When news hit this desk that Tom Laughlin died earlier this month of complications from pneumonia, I...just...went...BERSERK!
You want berserk? I was in the audience the night Laughlin four-walled the UA Cinema 150 in Oakbrook, Illinois, to screen an advance 195-minute rough cut of his speechified magnum opus on politics, Billy Jack Goes to Washington. The pain was so brutal that to this day, thanks to Laughlin, any sudden shift of my framework results in a pinched coccyx nerve.
BJGTW was the fourth and final installment of the author, director, and political activist's quartet of Billy Jack films that began in 1967 with The Born Losers, the series first, shortest, and far and away most-entertaining entry. The laughably low-rent motorcycle gang riff on High Noon was directed by Laughlin under the pseudonym T.C. Frank and co-starred an on-the-skids Jane Russell as the mother of a teenage daughter abused by bikers. Wanting to cash in on the success of Billy Jack, American International Pictures re-released TBL in 1974 calling it "the first appearance of Billy Jack," which led to Laughlin filing a lawsuit.
Watching it again, if you remove the speeches and musical numbers — this thing has more singing than Cats — from Billy Jack, all that's left is a fight scene in which ten guys take a number and wait on line for the privilege of having their asses kicked by our derby-topped hero.
With a running time just ten minutes shy of three hours, the only one put on trial during The Trial of Billy Jack is the audience. The film is less a sequel than a bloated remake of the original.
Before Close Encounters and Star Wars brought about the multiplexing of America, Thomas Robert "Tom" Laughlin's The Trial of Billy Jack forever changed the manner in which films are marketed. The shrewd promoter bought commercial airtime during national newscasts, and his film is credited as being one of, if not the first, film to have a nationwide opening-day release.
His follow-up film, The Master Gunfighter, was directed by Laughlin's son, Frank. Not surprisingly, without BJ's coattails to ride on the tedious shoot-'em-up (co-starring Barbara Carrera and Ron "Superfly" O'Neal) tanked. My comment card must have done the trick, as Billy Jack Goes to Washington barely found distribution. A final installment, The Return of Billy Jack, featuring our hero waging a one-man war against child pornography, was filmed but never released.
Laughlin could just as easily have returned to acting, where he got his start in 1955. Before Billy, Laughlin appeared in Vincente Minnelli's Tea and Sympathy, Robert Altman's The Delinquents, South Pacific, and as "Lover Boy," a role essential to the plot of Gidget.
Laughlin remained married to his leading lady, Delores Taylor, for 59 years. He leaves behind three children.
His longstanding feud with critics who found little to praise in his work culminated in a full-page manifesto published in the April 2, 1975 edition of Variety. In it, Laughlin called out the press for encouraging their readers to seek out works by Bunuel, Renior, and even Scorsese over his pretentious kick-boxing fantasies.
Laughlin sought out the candidacy of President of the United States three times, in 1992, 2004, and 2008. (Insert your own joke here.)
In 1978, Laughlin spoke before the student body of his alma mater, Washington High School in Milwaukee. In his address, the fascist stalwart admitted to being a greaser while attending Washington High and that he once beat up fellow student Gene Wilder.
Laughlin was 82 when he died on December 12. He's with Gilda now.