1931 – 2013
“Tell me, where is that place? Where is it? In what remote corner of this country…no…entire goddamn planet is there a place where men really care about one another and really love each other? Now, you tell me were such a place is, and I promise you that I’ll never hurt another human being as long as I live.” – Tom Laughlin as Billy Jack
When I was seventeen years old I watched Billy Jack for the first time. It was during a late night movie broadcast on CITY-TV out of Toronto. Stopping on the broadcast while channel surfing I was drawn in by the song One Tin Soldier and the aerial shots of the wild stallions running through the Arizona desert. I had no idea what I was about to watch, but that night my life was changed forever. Billy Jack affected me to the very core of my soul, influencing my thoughts and behavior for the rest of my life. Billy Jack was a hero I could relate to. I was an angry young man. I was angry at my parents, my school, my peers and the world around me. I felt like an outsider, alone and misunderstood yet I had a heart full of love which I wanted to share and just wanted to be accepted and find a place to belong. Its a feeling most young people go through at one time or another, which is probably the reason that Billy Jack has appealed to so many people over the years. Both the film, and the character Billy Jack, spoke to me. Billy Jack was a man who lived on the outside of society. A man who was feared and loathed by the people who misunderstood him, and loved and respected by the people he helped. He was a man of great integrity and compassion for the things and people he loved, but if you threatened them he was willing to wop you on that side of your face, and there’s not a damn thing you could do about it. Billy Jack was unlike any man I knew, but he was the kind of man I wanted to be. But making Billy Jack more real was the fact that he was more than just a character. Underneath the big black hat and the denim was actor/director/writer Tom Laughlin who created the character as a personification of his own morals and beliefs. Tom Laughlin was Billy Jack and Billy Jack was Tom Laughlin. I was devastated last night to learn that Tom Laughlin passed away on December 12th after a long illness. He left behind a loving family, a large cult fan base and a series of films that have touched the lives of millions of people. But to me, Tom Laughlin was more than a cult movie icon or b-movie tough guy. Tom Laughlin was a personal hero, and he had a huge part in shaping the man I am today.
I have no idea how many times I’ve seen Billy Jack over the years. Well over a hundred times at the very least. I have rewatched it more times than any other film. I know the film forwards and backwards. Original posters for Billy Jack and its sequels don the walls of my living room. I have gone on record many times stating that Billy Jack is my all-time favorite film franchise, and I have interviewed its stars and corresponded with Tom and Delores Laughlin’s son Frank. Each Christmas the Laughlin family receives a Christmas package from me, and I even received an invitation to Tom’s 80th birthday party, which I was regrettably unable to attend due to geographical difficulties. But one of my biggest heartbreaks is that I never had the chance to speak to Tom Laughlin personally, and thank him for the character of Billy Jack and express just how much of an impact he had on my personal life.
Over the years I have shown Billy Jack to most of the people I know. Some of them get it. Others don’t. The films has its flaws. Billy Jack was truly a product of early guerrilla film making. Sometimes the camera work was shaky or unfocused. Often the sound didn’t work. The acting wasn’t Academy Award worthy. The entire film was done on a small budget, and you could tell. But Billy Jack was so much more than just another low budget grindhouse film. It was Tom Laughlin’s personal and political manifesto. It encapsulated his thoughts and feelings about the world, and he incorporated his values as an individual into the character Billy Jack. Tom Laughlin never wanted to make the next film epic. He wanted to make a film that would make you think and make the viewer look at the world and people around them with open eyes. He wanted to make you question what you knew, and expose the corruptions and lies that happen everyday in American society. Billy Jack was a personal project. It was a passion, and it touched the lives of millions. Playing a half breed Indian that battles bigotry, hate and corruption with a swift kick to the face, Billy Jack was a man who played by his own rules. He was relentless and clever and strong willed, but also could be soft and gentle. He was equal parts love and rage. But he was also a man who was always evolving, and sought to control his rage through pacifism, meditation and spiritual growth. He was a flawed hero who took his knocks, but continued to grow in his search for peace.
But what spoke to me the most about Billy Jack was his sense of unshakable loyalty and the fact that he would do anything to protect the people that he loved, and would go to the extremes to maintain his integrity and what he believed in. From killing the man who raped his woman with a swift karate chop to the neck, to shooting a corrupt deputy in the head when he threatened the students and school that he protected, Billy Jack was willing to play the fall guy, and ultimately the martyr, to ensure the survival of the people he cared for. Billy Jack taught that if you truly love someone or believe in something you should be willing to die for it. Behind the scenes, the love and loyalty that Tom Laughlin showed his circle was just as strong. Tom Laughlin was a devoted family man, and Billy Jack became a true family affair. With his wife Delores by his side, working as his producer and playing his on screen love interest Jean, his daughter Theresa joined him on screen in the role of Carol, his son Frank was positioned behind the camera and little Christina was always not far from the set, Tom cast his family, friends and associates in his films. His love and loyalty to those around him was legendary, and it showed through in the actions of his characters.
But there was a darker side to Tom Laughlin that became very well known, which he also incorporated into the character of Billy Jack. The rage that ate away at Billy Jack was also present in Tom Laughlin. In order to preserve his personal vision he could often be stormy and moody. He did not always play well with others and he created enemies easily. He had no time for the power politics of the Hollywood elite, and he played by his own set of rules, which no doubt hurt his career greatly. His rage could often get the better of him, and he even fired an entire production team during the filming of The Trial of Billy Jack. He was a true independent outsider in the Hollywood system. But, as a result, his personal message and the integrity of his films were never compromised. They always remained honest and personal and Tom Laughlin never sold out. The Billy Jack films were Tom Laughlin’s message to the world, and he would be ostracized and vilified in order to get that message out to the people.
You can’t talk about Billy Jack, or the films of Tom Laughlin, without discussing his alternative political views. Laughlin was anti-war and anti-establishment, and as a result became a father figure to the counter culture movement. He was an adult who understood the rejected youth of the era and was willing to fight an ever losing battle against “the man.” Suspicious of government, the military and law enforcement, Laughlin was preoccupied with corruption and the lies and hypocrisy that the people in power thrust upon society. He also had deep sympathy for the American Indian, and was so involved with Native affairs that he was often mistaken for being a Native American himself. Billy Jack would become one of the first films to expose the plight of the modern American Indian, and become synonymous with Native American culture. Often Laughlin’s ideas were a little over the top, and he could border on being a conspiracy theorist and paranoid. He even unsuccessfully ran for president on two occasions. But Tom Laughlin never wavered on his beliefs nor held back on his opinions. His beliefs were stated boldly, honestly and without any chance of misrepresentation. He was a man who said what he truly thought, and never backed down or changed his mind due to popular opinion. He was a man who was strong in his convictions and stood his ground on what he believed.
I often wonder if I saw Billy Jack today if it would have the same impact on me as it did when I was seventeen. I’m not sure if it would have. I’m not the angry disillusioned person that I once was. But I believe that I saw the film at the perfect time when I needed it the most. I know that it was Tom Laughlin, through the character of Billy Jack, which helped shape my ideals and personal code of ethics. The film got me through some very dark times, and has become a touchstone of both my pop culture and personal journey. I am the man I am because of Billy Jack. Through Tom Laughlin’s example I learnt about loyalty and love and learnt that strength is not always found in fighting, but staying true to your morals and beliefs whether wrong or right. I will do anything to protect the things and people I love, and I will not waver on the things that I know to be true. I try to cut through my own inner rage with a sense of love and peace, but when pushed to my limits I am willing to lash out. As a result I am always an outsider and often misunderstood. I often feel that I stand alone, and against the world. But when this happens to me, I know that Billy Jack is standing with me. Tom Laughlin’s spirit will be with me always, and he continues to show me the way.