Tom Laughlin, a filmmaker who drew a huge following for his movies about the ill-tempered, karate-chopping pacifist Billy Jack, died Thursday at a Thousand Oaks hospital. He was 82.
He had been in failing health for several years, his daughter Teresa Laughlin said.
Laughlin starred in and co-produced the four films of the 1960s and ‘70s showcasing Billy Jack, a troubled Vietnam veteran who quietly promotes a message of peace when he’s not throwing bad guys through plate-glass windows.
An iconoclast who battled Hollywood studios, Laughlin fought on other fronts as well.
Laughlin founded a Montessori school in Santa Monica after he deemed the public schools unworthy of educating his children. When he decided the political system was hopelessly corrupt, he mounted three quixotic presidential campaigns. After becoming disillusioned with Catholicism, he immersed himself in Jungian psychology, writing books and counseling friends.
“He was an extraordinary Catholic for about five minutes,” Teresa Laughlin told The Times, “but once he found Jungian psychology, it supplanted everything else.”
His films included “The Born Losers,” a 1967 biker movie; “Billy Jack” in 1971; and “The Trial of Billy Jack” in 1974. A fourth film, “Billy Jack Goes to Washington,” had only a limited release after its production in 1977.
Based on the Frank Capra classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” it condemned the nuclear energy industry and was suppressed by politicians with something to lose, Laughlin suggested to reporters.
“However corrupt you think Washington and Congress are, you’re not even close,” he said in a 2007 Sacramento TV interview.
Over the years, critics assailed Laughlin’s performances. Leonard Maltin called him “the only actor intense enough to risk a hernia from reading lines.” The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael called “The Trial of Billy Jack” extraordinary — that is, “the most extraordinary display of sanctimonious self-aggrandizement the screen has ever known.”
But even Laughlin’s critics acknowledged the effectiveness of his promotions.
Dissatisfied with what he felt was a lukewarm Warner Brothers publicity campaign for “Billy Jack,” he fought three years for the film’s re-release, finally acquiring the rights to it and running ads touting “one of the most popular motion pictures of all time.”
After a bitter legal battle with Warner Brothers, Laughlin broke Hollywood custom by massive “four-walling” — renting 1,200 individual theaters across the U.S. and marketing the movie like a rock band.
The film, featuring the theme song “One Tin Soldier,” initially grossed $6 million, but its re-release eventually made an additional $100 million and changed Hollywood marketing strategies, The Times said in 1985.
Born in Milwaukee on Aug. 10, 1931, Laughlin grew up there and played football at Marquette University before transferring to the University of South Dakota.
He did not graduate but poured himself into the drama program, where he met Delores Taylor, a fellow student he married in 1954. Taylor co-produced and starred with Laughlin in the “Billy Jack” films.
Growing up in a small town on an Indian reservation, Taylor provided the inspiration for scenes in “Billy Jack” where local toughs harass Native Americans.
In one of the best-known episodes, thugs dump flour on Native American teenagers to “whiten” them after they have been refused service at an ice cream parlor.
Billy Jack, who is supposed to be half Native American himself, responds quietly but soon chugs into a full-on rant.
“I really try,” he says, “but when I see this girl of such a beautiful spirit so degraded, and this boy that I love sprawled out by this ape here, and this little girl who is so special to us that we call her God’s little gift to sunshine — and when I think of the number of years she’s going to have to carry in her memory the savagery of this idiotic moment of yours: I ... JUST … GO … BERSERK!”
And he does.
A student of the martial art hapkido, Laughlin would train feverishly for his films with grandmaster Bong Soo Han, who choreographed the fight scenes and sometimes acted as a double, his daughter Teresa said.
In addition to his wife Delores and daughter Teresa, Laughlin is survived by son Frank, daughter Christina Harrington and eight grandchildren.