The actor-filmmaker Tom Laughlin has died at the age of 82. Laughlin was best known as the titular Billy Jack, the iconic character he created and played in four movies made between 1967 and 1977. A half-Native American, a former Green Beret and Vietnam vet, and a master of hapkido, Billy Jack was a reluctant tough-guy hero who admired the pacifist principles of his friend Jean (played by Laughlin’s wife, Dolores Taylor) and the kids at her experimental “Freedom School,” but who was unable to control his fury when confronted with cruelty, intolerance, and official misconduct. At the height of his popularity, the character offered a counterculture alternative to the implicitly conservative, vigilante movie heroes of Death Wish and Dirty Harry. Billy Jack also provided a rough template for the TV series Kung Fu, whose half-Chinese hero (David Carradine) was forever expressing his deep regret at being forced to use his martial arts fighting skills to kick some bully’s ass through his hat.
Laughlin broke into the acting business in the mid-1950s, scoring guest appearances on such TV shows as The Millionaire and Lux Playhouse, and small roles in such movies as Tea And Sympathy, South Pacific, and Gidget. In 1957, he played the teenage hero of The Delinquents, a shoestring production that marked the feature-film directing debut of Robert Altman. Almost 20 years later, Altman would remember “Tommy Laughlin” as “just an unbelievable pain in the ass. Unbelievable. He’s a talented guy, but he’s insane. Total egomaniac. He was so angry that he wasn’t a priest. Big Catholic hangup.” According to Altman, Laughlin also suffered from a massive case of James Dean worship and “did the last half of the picture under protest,” insisting that the director demonstrate whatever he wanted him to do so that he could copy it exactly, without any pretense to expressing himself creatively, “and he was as good at doing that as when he was really working in the first part of the picture.”
After his experience with Altman, Laughlin tried making his own films, writing, directing, and starring in The Proper Time and Like Father, Like Son. Both were filmed in the late 1950s but not released until the early ‘60s, by which time Laughlin, unable to support his family by working as an actor, had cofounded a Montessori preschool in Santa Monica. The school went bankrupt in 1965, and two years later, Laughlin restarted his film career with The Born Losers, which he directed and co-produced from a screenplay credited to the female lead, Elizabeth James.
The film served to introduce audiences to Billy Jack, who at this point was just a stoic, often misunderstood protector of women from mean, rapist bikers. (The film also inaugurated Laughlin’s habit of using pseudonyms based on the names of his children, Frank, Teresa, and Christina; the direction is credited to “T. C. Frank.”) Laughlin reportedly shot the film for $160,000, then got $300,000 from American International Pictures to cover post-production costs. The film went on to become one of A.I.P.’s highest-grossing releases, especially after it was reissued in the wake of Billy Jack’s later screen appearances.
Laughlin immediately set to refining his myth with the follow-up, Billy Jack, which he directed (again using the name T. C. Frank), produced (under the name “Mary Rose Solti”), and co-wrote with Dolores Taylor (under the pseudonyms “Frank Christina” and “Teresa Christina”). By now, Billy had added a layer of Native American mysticism to his character, topping his black T-shirt, blue jeans, and denim jacket ensemble with a broad-brimmed hat. Made on a budget of $800,000, the film was completed with financial support from 20th Century Fox after A.I.P. pulled out, then distributed by Warner Bros. after Fox also got cold feet. Originally released in 1971, the movie was praised by such critics as Pauline Kael in The New Yorker and Stuart Byron in The Village Voice, who saw it as an uneven but touching expression of optimistic heroism and support for feminist and multiethnic communal values, at a time when it was a real novelty to see all those qualities in the same movie.
However, Billy Jack didn’t make its full cultural impact until Laughlin, sensing that Warner Bros. had dropped the ball, sued the studio for the right to distribute the movie himself. In 1973, he re-released the film and “four-walled” it, renting movie theaters and promoting the movie through a saturation TV ad campaign. The re-release earned more than $30 million, and Laughlin set to work on The Trial Of Billy Jack. Ten minutes short of three hours, the sequel showed the forces of government oppression sending in the National Guard to shoot up the Freedom School, after the work of its tyro investigative reporters and TV journalists conduct too many “searing exposés.” (In an aside, it is revealed that Billy Jack was present at the My Lai massacre and brought it to the public’s attention.) The movie was roasted by critics, but once again Laughlin’s flair for self-promotion and innovative distribution model brought people into the tent. “The youth of this country have only two heroes,” he told Time magazine. “Ralph Nader and Billy Jack.”
Unfortunately, Billy Jack had peaked. Laughlin’s next movie, The Master Gunfighter—a 1975 Western remake of Hideo Gosha’s samurai classic Goyokin, co-starring Ron O’Neal and Barbara Carrera, and whose direction was credited to his 20-year-old son, Frank Laughlin—was a non-event, and the 1977 Billy Jack Goes To Washington, a sequel to Mr. Smith Goes To Washington with Frank Capra, Jr. credited as producer, failed to go into general release. Laughlin would claim that powerful political interests had suppressed the film and that the big movie studios were out to shut him up, though it seems just as likely that Billy Jack’s moment had passed, and that what remained of his fan base was uninterested in seeing a movie in which he spent more time filibustering than kicking his enemies in the head.
After a few miniscule acting appearances in the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep and the 1981 The Legend Of The Lone Ranger, Laughlin disappeared from the film scene. In the mid-80s, the 54-year-old Laughlin tried to resurrect Billy Jack for a fifth film in which the hero would smash a child porn ring in New York. Plagued by injuries suffered by the director-star and a lack of funds, the project was never completed.
In 1992, 2004, and 2008, Laughlin announced that he was running for President. He also maintained a website that he used to promote his books and views on cancer, Jungian psychology, and the state of the world, and to daydream about another Billy Jack film—one of which would be called Billy Jack’s Crusade To End The War In Iraq And Restore America To Its Moral Purpose. He later shortened that to the in-a-nutshell title Billy Jack For President.