RIP Tom Laughlin, Creator & Star of Billy Jack Franchise
Ron Seifried | On 16, Dec 2013
What started as a half-breed American Navajo Indian defending a college student against a gang for gang rape, turned into a moderately successful four-film franchise from the late 60’s-early 70’s. Writer, Director and star Tom Laughlin passed away on December 12, 2013 at the age of 82 at his home in Thousand Oaks, CA from complications from pneumonia.
Laughlin is best remembered for the Billy Jack franchise of feature films about a Green Beret Vietnam Vet and hapkido master, part Native American and full-time vigilante. Debuting in 1967’s biker film “The Born Losers”, the surprise box-office hit enabled Laughlin to make a sequel. After the stop-and-start production of the second film “Billy Jack” lasted two years (1969-1971), Laughlin himself booked the sequel into theaters in 1971. After a very poor initial box office run, the film took in more than $40 million in the 1973 re-release, guaranteeing two more Billy Jack films.
Production and financing were difficult on “Billy Jack” due to the political nature and frontal nudity (later cut) of the story. American International Pictures battled with Laughlin over the final edit, with the creator and star holding on to the sound reels. During the late stages of post production, Warner Bros distributed the film without Laughlin’s input on marketing, causing the film to initially bomb at the box office. Laughlin sued Warner Bros and regained the rights and proceeded with the re-release in 1973 with the more controversial version. Roger Ebert said at the time “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?” Adjusted for inflation in 2007, “Billy Jack ” is the most successful independent film of all time.
Embraced by America’s youth and counter culture and educating the public on Jungian psychology and early martial arts in an American film, Laughlin moved forward with the financially successful third film, “The Trial of Billy Jack” (1974). This film is probably best remembered as one of the first to be opened nationwide on the same day with massive commercial and media coverage, a concept not yet seen with movie releases. The practice at this point was to open gradually in a few cities before spreading across the country. “The Trial of Billy Jack” is considered the first modern-day blockbuster. One more film, “Billy Jack goes to Washington” (1977) was a failure due to poor distribution and effectively ended Laughlin’s career as a director.
In the mid-80’s, a fifth film went into production, “The Return of Billy Jack” but due to injuries Laughlin sustained onset, the film shut down. Laughlin attempted a few more times to restart the franchise, including a TV series and another new genre of a film dealing with social commentary on politics, religion and psychology with a debate with a superimposed President George W. Bush from archival footage.
Since the Billy Jack franchise, Laughlin ran for President a few times, both as a Democrat and Republican (1992,2004,2008). He opposed the War in Iraq, but was for tax cuts, term limits, universal health care and the overhaul of the public education system, proving to be unpopular to both sides of the aisle. After dropping out the primary’s in 1992, he served as an adviser to Ross Perot.
Born in 1931 and growing up in Milwaukee, he later played football at Marquette University and the University of South Dakota, where he met his future wife. After seeing a stage play of “A Streetcar Named Desire” he decided to go into acting. While at South Dakota, Laughlin was affected by the poverty of the Indian reservations,which inspired the Billy Jack character.
Landing small roles in “South Pacific,” the 50’s-60’s franchise starter “Gidget”and working with Robert Altman on “The Delinquents” Laughlin began to get an interest in directing and writing.
Laughlin will be remembered as a independent film pioneer who had the audacity to believe in his art over the power of movie studios. He tireless political activism was spotlighted in his work as he actively campaigned for progressive causes. The influence of Billy Jack can be found in future film vigilantes including Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo and parts played by Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson. But the character of Billy Jack stands apart as one defends the rights of minorities, the left wings John Wayne for a generation.
He is survived by his wife, a sister, three children and five grandchildren.