Some rebels live forever. Who can forget James Dean and his parents who were “tearing him apart!!!?” Or Brando’s “Wild One” roaring down the highway. Or those “Easy Riders,” Billy and Wyatt, roles their stars, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda never eclipsed. There are some rebels, however, who blazed across the screen, sold millions of tickets and who haven’t endured as mythically and memorably. One of them, Billy Jack, was played by actor-director-writer-producer Tom Laughlin whose career as a counterculture star of the 70s wasn’t followed by major roles or a hallowed place in the film canon, a point that the Variety Archives makes clear would have made him angry enough to drop kick a Camaro.
Laughlin, who passed away this week at the age of 82, was unhappy with how little the critics of America cared for his pop culture hit pics, including the original “Billy Jack” (1971) and its sequels, “The Trial of Billy Jack” (1975) and “Billy Jack Goes To Washington,” (1977) and in response took out full page ads in Variety back in 1975 decrying the audacity of those who overlooked a genuine cultural phenomenon. He created a cash prize contest meant to create a whole new legion of populist, grass-roots critics who could give those pointy-headed intellectuals the kind of whipping that Billy Jack gave his enemies. He scoffed at anyone foolish enough to celebrate the works of Fellini, Renoir, Coppola, Bergman et al over the cinematic contributions of Tom Laughlin.
Today, of course, there are millions of critics on the internet, endlessly chattering about their favorite pop stars and movie heroes. Not many of them know that once upon a time, the biggest, most butt-kicking guy on the screen was an odd mix of hippie spirituality and Tea Party populism. The Billy Jack vs the Critics contest may have fizzled, but in this remake-hungry culture of modern Hollywood, who would be surprised by Billy Jack’s big screen, big budget return. Only one question: Who is the perfect Billy Jack of today?
See ads below from 1975 issue of Variety: