"I want you guys to watch something," my uncle John said. "It's something I saw years ago at the movies."
My cousin and I took our usual places in front of our beloved portal to adventure: the television.
Uncle John pulled out his latest laser disc acquisition, a newly released on home video movie from 1967 called "Born Losers."
That little introduction sparked a lifetime soft spot in my heart for Tom Laughlin and his iconic creation, the character Billy Jack, a half-breed ex green beret who used his deadly hapkido skills against motorcycle gangs, bigots and rednecks that were always out to harass the peaceful native American kids or lone female travelers.
What was great about Billy Jack is that he retained a clean cut short haired look even among the long haired hippie surroundings. He was fair, tough, and completely fearless. Take on fifteen men in hand to hand combat in the park? Sure thing. Just give him a second to take his boots off, so he can whop you "on That side of your face. And you know what? There's not a damn thing you're going to be able to do about it. Really." What I love about that fight was that in the end, Billy loses. Laughlin wasn't afraid to have his character be human, unlike the far fetched heroes of today that could cut through dozens of foes without taking a hit or having a hair out of place at the end. No, Billy was different.
Laughlin cut a cool image in his blue jean jacket, black t-shirt, boots, and hat, often toting a rifle. Naturally, he was a crack shot as well. This cinematic hero, however, did not sit well with critics and the studios. Laughlin had been lucky finding a distributor for "Born Losers" as B-movie fare via American International, but he was hitting a stalemate on a distribution deal over releasing the "Born Losers" sequel, "Billy Jack," (which many still erroneously consider this the "first" in the series). The studio heads fretted over this piece of indie counter-culture cinema, with its peace through violence "message" and improvised segments. Laughlin, fed up with "no" decided to buck the system and rent out theaters himself to show the film. The gambit worked, and word of mouth made "Billy Jack" the most successful independent film released at that time. Additionally, Laughlin was first to utilize television ads to promote a film, a practice that only began to blossom in the mid-70's, with "Jaws" adopting Laughlin's strategy.
"Billy Jack" spawned two further sequels, and burned Laughlin and Billy indelibly into my mind.
News of a "new" Billy Jack feature circulated, and some footage was reportedly shot in the 80's for a comeback film, but after an injury and health concerns, Laughlin seemed to vanish.
I became obsessed with meeting him, and throughout most of the 90's, would occasionally search for contact information. At last, I found a number, and had a chat with his son Frank, who assured me "Billy" was alive and well. I sent in a letter and a photo to be signed, but didn't hear back. For Years. I sent a polite reminder in the mid 2000's, via the Billy Jack website which had been created in the interim between contact attempts, and a few months later I received my treasured signed photo and a "sorry for the delay" note.
Rumors of the next Billy Jack film continued to pop up from time to time, but always the deals would fall through.
In recent years, Laughlin's health began to wane, and by 82 he was gone. The "new" Billy Jack film will never happen, but really, I don't think I'd want to see it without Laughlin's involvement anyway, so I will treasure the four Billy Jack films that he made (and his "Master Gunfighter" film as well).
There have been many writer/director/actors, but Laughlin's heyday was at a transitional time for film, and he was a unique voice that only the late 60's could have produced. His films will remain time capsules to another era, but are still meaningful, watchable and relative today with their themes of tolerance and unity. Oh, and lot of ass kicking too.
He will be sorely missed.
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