Tom Laughlin the star and creator of Billy Jack is dead, the anti establishment icon for a generation is gone at 82. Laughlin could have been another success story in the style of Sylvester Stallone. A man who wrote and starred in his independent films that showed the plight of Native American’s and flower children in the U.S.A. and the American modern west.
The Billy Jack creator and star was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota August 10, 1931. While playing football at the Marquette University Laughlin decided he wanted to be an actor after watching a stage performance of A Streetcar Named Desire. He worked for a while in stock and then transferred to the University of South Dakota. It was there that he met his wife Dolores Taylor who would later co-star with him in the film Billy Jack.
His screen acting career began in 1955 after he had already written the first script for the film Billy Jack. Laughlin did not make a lot of money as an actor, he once claimed that he and wife Dolores lived on five dollars a week and ate a lot of Spam. Despite working on a lot of popular television shows of the time, he did not really get noticed until Robert Altman cast him in the 1957 film The Delinquents.
Tom began working as a director in 1960 on the film The Proper Time; he then wrote, directed, and starred in The Young Sinner. After his directorial debut he took time out from 1961 to 1966 when he set up a Montessori preschool. Then in 1967 he came back and under the name of T.C. Frank wrote and directed the first film that ever featured the character of Billy Jack. The name of the film was The Born Losers.
The film was the kind of low budget motorcycle film that was popular at the time. It was a box office smash and it even had Jane Russell in a role. Laughlin followed up his first real success with Billy Jack, the film he’d written back in 1954. Tom said the idea for the film came after his move to South Dakota where he saw how Native American were mistreated in the area.
Laughlin did so well with his first two outings as the karate fighting, yet peace loving, character that he came back for a third and fourth time. The fourth film was Billy Jack Goes to Washington. While the acting might not have been Shakespearean in scope and the plots not too hard to understand, Laughlin had created a character that appealed to American youth across the country.
At a time when the Vietnam War was helping to divide not only the country but its youth as well, Laughlin’s films were focussed on the dissatisfied and distrustful younger generation. Billy Jack’s message of peace and equality was mixed with the idea that all establishment figures were bad. Governments lied and were prejudicial against those who would not embrace the status quo.
In the days when films went from “mainstream” movie theatres to drive-ins, a sure sign that a Billy Jack film was being shown was to look at how crowded the theatre was. The second giveaway was the dress of the theatre goers. A lot of flat “reservation” style cowboy hats were worn and quite a number of peace symbols could be seen as well.
Billy Jack’s schtick was to take off his motorcycle boots and fight in his barefeet. One of his most famous lines had the character saying calmly, “I’m going to take my right foot and kick you behind your left ear.” He then proceeded to do so.
Sadly, in a very short time, as American youth grew up they became less enamoured of Laughlin’s hero. While his last “big” film garnered television spots and trailers, Laughlin began spending more time on his political leanings. Had Laughlin followed a similar path to Sylvester Stallone and worked on an equally iconic film between Billy Jack films, he could have equalled Sly in box office appeal. But he was a man divided.
Instead, Laughlin focussed more and more on politics. Going so far as to run for President three different times. Tom was an activist who practised what he preached and it was this that kept him from making any further films to such acclaim.
He was opposed to the Iraq War and he campaigned against it. He also lectured on psychology, despite the lack of a formal degree. The last film Laughlin acted in was the 1977 film The Legend of the Lone Ranger, which fared about as well as the latest Army Hammer and Johnny Depp Lone Ranger movie, and his last directorial effort was also in 1977, Billy Jack Goes to Washington under the name T. C. Frank.
Tom Laughlin, the man who created Billy Jack and starred as him in four films is dead at 82. His anti establishment films that captured the passion and imagination of America’s youth in the 1970s and created a cultural icon is gone. He could have, perhaps, equalled Sylvester Stallone with a long career, but, his interests in helping his fellow man kept him from focussing too much on the entertainment business.
By Michael Smith