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

Los Angeles TimesDecember 15, 2013 

Tom Laughlin, who wrote and directed the "Billy Jack" films, has died at age 82

Tom Laughlin, the maverick actor and filmmaker best known for the “Billy Jack” films, has died. He was 82.

Laughlin died Thursday in Thousand Oaks, Calif., his family announced.

Laughlin had been married to actress Delores Taylor since 1954 and also had several ill-fated runs for president. But he was best known for the “Billy Jack” films, which also starred Taylor. In 1967, he wrote and directed (under the pseudonym T.C. Frank) and starred in “The Born Losers,” a motorcycle exploitation film that became a big box-office hit. It introduced the world to the part-Native American Vietnam veteran title character.

The 1971 sequel, the vigilante-themed “Billy Jack,” was, after a legal battle with studio Warner Bros., released independently. It also became a box-office smash, though it generated controversy for its suggestion of guns and violence as justice-seeking tools.

Laughlin co-produced and starred in all four “Jack” films, including the little-seen final one, 1977’s “Billy Jack Goes to Washington.” The third film, “The Trial of Billy Jack,” was one of the first movies to get a major television and national advertising push.

Laughlin had spoken in recent years of trying to bring the Jack character back to the big screen.

Five Tom Laughlin films -- Susan King, Los Angeles Times

Tom Laughlin, who came to fame as the half-Native American, half-white ex-Green Beret in the 1971 indie blockbuster “Billy Jack,” died Thursday at age 82.

A lot of his films are on DVD and on streaming services. If you want to go back to his earliest films, check out “The Delinquents” (1957) – which was directed by Robert Altman – “South Pacific” (1958) and even “Gidget” (1959).

And for those who want to revisit his best-known films, or perhaps see them for the first time, here are five:

–”The Born Losers”: Laughlin first introduced Billy Jack in this low-budget 1967 biker film, which American International Pictures released in 1968.

You can tell it’s an AIP film by its poster tag line: “Kitten on Wheels With Her Bike … Her Boots and Bikini! Out for kicks … in for trouble? She’s going to Join the Born Losers.”

Besides Laughlin, Jeremy Slate and Jane Russell also starred. Laughlin’s wife, Delores Taylor, who was one of the producers, and two of their children were featured in cameos.

–”Billy Jack”: Laughlin’s website at billyjackrights.com called this 1971 movie the “most independent film ever made” since it went through three studios before it was released. The film sold 58 million tickets, the site said.

Laughlin’s Billy Jack is living on a reservation in Arizona when he becomes interested in the local progressive Freedom School and an idealistic woman named Jean (Taylor), who runs it. But when small-town bigots threaten the students, karate master Billy Jack kicks into action. According to the Laughlin’s site, the film was among the first to “introduce martial arts, specifically hapkido karate, to American audiences.”

Reviewers loved or hated the film. The Washington Post proclaimed it was “a horrendously self-righteous and devious action movie.” The Los Angeles Times described the film as “rude and sensational, yet urgent and pertinent (and) … in its unique, awkward way one of the year’s more important pictures.”

Taylor received a Golden Globe nomination as most promising newcomer; Laughlin won the grand prize at the 1971 Taormina film festival in Italy.

The film’s theme song, “One Tin Soldier (The Legend of Billy Jack),” performed by Coven, was a top 40 hit in 1971.

And here’s a bit of trivia: Funnyman Howard Hesseman also appeared in the film

–”The Trial of Billy Jack”: The third in the series also brought in a lot of jack at the box office. According to the Laughlin site, the 1974 film broke a box-office record with $30 million in 30 days.

Clocking in at nearly three hours, the film finds Billy Jack being released from prison and going on a vision quest four years after he is sentenced for involuntary manslaughter. Meanwhile, Freedom School, run by Taylor, is expanding. But it isn’t long before the townspeople start to abuse the students and the local Native Americans, and once again Billy Jack must come to the rescue.

Trivia: Kathy Cronkite, Walter Cronkite’s daughter, appeared in the film.

Besides having a strong national advertising campaign, Laughlin and Taylor opened the film wide in more than 1,000 screens across the country – unheard of at the time.

Critics were less than kind. Leonard Maltin described it as an “awful, pretentious film.”

–”Billy Jack Goes to Washington”: This 1977 remake of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” proved to be the death knell for the Billy Jack series. The film had only limited theatrical screenings.

But fans can catch it on VHS and DVD. The film features such veterans as E.G. Marshall, Sam Wanamaker and Pat O'Brien, as well as Lucie Arnaz, William Wellman Jr. and even Suzanne Somers. The latter two actors’ scenes were edited out of the DVD.

TV Guide described it as a “long, arduous and sometimes agitating rip-off” of “Mr. Smith.”

–”The Master Gunfighter”: After “The Trial of Billy Jack” and before “Billy Jack Goes to Washington,” Laughlin starred in, produced and wrote this 1975 Western. His son, Frank Laughlin, directed.

The film finds Tom Laughlin playing the world’s fastest gun, who also could wield a mean samurai sword.

Ron O'Neal, Lincoln Kilpatrick and Barbara Carrera, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for best acting debut, also star. Burgess Meredith supplied the narration.

Roger Ebert was no fan: “I don’t think there’s any way an intelligent moviegoer could sit through this mess and accurately describe the plot afterward.”

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