Originally published in February of 2007, “What Would Billy Jack Do?” was a sideways swipe at the “W” era Whitehouse, and a star struck tribute to a movie hero of mine, Tom Laughlin.
Laughlin, perhaps better known as his 1970s movie character “Billy Jack”, celebrates his 80th birthday on August 10th. His newest project, “Death at the Box Office” is a marketing study on the formula for successfully marketing a film, and why so few motion pictures are able to hit the mark. He envisions one day “Billy Jack” will be re-made, starring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, or Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, real life couples, just like he and his co-star Delores Taylor…
What Would Billy Jack Do?
By Ellen Jo Roberts
What the world needs now is more Billy Jack. Most people in this town have no idea who the heck he is, and I’m fixin’ to change that right now. Billy Jack is a pacifist ass kicker, a Vietnam Vet Green Beret, judo-chopping, Wrangler-wearing, half-blood “injun.” He protects misfits, hippies, minorities and wild horses. He was the perfect counter-culture hero for the 1970s Vietnam era and he translates into the War on Terror era with ease.
Billy Jack will take off his cowboy boots and deliver a barefoot roundhouse kick to the face of some stupid prejudiced redneck in the park. And not only that — he will give complete warning prior to doing so, “calling his shot” as it were … “You know what I’m going to do? Just for the hell of it? I’m going to take this right foot, and I’m gonna whomp that side of your face,” and before said redneck barely begins to crack a snide smile, before he can start to laugh — WHAMMO! Down for the count! Using only the power of his personality he can convince a villain to drive his brand new Corvette into a lake. Sometimes Billy Jack just…goes…BERSERK!
“Billy Jack” is a much beloved cult classic starring Tom Laughlin, who wrote, directed and produced the films. One of the first “blockbusters,” Billy Jack (1971) was second in what is commonly called the “Billy Jack series” which began with the introduction of the character in 1967’s California biker gang extravaganza Born Losers, and continued with The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977).
For many in Hollywood, Tom Laughlin is considered one of the original “independent film makers” and when I mention this to him, he graciously includes John Cassavetes and Roger Corman.
“What factors contributed to your decision to write and produce your own films?” I asked, as he talked to me on speaker-phone from his California home.
“Well, that’s why I came to Hollywood — I desperately wanted to change things. My whole life has been this desire to make things better and to change things … and by accident I got into the drama stuff.”
A bishop named Fulton J. Sheen had a weekly show every Tuesday night on national television from 1951-1957, and Mr. Laughlin said he “just stood in front of a blackboard and talked. He didn’t preach religion but he preached that ‘Life is Worth Living’ and he was more popular than any show, period, at the time. The world stopped to watch it.”
Mr. Laughlin hitchhiked to NYC from his hometown of Milwaukee, Wis. to meet Mr. Sheen, who recommended TV and movies as an excellent medium for reaching a wider audience. A studio actor at first, Mr. Laughlin became a director by chance, when he was called upon to fill in for an unreliable director. “I started directing there and I realized it wasn’t that hard.” He and wife, Delores Taylor then began raising money and working towards producing their own films.
“We did invent the mega-multiple blitzkrieg breakout film method of distributing pictures,” continues Mr. Laughlin, “which actually changed the motion picture forever. Back then you just opened in one major theater in downtown of each city … and then you went wide. So you only opened with 50 maybe 75 prints in all, across the country … Our market research showed us that people didn’t give a damn if you hadn’t opened in New York yet, or they didn’t care in New York if you opened first in Montana.
“So we went ahead and mortgaged our home, everything we had, and we said we were going to open up 1200 prints on the same day, instead of 60. Variety and everyone called us ‘nuts’…of course we did over $30 million dollars in the first month with tickets selling for 75¢, 50¢ … and not 20 films in the history of the cinema had done that in their entire lifetime. So that changed everything. That made it possible to have the $100 million, $200, $300, $400 million movie.”
Born Losers was a big drive-in hit, featuring tawdry sex, bizarro bikers, funny nicknames, Jane Russell, a dead sea lion, weird sunglasses, girls in bikinis, and the ever-ready, ever-steady Billy Jack who avenges the rape of several teen girls by planting a bullet square between the eyes of the goofy biker gang ringleader.
“The villains in your films are excellent because they are so complex. They are not 100% evil — they all have some weakness or flaw that adds very much to the film,” I say.
“Well, we felt it was essential. We are all screwed up in one way or another, some more than others,” says Mr. Laughlin with a soft chuckle. I cannot believe I am on the phone with Billy Jack! Somebody pinch me!
Billy Jack has been the biggest commercial hit in the series thus far, and I hold it close to my heart due to the regional filming locations — Prescott in particular, as well as various spots throughout Yavapai County. In the film, Billy Jack lives in Montezuma Castle (!) while watching over the misfit kids of the much-maligned hippy “Freedom School” run by Jean (played by Delores Taylor).
The uptight townsfolk don’t dig the weirdos of the school, and the kids don’t fancy the townsfolk much either, but bottom line is: they are all just threatened by what they don’t understand. Some wonderfully weird dialogue makes this film eminently quotable.
Billy Jack is totally sexy and cool as he single-handedly whomps a dozen rednecks surrounding him outside the Prescott Courthouse (just before someone clocks him in the back of the head). In every film, Billy shows his vulnerability by nearly ending up dead, confirming that while the villains are not 100% evil, neither is he 100% invincible. Billy Jack is just a man. “Damn your pacifism!” shouts one fired-up hippy chick.
Today at age 75, after surviving cancer and two unsuccessful presidential bids (as a Democrat in 1992 and as a Republican in 2004) Tom Laughlin is working on the long-anticipated 5th film in the series, Billy Jack’s Moral Revolution.
“You’ll like the next one,” says Mr. Laughlin, “It’s going to be even more explosive, more powerful.” The new film will take on such topics as the war in Iraq, political corruption, and the difference between sex and eros. “It’s a profound difference which very few people know,” Mr. Laughlin mentions with dismay, “Thirty percent of 13 year old girls give oral sex once a week and 20% of them are ‘cutters,’ do you know what that is?” Mr. Laughlin wants to help educate young people to get their “real power” and not just be “masturbation tools.”
With some intense views on American politics, he calls the current government “the most evil regime” in US history. His website, BillyJack.com, reads like a Dr. Bronner soap bottle, chock full of words, theories and strategy, with mini-videos of Mr. Laughlin talking about current topics, new movies, viable exit plans for Iraq, and how we can remove our dependency on oil.
Tom Laughlin calls the situation in Iraq far worse than Vietnam ever was.
“The number one rule of war is to know thy enemy. Well, the lack of knowledge, the ignorance of the entire peninsula — not only Vietnam, but Thailand, Cambodia — was so profound, they had no idea what they were doing,” declares Mr. Laughlin. “After 12 years, the net result was 3 million people died in that war … but the number of service people that served in that period, that serviced that war, was 8,750,000. And that culture was extremely easy to understand, though we didn’t understand it at all.”
Mr. Laughlin explains that because there are so many more different cultures and factions in the Middle East, subdivided into hundreds of different tribes, it is far more complex than the Vietnam conflict was, as far us understanding the native people. “These tribal cultures have been fighting each other for 3,000 years. And there are ties to Iraq from Muslim communities all around the world — which we did not have in Vietnam.”
Mr. Laughlin blames the escalation of the war on Bush’s “mental disintegration.”
“He’s panicked and he’s unraveling … he’s delusional, he’s got a messianic complex.” When I ask him if he believes Bush will be impeached, he answers in typical Billy Jack steady fashion, “If we have anything to say about it, he will.”
Mr. Laughlin has no love lost for the “cowardly Democrats” either, “who didn’t win the election, they backed into the election by being against the war — people wanted the war ended — 80% of the people want it over. They backed into it and now they are waffling.”
In addition to educating people via his website and his new film, Mr. Laughlin plans to organize a large movement of people against the war, including a citizen commission on Iraq “and the stuff that will come out will just absolutely blow your mind … We’re looking for a million people across this country to rise up and say ‘F--k you guys, No more deaths.’”
Did he just say the F word? Damn! The dude is still kicking ass. Billy Jack is rolling up his sleeves and pulling off his boots. He is about to start up with the roundhouse kicks and judo chops again.
For more information on how you can participate in Billy Jack’s Moral Revolution visit billyjack.com
Ellen Jo Roberts kicks ass and takes names, but leaves her shoes on. She’s really excited she talked to Billy Jack. Read more about her life with the hippie misfits in Clarkdale AZ at ellenjo.com