"I take orders from the Octoboss."

R.I.P. Tom Laughlin

tn_tomlaughlinWell, we lost some cinema icons today. Peter O’Toole of course. I’m not the guy to write the definitive tribute for him, but here’s a piece I wrote when I saw LAWRENCE OF ARABIA in 70mm a couple years ago. And one on THE STUNT MAN. And, uh, SUPERGIRL.

Also Joan Fontaine from REBECCA and SUSPICION died, so there will be some good tributes to her. She was 96.

But me being who I am I want to write a few words about Tom Laughlin, whose family announced today that he died on Thursday. He was 82, a year older than O’Toole! I was surprised to read that. Laughlin was an actor, writer and director who occupied a unique corner in the history of Badass Cinema and independent film and I don’t think alot of the young people know about him. So put your learning pants on.

“Put your learning pants on” and related phrases and merchandising are © 2013 by Vern

Laughlin was a young character actor in the ’50s, appearing on TV shows and getting supporting roles in a few movies including THE DELINQUENTS, SOUTH PACIFIC and GIDGET. He liked to brag about knowing and being a peer of James Dean. In the ’60s, tired of struggling just to get bit parts, Laughlin started writing and directing his own star vehicles. He had trouble getting his script about racism toward Native Americans made, so he took its main character Billy Jack and introduced him in the 1967 biker scare film THE BORN LOSERS.

Billy Jack is an ex-Green Beret who saw some bad shit in ‘Nam and became sort of a pacifist. I say “sort of” because he’s the type of pacifist we like in action movies, the William Munny or Glimmer Man type that really doesn’t want to fight but then you push him too far and look, are you happy now? He just broke his code to kick your ass. Billy Jack is hapkido expert (though Laughlin didn’t really start studying until after BORN LOSERS) and is called a “half breed” by racist locals because of his Native American heritage (which Laughlin did not share). He tries to live a life of solitude on the California coast, but has to put his foot down when a biker gang comes into town and commits racism and rapism. I guess technically he puts his foot up and in the character’s most famous scene he makes a big show of taking his cowboy boots off before karate kicking some assholes.

Laughlin explored the character further in BILLY JACK, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK and BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON, which is a straight up remake of MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON but with one karate scene in the middle. Although somewhat forgotten today, at the time BILLY JACK was an out-of-nowhere low budget phenomenon like a PARANORMAL ACTIVITY or something like that. Unable to get it released by a studio, Laughlin rented out theaters with his own money, pioneering a method of self-distribution.

As I described in Seagalogy, I’ve always felt Seagal’s masterwork ON DEADLY GROUND was heavily inspired by the BILLY JACK series, and in fact Seagal has many characters who follow the Billy Jack mold: ex-military, sometimes even Vietnam vet, also down with spiritual wisdom from a non-white culture, sometimes professing pacifism but then doing martial arts on some guys while talking quietly and calmly.

But the thing that really endeared me to these movies is their heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity. Laughlin is talking about war and peace, racism, the struggle of veterans, the coverup of the My Lai massacre, politicians bought out by greedy big business, crooked cops, the abuse of women, the potential of the youth to change the world. Before the BILLY JACK movies we had many westerns that reinforced a pretty conservative view of the world, after them we saw the same thing in the action movies of the ’80s. But Laughlin was making Badass Cinema that was unequivocally from a hippie perspective. Starting with BILLY JACK  his character and his wife Jean (played by his actual wife of 60 years Delores Taylor) run a multicultural, progressive alternative school called The Freedom School. They sing folk songs, they protest at town meetings, they stand up against racist bullies, they push for a federal initiative process to try to institute their ideas to improve the country.

I also like a lesser known Laughlin movie that he starred in and wrote called MASTER GUNFIGHTER. It’s a western with SUPERFLY’s Ron O’Neal giving a great, charismatic performance as the villain. It’s another deeply felt melodrama, this time dealing with the outrage of genocide, but giving its bad guys believable motives instead of just making them evil. Despite the title making a big deal about his guns his character is trained by a samurai and mostly uses a sword.

These movies are corny and they totally mean it and that’s why I love them. Laughlin clearly believed in these things and in trying to change the world, whether through activism or through art. We’re so used to cynicism in movies, but Laughlin’s were outraged idealism, calling attention to a problem and believing we can and must do something about it.

Years later, all through the age of the World Wide Web, Laughlin ran an official Billy Jack websight selling not only BILLY JACK merchandise but also his many books about independent filmmaking and self help books about living with cancer and things like that. For years there was talk of a BILLY JACK remake starring Keanu Reeves. I was always against it, though these days I like the idea. For just as long Laughlin talked about a sequel where the aging Billy Jack would mentor a young asskicker. He was still very political (even running for president three times – they must’ve been too afraid to let him debate) so during the Bush years he said the movie would incorporate real footage of Bush and have Billy Jack kicking him in the head. And also it would blow the lid off of such and such and change the world and inspire the children and what not.

To be honest, Laughlin’s writings about that rebootquel seemed somewhere in between an infomercial and the rantings on the label of Dr. Bronner’s Soap, so I’m not surprised he never got it off the ground. But it sounded like it would have to be interesting in its craziness and admirable in its passion. I remember I tried to contact him about doing an interview for The Ain’t It Cool News about it, but didn’t get a response.

You know me, I like underdogs, I like outsiders, mavericks and do it yourselfers. I like guys like Rudy Ray Moore who can’t become superstars so instead they print up their own records and sell them out of their trunks and end up doing something more interesting scraping by than they would with The Man’s money. I’m sure Laughlin would’ve loved to be Paul Newman, but instead he was Billy Jack, and proud of it.

Maybe it’s time I finally read that Trial of Billy Jack novelization a friend gave me. Check out this beautiful cover:


This entry was posted on Monday, December 16th, 2013 at 1:26 am and is filed under Blog Post (short for weblog). You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

11 Responses to “R.I.P. Tom Laughlin”

  1. One Christmas I watched all the BILLY JACK movies over break. Except for BORN LOSERS. Maybe I should do they this year.

  2. I’m sad to hear about Tom Laughlin. Thanks for the nice eulogy, Vern.

    Also it simply must be said: that book cover owns. Hard.

  3. Late Saturday night, I happened upon a reference to the never realized fifth Billy Jack movie, and resolved to look into the status of it when I got up yesterday. I totally forgot to, but I fell asleep that night knowing that, wherever he was, Tom Laughlin was out there working on it. It turns out I was wrong, but I don’t doubt that he was at least still dreaming of it, if not actually working on it, all the way up until Thursday.

    Billy Jack: ‘I have a lot of fear, but I have a lot more respect. Long ago, I learned that he’s my constant companion. He eats with me, he walks we me, he even sleeps with me.’
    Prosecutor: ‘I’m sorry, I must have missed something back there. Who is this faithful companion of your?’
    Billy Jack: ‘Death.’

  4. Didn´t care much for BORN LOSERS when I first saw it. I liked the Billy Jack character very much, but felt the movie was pretty bad. Maybe I should check the rest of them out.

  5. I might not have the highest amount of patience for stuff that claims to be action and only has about two minutes of karate, but the dude’s earnest attitude about issues that I happen to agree with and his willingness to let his family members participate and ruin his movies warms my heart, dudes. I’m sure the general consensus is that Billy Jack proper is the best film, but to me they get better as the series goes on. Obviously, The Trial of Billy Jack is the bloated, “this is my movie so fuck you” masterpiece of the series, but Goes to Washington was surprisingly watchable, maybe the one I enjoyed the most even (I am as surprised as you and I am typing). Tom Laughlin was a DIYFS hero, and I guess its time to bust out that old box set

  6. You know when I did catch BILLY JACK, I thought why is this familiar? Obviously I already knew that FIRST BLOOD the movie lifted BJ’s ending, but that wasn’t what contributed the deja vu feeling in me.

    Then I remembered: ANIMANIACS had done a Pinky & the Brain sketch (if I remember right) that was a homage/parody of BJ.

    That’s a sign of how much Mr. Laughlin had become a part of 1970s pop culture that those kids from that era grew up who worked on that show expected the adults watching ANIMANIACS to totally get that reference and joke.

    Anyway I liked that the obits from all the major industry/cinemaphile websites and publications all gave decent respect to the guy for his innovation with advertising and nationwide release date and all that. So even on a day when two much bigger movie stars perished together, at least Billy Jack got his 5 minutes of respect.

  7. That Billy Jack allusion in Pink & the Brain was one of the many, many Animaniacs references that I didn’t understand until years later. That show was absolutely brilliant.

    I watched the first Billy Jack tonight because of Laughlin’s death. At times it is wonderfully, hilariously over-the-top 70s. But I really liked Loughlin’s performance of restrained anger. And he does a great job of directing both the action scenes and the tense lead up to those outbursts of violence. I was surprised by how into the film I became during that confrontation in the ice cream shop.

  8. Great tribute piece. Billy Jack is awesome, so was Tom Laughlin. A 70’s revisionist western worth checking out is Buffalo Bill and The Indians: Or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson – directed by Robert Altman from the play by Arthur Kopit. It’s more on the satire side and kinda disjointed but I really liked it – it’s got Paul Newman, Harvey Kietel, Joel Grey, Shelley Duval, Will Sampson – even E.L. Doctorow!

  9. I’m high on Christmas, listening to the new How Did This Get Made about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. They reference Margot Kidder’s autography, wherein she apparently says that Christopher Reeve was full of himself and the message that he was trying to communicate to the masses with that misbegotten film. Which I, of course, respect.

    I adore the idea of him earnestly trying to change the world with his superhero sequel and, if a man who the public’s view of is nothing short of golden is driven to desperation and/or self-aggrandizement by this urge, then even better! And it got me to thinking that I’d like to see that story, perhaps as a sequel to The Disaster Artist, with Christopher Reeve in the role of passionate, demanding artist behind a film that the public thinks is utter garbage but is achingly personal to them.

    Then, Part 3 would then have to be about Tom Laughlin making Billy Jack…except it should actually be Part 2. That’s why I’m posting here.

    The Disaster Artist 2: The Making of Billy Jack (AKA Tom Laughlin’s Moral Revolution)

    Because I don’t know who should direct or star in the Superman IV story but, if there’s a role that James Franco can play, it’s would-be Hollywood pretty boy who is seeking to transcend that status by being a Serious Artist. It could even act, intentionally or incidentally, as meta-commentary on Franco’s own fame and career.

  10. Went on a Billy Jack best-of video, saw comments calling it “fascist” and “idolizing violence” — all posted in the last few years.

    Made me type in a few searches and read some more comments. Older viewers praise Billy, of course. Modern? Not too many of them but when they came from “modern” viewers there it was: violent, outdated, terrible, boomer, populist, shouldn’t exist. More often than not.

    Oh and of course Billy is “conservative” — how, don’t ask me. But apparently he is now.

    That made me realize, if today’s pseudo-leftist wannabes on phones, the “Reddit left” as one could (should?) call them, those who have nothing in common with the real left, knew better/more of Billy Jack and Laughlin, they’d probably openly beat them every day everywhere on the Internet, they’d declare them fascists and racists, for pretending to be India…

    Sorry, that’s when I realized another thing: that they don’t really give a damn about us. We’re the wrong minority there, mostly just quietly minding our own things. Not making demands at everyone, no screaming threats and expletives at everything to show moral and intellectual superiority. Pretty much just silently working on our own lives and those we value.

    Kinda like Billy Jack, really. Never met anyone, on or out of the rez, who knew the Billy Jack movies and would have ever said a word about Billy (or Tom) being “wrong” or “fake Indian”. Although, truth be told, the movies aren’t that well known, but they’re known enough.

    Don’t mind Billy or Tom “playing” any more than I mind European tourists coming over to BC and looking wide eyed, telling how they fell in love and cultivate our customs back in Europe. Silly? Maybe to some, I guess, maybe a little. Honest and endearing? You bet.

  11. Oh wow, I haven’t encountered anyone calling the movies fascist yet, but I guess I assumed no young person on earth ever heard of Billy Jack! Obviously there are things that are very dated about the movies, but that’s how time works. Things change. I’ve been meaning for years to revisit them in depth and go into this stuff. In fact I rewatched the first two and started writing but it’s been long enough I’ll need to start over. So thanks for reminding me of that and thanks for posting your thoughts.

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