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Remembering Tom Laughlin, Creator of Biracial Screen Icon 'Billy Jack' and Innovator of the Wide Release Film

Thompson on Hollywood By Aljean Harmetz | Thompson on Hollywood December 16, 2013 at 11:49AM

Tom Laughlin, who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in a series of films about a troubled Vietnam vet named “Billy Jack” that unexpectedly became hits despite devastating reviews, has died at the age of 82. According to his “Billy Jack” website, Laughlin died “at sunset” on December 12. According to his daughter, Teresa Laughlin, his death was caused by complications of pneumonia.
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Tom Laughlin, far right, with wife Delores Taylor, left, and Victor Izay, center
Tom Laughlin, far right, with wife Delores Taylor, left, and Victor Izay, center

Tom Laughlin, who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in a series of films about a troubled Vietnam vet named “Billy Jack” that unexpectedly became hits despite devastating reviews, has died at the age of 82.  According to his “Billy Jack” website, Laughlin died “at sunset” on December 12.  According to his daughter, Teresa Laughlin, his death was caused by complications of pneumonia.

The half-white, half-Native American character, Billy Jack, was introduced in a 1967 movie, “The Born Losers,” in which he battled an outlaw motorcycle gang. But it wasn’t until the second film, “Billy Jack” (1971), that anyone took notice.  A violent pacifist fighting against racists on the behalf of Native American children at a Freedom School in Arizona, Billy Jack, who never gave up, had much in common with his creator. The distributor, Warner Bros, barely marketed ”Billy Jack,” and the movie was not a commercial success. So Laughlin fought for two years to get the rights back.

Billy Jack
Billy Jack

After Laughlin succeeded, he re-released the movie himself, spending heavily on television and radio advertising and renting theaters (an unusual technique called “four-walling").  Instead of moving the film slowly into theaters as was customary then, he saturated the country. “Billy Jack” ended up grossing $98 million. It was helped along by its theme song, “One Tin Soldier,” which became a hit and by its mixture of violence and idealism in the service of making a better world.

A year later, in 1974, Laughlin and his wife, Delores Taylor who was his co-producer and co-star, opened “The Trial of Billy Jack” in 1,100 theaters plus 180 four-wall engagements. In the New York Times, critic Vincent Canby called the movie “nearly three hours of naivete.” Audiences didn’t care, and the Laughlins recouped in seven days all the money they had spent producing the movie and advertising it.

Laughlin’s success in marketing the two movies had the effect of changing the way Hollywood studios released films. A year later, one of the first films to follow in his footsteps of saturation booking and a national advertising campaign was “Jaws.”

Laughlin was passionate about other things than films. He started a Montessori school in Santa Monica when he decided public schools were not properly educating his children, and he was as fervent a devotee of martial arts as his iconic character.

In his final Billy Jack film, “Billy Jack Goes to Washington” (1977), loosely based on Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Billy Jack is made a senator and battles a corrupt senator and governor. It had only a limited release. After that, Laughlin disappeared from view.

Laughlin is survived by Taylor, his wife of 60 years, three children and eight grandchildren.

This article is related to: News, Obit, News, Tom Laughlin


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.