Tom Laughlin, who died of complications from pneumonia Dec. 12 in Thousand Oaks at age 82, was one of those only-in-Hollywood stories. After acting in small parts on films and TV shows in the 1950s and 1960s, he turned filmmaker with a series of “Billy Jack” films, whose anti-establishment attitude captured the zeitgeist of the 1970s.
The fourth film in the series, the 1977 “Billy Jack Goes to Washington,” floundered at the box office, but Laughlin’s life imitated his art, as he became a political and social advocate, running for president three times. He also founded a Montessori school and became a political activist.
Laughlin was a true Hollywood maverick, tackling topics in his 1970s films that reflected the disenfranchised Americans who embraced his films. But he also battled the studios’ distribution and marketing systems. Following the leads of such diverse influences as John Cassavetes and Roger Corman, Laughlin embraced the American indie movement, using the action-film genre to make counter-culture arguments.
Laughlin was born in Wisconsin in 1931. While a student at the University of South Dakota, he continued his interest in theater acting, directing and producing. He also met Delores Taylor, who became his wife, co-star, collaborator and business partner, eventually changing her name to Delores Laughlin (pictured above with Laughlin in 2009). In 1954, he wrote the script that became “Billy Jack” decades later, based on the mistreatment of Native Americans he witnessed in South Dakota.
Moving to Hollywood, he earned small roles in the 1956 “Tea and Sympathy” (1956), “South Pacific” (1958) and “Gidget” (1959). He also wrote and directed several ultra-low-budget films, starting with the 1957 “The Proper Time,” then the 1960 “The Young Sinner.” In 1961, he walked away from the film business and devoted his energy to the Montessori preschool in Santa Monica that he and his wife had started two years earlier.
But the school closed in 1965 and, in the midst of the craze of biker movies like the 1966 Roger Corman-directed “The Wild Angels” (starring Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra and Bruce Dern), Laughlin wrote and directed “Born Losers” under the name T.C. Frank. The film, released in 1967, concerned a half-Navajo Vietnam veteran named Billy Jack who eventually triumphs over racist and corrupt adversaries.
Those themes were underlined in the 1971 “Billy Jack,” in which the character faces down the law, indifferent citizens and corrupt officials. In the midst of Vietnam war protests and concern over America’s treatment of Native Americans, young audiences embraced Billy Jack as a maverick hero, though some critics were concerned at his vigilante justice, eliminating the baddies with a gun. Several companies were nervous about distributing it so Laughlin distributed it himself and it was a huge box office hit, and the name Billy Jack became a cultural touchstone.
The 1974 “The Trial of Billy Jack” was also a hit, in which Laughlin attacked such events as Kent State. The film also was a rare case of imitating a wide-release strategy that had been tested successfully since the 1950s, with the film opening nationwide and advertising on national television. It too was a hit, but the fourth film in the series, the 1977 “Billy Jack Goes to Washington” stumbled. Though the filmmaker tried many times to revive the franchise in subsequent decades, it never happened.
He battled nuclear energy, the Christian right and various U.S. wars, including Iraq. He made a bid for the U.S. presidency in 1992 as a Democrat, but the party didn’t take him seriously or let him participate in the debates. He ran as a Republican in 2004, with similar results, and ran for the third and final time in 2008. For the past decade, he dealt with a series of health problems.
He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Delores Laughlin, three children and five grandchildren. According to the Billyjack website, the family requests donations to Friends of Pine Ridge in his honor or to the Alzheimer’s Foundation, in honor of his widow.