Actor, director, and occasional presidential candidate Tom Laughlin passed away last week at the age of 82 after a prolonged illness. Laughlin will probably be remembered most for the film Billy Jack, which he wrote, directed, and co-starred in along with his beloved wife (they’d been married for 60 years at the time of his death). It was considered to be cutting-edge at the time of its release, and is still a cult favorite if nothing else for the '70s-era hippie cheesiness, not to mention the irony of a pacifist loner constantly kicking butts in order to spread his message of peace.
1. In The Beginning…
The Billy Jack character was actually introduced in the 1967 film The Born Losers. Tom Laughlin already had the basic outline of the script for Billy Jack the movie, but lacked funding because studios simply weren’t interested in a film about peace and love and the plight of the American Indian. What did interest Hollywood investors, though, were violent outlaw motorcycle gang movies. So Laughlin dashed off a script based on a 1964 incident with some Hell’s Angels in Monterey, California, and The Born Losers earned enough money for him to begin work on his pet project.
When Billy Jack was re-released in 1973 (after a 1971 attempt was halted by legal wrangling), the tradition at the time was for new films to play in one downtown theater in major cities upon release and then eventually move to smaller theaters in the suburbs. Laughlin tried a different tack; he had 1200 prints of his movie made and “opened” it in 1200 different-sized theaters across the U.S. Allowing so many people to see the film at one time increased the word-of-mouth buzz, and Billy Jack, with its $800,000 budget, earned $40 million in its first year of release.
2. Friends and Family Plan
If some of the “actors” in the film seem a bit wooden, that’s probably because they weren’t professional performers but rather friends of the Laughlin family. The young blonde girl, Carol, who sang the uplifting “My Brother’s Dead” song, was played by Tom and Delores’ daughter Teresa. Kit, the headband girl who got “floured” in the ice cream shop was portrayed by Debbie Schock, who was the Laughlin’s babysitter. And Julie Webb, who played the runaway-with-hepatitis Barbara, was a high school pal of Schock’s. Jean, the leading lady who ran the Freedom School, was reluctantly played by Tom’s wife, Delores Taylor.
Taylor was not at all interested in appearing on-camera, and only agreed to play the part of Jean when her husband told her that his original actress had suddenly quit. Despite her insecurity, her work was praised by no less a legend than Marlon Brando, who stood up in a crowded theater after the scene where “Jean” told Cindy about Bernard attacking her, and announced “this performance is the yardstick by which all actors should judge themselves!”
3. Let’s Make Everyone White
Speaking of the famous confrontation in the ice cream shop that drove Billy berserk, viewers who wondered why a soda fountain would have a barrel of flour handy might be interested to find out that this scene was based on a real-life incident Taylor witnessed while growing up in a small South Dakota reservation town. She was one of a handful of Caucasians who lived in the area (her Native playmates called her Little Yellow Head as a child) and the poor treatment of the Indians while growing up had a huge impact on her, and later her husband as well.
4. A Dislocated Elbow or Drive Your Car into the Lake?
One of many iconic scenes in Billy Jack is the one where Billy forces Bernard Posner to drive his brand-new $6000 Corvette Stingray into the lake. David Roya, who played Bernard, was behind the wheel in that scene and gunned the engine when director Laughlin called “Action!” After he was retrieved from the water, Roya was confronted by actor Bert Freed, who played his father in the film. “Are you crazy?! Why the hell did you do that?!” Roya at first thought that Freed was being paternal and concerned about his safety. As the actor continued his tirade, however, it developed that Freed was vice-president of the Screen Actors Guild and was furious because a union stunt man should have been hired to drive the car into the water.
5. Seeing Double
Tom Laughlin was a long-time student of the martial art hapkido, and he performed many of his own fighting moves in the movie. But in one particular scene he was forced to use a stunt double—his teacher, Master Bong Soo Han. The scene in question was where Billy Jack smacked Sheriff Posner upside the head with his foot; Laughlin was able to perform the kick in question, but not with the precision necessary to stop his foot just millimeters away from actor Bert Freed’s face.
6. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Connection
The actress who played the small but memorable role of Miss False Eyelashes in Billy Jack went on to star in the MST3K favorite Space Mutiny. In fact, in real life she’s married to Reb Brown, who played Dave Ryder aka Blast Hardcheese, Punch Rockgroin, Rip Steakface, et al.