Known for his independent DIY approach to Hollywood moviemaking, writer/director and actor Tom Laughlin (1931–2013) turned his 1971 low-budget feature Billy Jack into a blockbuster classic. Part Native American and part Green Beret soldier, Billy Jack karate-kicked his way through racism and oppression, striking a chord with audiences looking for an underdog hero during the tumultuous 1970s.
While Tom Laughlin, the star of the 1971 cult film Billy Jack, eventually faded from public consciousness, the character he played in his original screenplay ushered in a new type of hero for the big screen. “He was the model for Rambo, for ‘Walking Tall,” ’ New York University cinema studies professor Robert Sklar told Sharon Waxman of the New York Times. “When you think of what ‘Rocky’ meant for the culture—Laughlin was ahead of all that. He represented the indomitable outsider, and he was the first one in that era.”
Thomas Robert Laughlin, Jr., was born August 10, 1931, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of Margaret and Thomas Laughlin. He grew up in Milwaukee alongside two siblings and attended Washington High School. As a teen, Laughlin connected with the “greaser” subculture of the era, working-class counterculture rebels best known for their cuffed blue jeans, greased-back pompadour-styled hair, white Tshirts, and love of rockabilly. After graduating from high school in 1949, Laughlin played football at the University of Wisconsin and at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Laughlin transferred to the University of South Dakota and met his future wife, Delores “Dody” Taylor, in 1953. They married the following year and set out for Hollywood; Laughlin never finished college. The couple would have three children: Frank, Teresa, and Christina. Their first years in California were brutal as Laughlin struggled to secure enough acting roles to feed his family.
In 1955, Laughlin made his acting debut in an episode of the television series Climax!; two years later he played the principal character in The Delinquents, the first film directed by Robert Altman. In 1958, Laughlin appeared in the motion-picture version of South Pacific, following that up with a role in 1959's popular Sandra Dee vehicle Gidget. Throughout the 1950s, he scored bit roles as supporting characters on popular television shows like Riverboat and M Squad.
During the early 1960s, Laughlin bowed out of acting to concentrate on running a Montessori preschool in Santa Monica, California. He and his wife founded the school in 1959 because they did not want to send their children to public school. They recruited top Montessori educators and the school grew to become the largest such school in the United States. It was even featured on Art Linkletter's show, along with Laughlin and his wife. Ultimately, poor management caused the school—and Laughlin—to go bankrupt in 1965.
After leaving education, Laughlin went back to the film industry. He co-wrote the script for The Born Losers (with Elizabeth James) and raised money to produce the film, serving as director. Released in 1967, Born Losers intro-duced Billy Jack to U.S audiences. As played by Laughlin, he was a charismatic Vietnam veteran, part Cherokee and part cowboy. In Born Losers Billy Jack takes on a wicked gang of motorcycle outlaws with names like Gangrene and Cueball, and Dody Laughlin and their children were featured in cameo roles. Although widely panned by critics, the film was moderately successful at the box office.
As writer, director, and star, Laughlin revived his character in Billy Jack, a preachy, low-budget flick that fleshes out the charismatic character. The story is set on a Native American reservation, and Dody Laughlin played the role of Jean Roberts, an educator at the Freedom School, a reservation school offering a progressive education for hippie kids and other outcasts. The movie's plot involved Billy Jack defending the school against local townsfolk who abhor the counterculture promoted by Freedom School teachers. Students there are encouraged to be creative and practice yoga and meditation. Laughlin brought in a troupe of actors from San Francisco to improvise many of the school scenes and sing protest songs.
In the film, Billy Jack serves as a foil to the calm interior of the school. Wherever there is injustice (particularly racism), Billy Jack shows up with his highly honed combat skills. The fight scenes in Billy Jack are heavily choreographed and show Billy Jack utilizing his body as a lethal instrument to quell his adversaries. Instead of using stunt actors, Laughlin studied Hapkido from Korean-born martial-arts master Bong Soo Han. In her Native Recognition: Indigenous Cinema and the Western, Joanna Hearne lauded the theatrical violence thus created. “Fast cutting, slow-motion, high-angle, and low-angle shots accentuate the gymnastic, choreographed quality of the action,” Hearne noted, “which emphasizes slow, dancelike movements and fleeting glimpses of graceful kicks and leaps.” In this way, Billy Jack introduced martial arts to the big screen, thus paving the way for Bruce Lee.
Initially, Billy Jack flopped, and Laughlin blamed Warner Bros., who had signed on for distribution. He disagreed with the studio's decision to release the film in smallmarket theaters and low-grade drive-ins. He sued Warner Bros., insisting that the distributor had failed to fulfill the contract. Laughlin eventually earned a reputation for being cantankerous and for filing litigation against his Hollywood peers.
Meanwhile, the studio and the filmmaker battled for two years, until Laughlin came up with a plan to reacquire rights to his film. He proposed that if Warner Bros. would help with advertising, he would distribute the film himself and the two sides would split the profits. Furthermore, if the venture failed and lost money, he would relinquish all rights to the film and allow Warner Bros. to do whatever it wanted with the “Billy Jack” name. Hollywood insiders thought Laughlin was crazy, figuring that there was no way he would succeed in relaunching a two-year-old movie that sputtered on its initial run.
It seemed that those insiders might be right: Movie theaters did not want any part in showing a film that old, fearing dismal ticket sales. To get the movie screened, Laughlin was forced to sign “four-walling” agreements, in which the distributor rents the theater for a flat rate and provides ticket takers, projectionists, and other staff. The distributor gets all proceeds. Because Billy Jack seemed destined for failure, theater houses happily signed four-wall agreements, figuring ticket sales would be so low that they would lose money in a traditional arrangement where the theater and the distributor split the profits.
Laughlin ensured his film's successful relaunch, however, by developing promotional spots that ran on local and regional television channels and drove crowds to the theaters. Billy Jack hit 50 Southern California theaters simultaneously its first week out and grossed $1.2 million. That record smashed the first-week ticket sales record set by The Godfather in 1972. Laughlin hired and trained his own teams to work the theaters. They bunked at hotels and moved the film across the United States, hitting every region from coast to coast. In this way, Billy Jack stayed in theaters for 18 months and brought in $42 million in ticket sales.
Billy Jack was surprisingly successful, perhaps because it spoke to the rebellious youth of the 1970s who were looking for a savior to rescue them from Vietnam and Watergate. Reviewers either loved or hated the film. Writing in Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America's Gutsiest Troublemakers, Nick Offerman put it this way: “I've witnessed a good deal of criticism focused on the inconsistencies in Billy Jack, which I have no interest in debating. All I know is that millions of people … have found themselves profoundly moved by the film's core message, that the evils of society are pervasive enough to drive a person to fight, even though he knows he shouldn’t. Things are bad, and something must be done to foment a change. Billy Jack the man, warts and all, shoulders this burden for all of us.”
Many reviewers were taken aback by the film's exploitation of viewer sympathies and its melding of themes. As archived on his website, well-known movie reviewer Roger Ebert complained of Billy Jack that “there's not a single contemporary issue, from ecology to gun control, that's not covered.” Surprisingly, Ebert marveled, the ordinary folks depicted in the movie “managed to confront every single ethical hurdle in a few weeks of living.”
In 1974, Laughlin released a sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack, which included references to the May 1970 Kent State shootings by the Ohio National Guard, the 1968 My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, and the 1974 pardon of the embattled ex-president Richard Nixon. Although critics did not warm to it as some had the original, The Trial of Billy Jack was a success in terms of profit. It cost $3.5 million to make and earned $32 million its first month, largely due to Laughlin's national advertising campaign.
Laughlin loaded the airwaves with promos and opened The Trial of Billy Jack in 1,200 theaters. This defied industry standards: Most films screened at fewer than 100 theaters at a time and usually at only one theater per geographic location. Laughlin's blitz paid off. According to Inc. writer Lucien Rhodes, Variety lauded his success, proclaiming: “Tom Laughlin Stuns Old Film Biz Pros.” Laughlin's successful campaign prompted Hollywood to begin using a full-scale, mega-city release as standard procedure.
Laughlin switched characters for his 1975 film The Master Gunfighter. A Western inspired by a popular Japanese samurai film called Goyôkin, The Master Gunfighter starred Laughlin as a sword-swinging, pistol-packing sharpshooter. His character was tasked with rescuing a group of Chumash from a massacre at the hands of Mexican ranchers who wanted to take the tribe's land. Like Billy Jack, the film's storyline played on themes of redemption and peace through violence.
Laughlin's teenaged son, Frank, directed The Master Gunfighter, and Laughlin wrote the screenplay. Billy Jack fans went to the theater to see Laughlin's new incarnation, but the film failed to gain a wide audience and was dismissed by critics. After this misadventure, Laughlin tried to squeeze more money from the Billy Jack franchise. In 1977, he released Billy Jack Goes to Washington, but due to distribution troubles, it never received a wide release and fizzled quickly.
In 1991, with his independent film production career now at an end, Laughlin announced his candidacy for president of the United States on a platform that included national health care and tax reform. He proposed that taxpayers be allowed to decide how 25 percent of their tax contributions to the government would be spent. In the 1992 Democratic Party primaries, Laughlin received less than one percent of the vote. Undeterred, he ran for president in 2004 and 2008.
Laughlin died December 12, 2013, in Thousand Oaks, California, of tongue cancer. Describing his legacy for the Sacramento Examiner, Joseph Ulibas credited Laughlin with being way ahead of his time with his DIY approach to filmmaking. Noted Ulibas, Laughlin “created an iconic film character” whose “legacy will always be a part of Americana and he will be missed.”
Hearne, Joanna, Native Recognition: Indigenous Cinema and the Western, State University of New York Press, 2012.
Offerman, Nick, Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America's Gutsiest Troublemakers, G.P. Dutton, 2015.
Inc., December 1987, Lucien Rhodes, “The Return of Billy Jack,” p. 140.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 21, 1991, Lori Skalitzky, “Real-Life Drama Brings Laughlin Home” ; June 26, 1997, Marie Rohde, “Writers Donation Remains a Mystery.”
New York Times, June 20, 2005, Sharon Waxman, “Billy Jack Is Ready to Fight the Good Fight Again.”
Sacramento Examiner, December 15, 2013, Joseph Ulibas, “American Filmmaker and Actor Tom Laughlin.”
Roger Ebert website, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/ (January 3, 2017), review of Billy Jack.❑