battles a vicious motorcycle gang.

It wasn’t until 1971’s “Billy Jack” that the character was fully fleshed out. Laughlin’s Billy Jack is a “half-breed” Navajo vigilante battling an evil small town mayor and his thugs, who are persecuting a counterculture school and its hippie participants. Laughlin had first conceived the script in the mid-1950s as a reaction to the persecution of Native Americans. (Laughlin, for the record, was noticeably not Native American.) Laughlin also co-wrote (with his wife Dolores Taylor, who also starred) and directed them, which he did, as with most of his films, under one of several pseudonyms.

Initially the film, which Laughlin self-distributed, was ignored. In 1973, Laughlin tried again, with a radical distribution plan he himself conceived. This time it worked, and how: It took in more than $40 million and elevated its character and creator/portrayer into a folk hero.

Its success is one of the oddest flukes in pop culture history. “Billy Jack” satiated America’s hunger at the time for cucumber cool, quipping vigilantes, among them Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan. But where Callahan is a right-wing (or at least libertarian) blowhard, Billy Jack fights for the left. He unleashes his considerable ass-kicking abilities — including a penchant for kicks to the head that he performs without moving one of his legs — upon racists, capitalists, big-wigs and anyone else he felt was destroying the country.

Liberalism and vigilantism are not comfortable bedfellows. In his pan, Roger Ebert railed, “‘Billy Jack’ seems to be saying that a gun is better than a Constitution in the enforcement of justice. Is democracy totally obsolete, then? Is our only hope that the good fascists defeat the bad fascists?”

That’s not all that’s unusual about the film. While there are a fair amount of YouTube-able moments of admittedly stunning hurt bombs, a rather large chunk of the film — roughly half — is devoted to footage at the hippie school, observing long talent shows and hanging with the kids. It’s the gentlest movie ever made in which a badass brings the pain.

Laughlin took his sudden fame to heart, although it can be argued he simply didn’t understand it. Did the audience really want to see more political commentary and long scenes of counterculture brouhahas? Laughlin thought so. His hotly anticipated follow-up, 1974’s “The Trial of Billy Jack” is a three-hour protest movie that largely lacks Billy Jack, who goes to jail for the events in the previous picture.

Instead, the film dwells on the school growing in power, getting a new building, starting its own newspaper and its supporters taking a louder stance in local politics. Here, the running time is devoured by hearings, which lead to such vitriol that the National Guard is summoned.

It’s a nakedly political movie, featuring a few token ass-kicks. (The ending, appropriately, involves an epic chant-along of “Give Peace a Chance.”) Mostly Billy Jack is absent or embarking on a freaky Vision Quest that eats up even more screentime. It delivers little of what fans of “Billy Jack” presumably wanted.

And yet it still made money. Laughlin had the brilliant idea to release the film nationwide at once, which at that point was not how movies were released. The studios would roll films out gradually. But Laughlin — perhaps unconsciously, or down very deep inside, recognizing that word would quickly spread of its toxic tediousness — gave everyone what they wanted right away. And it changed how movies were released from then on.

Laughlin was therefore a true visionary, if not the kind he perhaps wanted to be. This makes the next part of his story all the more bizarre. His fourth Billy Jack picture, a shockingly almost faithful remake of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” called — yes — “Billy Jack Goes to Washington,” was never released theatrically at all. There’s a long story behind that, but it didn’t help that it’s pretty terrible, with Billy Jack lacking the charm that James Stewart brought to the original. Here, Billy Jack beats up a couple people, but saves most of his energy for the big filibuster climax, which finds him ranting, with Guinness-level spittle, about the many, many, many things that piss Tom Laughlin off.

Billy Jack and Tom Laughlin’s career were no more, although he attempted a few comebacks. In 1984 he tried a new platform for independent filmmakers that involved home video. It failed, although presumably part of his plan can be seen in today’s Video OnDemand craze. He also attempted, even up to a few years before his death, to do a fifth Billy Jack film, at least at one point to be called “The Return of Billy Jack.” For years, his website bore a “trailer” for this film, which was actually a long video of him talking about what was wrong with today’s America and a montage of news clips of various atrocities, tragedies and ills. He stayed political to the day he died, and even technically ran for president in 2004 and 2008, first as a Republican, then as a Democrat. He did not win, although in the latter he did get 47 votes in the New Hampshire primary.

Say what you will, but Laughlin was an original, and it warms the heart to see Billy Jack box sets as staples of the nation’s Best Buys.


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