Tom Laughlin, perhaps best known for the lead role in the "Billy Jack" films (which he also directed), died on 12 December 2013 at the age of 82. The cause was complications from pneumonia.
Tom Laughlin was born 10 August 1931 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He attended the University of South Dakota, where he met his future wife Delores Taylor, and later Marquette University. He became interested in acting after seeing a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Tom Laughlin made his television debut in a 1955 episode of Climax. In the late Fifties he guest starred on such shows as Matinee Theatre, Front Row Centre, Navy Log, The Millionaire, Lux Video Theatre, The Silent Service, Man With a Camera, M Squad, Wagon Train, The Deputy, and Tales of Wells Fargo. He made his film debut in an uncredited bit part in These Wilder Years (1956). In the late Fifties he appeared in the films Tea and Sympathy (1956), The Delinquents (1957), South Pacific (1958), Lafayette Escadrille (1958), Senior Prom (1958), Gidget (1959), Battle of the Coral Sea (1959), and Tall Story (1960).
It was in 1960 that Tom Laughlin broke into directing with The Proper Time, in which he starred and which he also produced and wrote. It was released in 1962. In 1961 he left the entertainment industry to operate a Montessori preschool in Santa Monica that he and his wife had founded in 1959. The school closed in 1965 and Mr. Laughlin returned to acting and directing. He wrote, directed, and starred in The Young Sinner (1965) before acting in, directing, and writing a film that would change the course of his career. The Born Losers (1967) starred Tom Laughlin as Billy Jack, a half Native American veteran of the Vietnam War who finds himself at odds with a motorcycle gang. The film was notable not only for introducing the character of Billy Jack, but as one of the earliest films in the West to feature martial arts (a full six years before the kung fu fad of the Seventies).
Tom Laughlin followed The Born Losers with a sequel that would prove even more successful. Billy Jack proved an unlikely hit given its history. Filming began in 1969, but was halted when American International Pictures pulled out of the project. 20th Century Fox then took over and the film was eventually completed in 1971. Unfortunately 20th Century Fox elected not to distribute the film. It was then distributed by Warner Brothers. Unfortunately, the film did poorly at the box office. Tom Laughlin was unhappy with Warner Brothers' distribution of the film and sued the studio to get it back. Mr. Laughlin then re-released the film in 1973, whereupon it became a hit, earning $40 million at the box office.
Tom Laughlin followed Billy Jack with a sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack, in 1974. It also proved to be a hit, in a large part due to its promotion (more on that later). The following year Tom Laughlin starred in The Master Gunfighter (1975). Directed by his son Frank and written by himself, it was a remake of the Japanese film Goyokin (1969) with some basis in a historical massacre of Native Americans in California in the late 19th Century. The Master Gunfighter fared poorly both with critics and at the box office.
Tom Laughlin appeared in the films The Littlest Horse Thieves (1976) and Voyage of the Damned (1976) before making the final "Billy Jack" film. Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977). The film never received a regular theatrical run and as a result of its poor distribution failed at the box office. It would be the last completed film that Tom Laughlin directed and the last completed "Billy Jack" film. Tom Laughlin appeared in The Big Sleep (1978) and The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981), which proved to be his last appearances on the big screen. In 1986 he attempted to make another "Billy Jack" film, The Return of Billy Jack. Unfortunately, during the shooting of the film Mr. Laughlin suffered a head injury. By the time he recovered the production had run out of money. The film was never finished, with only an hour of it shot. Various attempts over the years to relaunch the project all failed.
Over the years Tom Laughlin engaged in activities beyond film making. Although he had no degree in the field, Mr. Laughlin was regarded as quite knowledgeable about Jungian psychology. He lectured on the subject at various universities across the nation (including Yale and Stanford). He also wrote the book Jungian Theory and Therapy (Jungian Psychology, Vol. 2). He also attempted a political career, running for President in 1992, 2004, and 2008.
I doubt that there are many who would consider the "Billy Jack" films "classics". That having been said, I do think they work on a visceral level and they very much captured the Zeitgeist of the Seventies. And, for all their flaws, the "Billy Jack" films can be said to be ahead of their time. The Born Losers, Billy Jack, and The Trial of Billy Jack touched upon Native American rights, an issue still largely unaddressed in American films and television shows. Both The Born Losers and Billy Jack presaged the martial arts craze of 1973 and 1974 by several years. In both films Billy Jack utilised hapkido in his fights. Indeed, in many respects both The Born Losers and Billy Jack could be considered early, American martial arts films, this before the Hong Kong films had made inroads into the United States.
The films themselves would not only be ahead of their time, but so too would be the distribution of The Trial of Billy Jack. While the practice of wide releases (debuting a film in multiple cities all on the same day) had existed since the Fifties, it was still rare in the Seventies. When The Trial of Billy Jack opened in several theatres across the United States on the same day , then, it was a somewhat revolutionary move. And while television advertising for films was an established practice by that time, The Trial of Billy Jack was even advertised during the national news. Or course, today wide releases and national television advertising are established practices.
While in many respects Tom Laughlin was ahead of his time, he was also no darling of the critics. To this day his oeuvre is not highly regarded. While he may not have necessarily been a great director, writer, or producer, however, I do think Tom Laughlin was a good actor. He gave a very good performance in the Wagon Train episode "The Mary Halstead Story", playing a young outlaw. And while the scripts and direction of the "Billy Jack" films may have left something to be desire, Tom Laughlin was very convincing in the role. Indeed, it seems possible, even likely, that the reasons the films succeed and continue to be remembered to this day is that Tom Laughlin played the part of the hapkido using, half Native American Green Beret very well. Indeed, if the "Billy Jack" films are remembered (and I suspect they will be), it will be for Tom Laughlin's performance in the role.