Tom Laughlin, Star of ‘Billy Jack,’ Dead at 82

Tom Laughlin, Star of 'Billy Jack,' Dead at 82

The iconoclastic actor's 1971 vigilante film “Billy Jack,” over which he sued Warner Bros., became a cultural lightning rod

Filmmaker Tom Laughlin, who shot to fame as the rugged half-breed action hero “Billy Jack,” died Thursday in Thousand Oaks, Calif., surrounded by his family.  He was 82 years old.

While involved at one point with just about every facet of the film business, Laughlin may be best known for his series of “Billy Jack” films. He has been married to Delores Taylor since 1954, and she co-produced and acted in all four of the “Billy Jack” movies.

In addition to acting, he was a producer, director and screenwriter, and drew attention for a groundbreaking promotion and release campaign on 1974's “The Trial of Billy Jack” that included TV trailers during national news and an “opening day” nationwide release that helped shape the future of film distribution.

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In 1967, Laughlin wrote, directed (as T. C. Frank) and starred in the motorcycle-gang exploitation movie “The Born Losers,” the first film in which the character of Billy Jack appeared.

In 1971, he followed that up with a sequel, “Billy Jack,” which he made independently and with his own money. The numerous political references — and frontal nudity — caused several studios to shy away, but Warner Bros. finally agreed to distribute it. Laughlin, upset with the studio's marketing of the film, sued to get it back, won and re-released it himself.

That re-release brought attention, box-office success and controversy. In it, Laughlin played the title character, a vigilante former Vietnam War hero who defends the hippie-themed Freedom School and its counterculture and Native American students.

“‘Billy Jack’ seems to be saying that a gun is better than a constitution in the enforcement of justice. Is democracy totally obsolete, then? Is our only hope that the good fascists defeat the bad fascists?'” said Roger Ebert in his review. ”Billy Jack” was also one of the first films to introduce martial arts to mainstream movie audiences in the U.S.

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“The youth of this country have only two heroes Ralph Nader and Billy Jack,” Laughlin said after the movie became a hit, particularly with young moviegoers.

Laughlin's first directing gig was “The Proper Time” in 1957, followed by “The Young Sinner” in 1960, which marked the first time that he wrote, directed and starred in a film,

Laughlin was in many ways a maverick. In the early 1960s, he temporarily left his film career behind to start a Montessori preschool in Santa Monica that became the largest school of its kind in the United States.

In recent years, Laughlin became involved in psychology and domestic abuse counseling, writing several books on Jungian psychology and developing theories on the causes of cancer. He ran for President of the United States in 1992, 2004, and 2008.

His early career as an actor found him parts in feature films including “Tea and Sympathy” and “South Pacific” along with the original “Gidget.” His first starring role was in Robert Altman's 1957 film, “The Delinquents.”

Laughlin is survived by his wife of 60 years, Delores, his children Frank, Teresa and Christina, his five grandchildren, and his sister Joan. Plans for a memorial service are in the works.

A service to celebrate his life is being planned and will be held sometime in early January.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations go to Alzheimer’s Research: www.alz.org or to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation:
www.friendsofpineridgereservation.org.

 

  • jh1289

    RIP Billy Jack.

  • Mike

    One tin soldier rides away,,,,,

    • michaela mack

      He will always be a one tin soldier.

  • chingiss

    Our Lord and Creator has called another of his soldiers. RIP Tom Laughlin.

  • michaela mack

    RIP Billy Jack. Watching Mr.Tom and Ms.Delores love on Billy Jack movies was so sweet. He will forever be Biily Jack to me. GOD bless his family.

  • Noel

    from one injun of Guyana- safe journey home Billy Jack.

  • mospider

    From us all on the Rez…Rest in Peace…wopila tanka yuha ye…

  • C.l. Starr

    Yes…One Tin Soldier RIDES AWAY….

  • Rex1949

    Best to you Tom Laughlin. You made a lot of great movies. I wish you would of made more though. And your wife was great in your movies too. Rest in peace my brother. Heaven is a great place to be in for all of us. And my condolence to all the family, relatives, friends who all knew this great man.

  • fairportfan

    “Billy Jack” was nothing but a liberal's version of “Walking Tall”

    The first one was okay.

    The rest (how many were there? “Trial” was all i could bear to watch) got so pompous, self-important and self-righteous that they were unwatchable.

  • NIC

    loosing alot of folks who have contributed to our world whether through films, singing or other notable areas.. RIP RAY PRICE, PETER O'TOOL, AND BILLY JACK

  • Cheryl

    I remember watching his movies at the Oasis Drive In in Avondale,Arizona. My condolences to his family.

  • Injun

    Tom ” Billy Jack” Laughlin, One Tin Soldier, you didn't ride away, You walked to the other side crossing the thin veil to be with the Great Spirit so you can watch over your Family and Native Brothers and Sisters. We will met one day.

  • Gita Breslin

    I never thought that Tom would go. Working on The Born Losers was quite an experience shared by all those whose lives were touched by Tom. May he how RIP.

  • Stoneyjack

    Condolences to Mr. Laughlin's family. His films were the silliest sort of boilerplate liberal nonsense; all stereotypes, no substance.

    • Michelle Kirkwood

      There was a lot of silly conservative boilerplate nonsense films too, and always have been—you need to acknowledge that, and not just whine about the silly liberal stuff.

  • Wayne Robertson

    R.IP. Tom. It was you and Bruce Lee's influence that introduced me to martial arts. I had the pleasure of meeting you a VSDA back in the 90's to which you and your son were very nice. Condolences to your family!!

  • chuck carson

    To his beautiful wife Delores, my deepest sympathy. Tom was a great inspiration to all for his efforts to protect the innocent ones. His movies were the beginning of my love for the martial arts and my forty three year quest to learn them. Heroes are few, he was one of them. RIP Mr. Laughlin

  • doodooboy

    the half-breed Green Beret hapkido expert

  • Harold Howell

    Am Sorry to hear of his passin, I really enjoyed him an his movies an I understand he himself was an extrodnary person.would love to know more about him. AT:harolddh@yahoo.com .. Thank YOU. Our thoughts an Prayers for his family an friends.

  • http://theconservativemind.net/ theconservativemind.net

    There were two types of liberal movements in the 1960's. The freedom loving counter culture types that would rather turn on, drop out and be left alone, and the LBJ socialist types who wanted to control everything. Tom was of the first incarnation and unlike many of his compatriots stayed that way. Today must liberals would recoil at carrying a gun or decrying government interventionism. While I might not agree with all he believed in, at least he was someone you could respect. He stood for something and died that way as well. RIP.

    • Michelle Kirkwood

      I'm sure there are plenty of liberals with guns. A lot of those same liberals that didn't completely drop out became good contributors to society. FYI, liberals have fought and died in every war our country has ever had, and it was also liberals who started the civil rights movement,the women's movement, and a while bunch of other things that changed society for the better. I'm tired of this sweeping generalization of anybody that dosen't follow the GOP line and all this silly conservatives/good liberals/bad BS. Let's just acknowledge what we have or don't have in common and leave it at that instead of tearing each's others throats out like a bunch of crazy people.

      Anyway, R.I.P. to Mr. Laughlin, a liberal who put his money his money where his mouth was when it came to education.

  • paul

    god bless you tom in the heavens tom rides above us.a true man with a god like persona we as a people need to dwell deeper into his gifted phsyciy and golden heart.

  • paul

    we need Hollywood to step up and truly honour,respect and bring back this great mans message. tom a true patriot a proud humanitarian visionary a man ahead of us and our times we need a billy jack revival and to follow up on his vision to attempt to carry on where he left off to do so would impower us all with the light of truth,love ,power ,wisdom and hope over the powers of darkness tom is the light I speak for many when I say to him and his loved ones shine on tom our beacon from the heavens shine on…

  • robert

    The movie Billy Jack motivated me to start my martial arts career back then, may he rest in peace.

    • James Wright

      me also, I've taken Martial Arts after I've seen Billy go crazy,.. but now I'm 58 years old ,and now a Black Belt, 10th Dan, .. seeking more… got my own DoJo now!! Thank You Mr. TOM LAUGHLIN!!!!!…

  • Svp

    RIP Billy Jack. You had a major influence on the industry

  • James Wright

    Mr. Tom Laughlin, I will miss You Dearly, I met my future wife at a drive-in watching your movie, ” BILLY JACK!!”,… we sat on top of my 63 chevy impala,.. watching the movie !!! PEACE BE WITH YOU, MY BROTHER !!! (Im soo hurt)),.. But, I KNOW YOU ARE “HAPPY NOW!!, NO MORE PAIN !!! LOVE YOU BROTHER !! PEACE “ALWAYS!!”,.