Monday, December 16, 2013


It's unpleasant, to say nothing of unseemly, to turn this space into an ongoing obit section for my cultural heroes.  I don't write much anymore, and when I do, it seems like it's yet another memorial piece.  And it's sad and depressing, and honestly, I don't enjoy doing it, which is why there hasn't been anything here remembering Nelson Mandela or Doris Lessing or, most recently, Peter O'Toole.

Then Billy Jack dies, and dammit, that shit's personal.

If you were the right age in the 1970s, the half-breed ex-Green Beret ass-kicking pacifist Billy Jack was as big a deal as Bigfoot or Evel Knievel.  The creation of writer/director/producer/star/messiah Tom Laughlin, our Billy first appeared in 1967's The Born Losers, a routine biker picture (albeit one with an unconscionable 113 minute running time, because Laughlin's ego was already in place), but it was 1971's Billy Jack that briefly made the character and the actor household names.

A weird mix of standard drive-in fodder with typical early 70s hippy-dippy mysticism, Billy Jack is less noted as a movie as for how it was sold: A flop in its initial release, Laughlin famously sued Warner Bros. and reacquired the rights to the picture and sold it his own way, renting out neighborhood theaters one at a time and keeping all the profits himself.  Both the four-walling of theaters and the accompanying heavy duty TV ad campaign were highly influential--the notoriously awful indie outfit Sunn Classic Pictures used Laughlin's technique to sell their fake documentaries like The Mysterious Monsters and In Search of Noah's Ark.

It worked--Billy Jack became a smash hit, and Warner Bros. rereleased it again using a variation of Laughlin's technique ("See it again...for the first time!"), and it was a smash one more time.  It was basically a liberal-populist version of the conservative-populist Walking Tall, and it played small towns and drive-ins forever.

At the box office, if not artistically, Laughlin had even grander visions.  The 1974 sequel, The Trial Of Billy Jack, was again produced in conjunction with Warner Bros., but Laughlin mapped out the ad campaign himself.  It was the first movie to open really wide--over a thousand theaters at once, quite a feat in those pre-multiplex days--accompanied by a massive advertising blitz.  (I remember the full-page color ad in the comics section of The Des Moines Sunday Register!)  It worked--the movie made a then-astonishing $11,000,000 in one weekend.  Those numbers are amazing--that's at the level of Jaws or Star Wars.

Except the movie sucked, and after the first weekend, it tanked.

And thus ended Laughlin's career, basically.  He made a horrible semi-mystical Western, The Master Gunfighter ("A Billy Jack Enterprises Production") and the barely released Billy Jack Goes To Washington...and then he just kind of went away.

Laughlin had been a journeyman actor for over a decade before his big success, with guest shots on TV and bit parts in the likes of Tea And Sympathy and South Pacific.  But Billy Jack--the character and the movie--seemed to change him.  The Trial Of Billy Jack is a terrible, terrible movie, and sitting through it is like spending three hours with your nutjob conspiracy-theory cousin, the kind of guy you assume is a hardcore lefty until you notice his Ron Paul For President bumper sticker, and even if you agree with its politics, you'll cringe at the presentation.

But Laughlin clearly believed.  He meant every half-baked they're-all-out-to-get-us assertion, and to him it wasn't a movie, it was a manifesto.  Going back to mere acting wasn't in the cards for Laughlin, so his celluloid legacy pretty much begins and ends with the original Billy Jack, the only halfway decent movie he ever made.

And that's the strange part.  A big deal at the time, it's kind of sad how little impact it ultimately made.  Laughlin was a marketing genius, and it's easy to imagine he could have had a nice career as an action star, a philosophically aware Clint Eastwood, but that's not what he wanted.  He had to tell the truth, man.

As the seventies ended, Laughlin tried his hand (unsuccessfully) at politics, and wrote vanity-press books on psychology and alternative medicine.  And he kept making plans for more Billy Jack movies, including one with the wonderful title Billy Jack's Crusade To End The War In Iraq And Restore America To Its Moral Purpose, which suggests that his ego certainly never diminished.

Laughlin died this month at the age of 82, having failed to bring an end to racism or war or poverty or any of the things his character stood for.  But you know what?  In 1975, my brother Keith dragged ten-year-old me to a re-release of Billy Jack pretty much for the sole purpose of making fun of it.  We counted the number of times the boom mike was visible, we yelled out our own responses to some of the dumber dialogue, we laughed at the action scenes.  But we had a great time watching it, and I've seen it countless times since then, and enjoyed it every time.

So no, Billy Jack didn't change the world.  But he taught me how to watch movies critically, and I'll always love him for that.