Tom Laughlin and the Legacy of Billy Jack


My Billy Jack Freedom School t-shirt.

Earlier this month, on December 12th, it came to mind that it was the one year anniversary of the passing of Tom Laughlin.  For the past couple of weeks I’ve been thinking hard about what I might say.

I suppose that nowadays most folks don’t even know who Tom Laughlin is, don’t remember Billy Jack, and might wonder why I’d remember or care.  Laughlin was the man who created and portrayed the character Billy Jack, as well as wrote and directed the movies in which he starred.

Laughlin’s Billy Jack is a strange figure in a series of very unconventional movies.  The character, and the films, are the fusion cuisine of the independent movie world.   It makes no sense how good it is to have Korean BBQ and kimchi on a taco, or curried rice in sushi.  It also makes no sense how amazing it is to watch Billy Jack, a former Green Beret, defend hippies from evil preppies in cowboy hats.  With the acumen of a super chef, Laughlin threw everything in the pot.  Billy Jack is a “half-breed”  who uses “karate” (actually Hapkido, thanks to the choreography and stunt doubling of Bong Soo Han).  He’s a man of peace who cannot keep his temper, a strong and quiet loner given to the occasional soliloquy, a crazy mix of cultures, perspectives, and personalities.

And the movies are just as schizophrenic as their main character, slipping back and forth between genres as easily as a shuttle through a Navajo loom.  These things are equal parts pulp, action, drama, and political thriller.  You might see kids singing kumbaya in this act, and a violent rape scene with exposed breasts in the next.  One movie he’d be karate-chopping a pedophile.  In the next he’d get appointed to a Congressional seat.  You never knew if he was going to go on a vision quest or barricade himself in a building with a rifle.

And so you see, Billy Jack is America in all it’s bi-polar glory.

We Americans can’t agree on anything, not even what we are or what we stand for.  But dammit, we know what we are and what we like when we see it, and we flocked to the theater in the millions to see Billy Jack right wrongs in all his wacko glory.  It didn’t matter if you were a hippie or a square, a commie, a Republican or a Democrat, you were a fan.

As a kid Billy Jack inspired me to stand up against bullies and racists on the schoolyard.  Later, as a young father badly in need of exercise, discipline, and character development, Billy Jack was on my mind when I turned to Korean Karate for help (and truth be told, so was Kwai Chang Caine).  The martial arts transformed me.  They are a part of me now.  Those who knew me then no longer recognize me.

Later still, during Tom’s two presidential runs, he taught me about activism, politics, and what’s wrong with our two-party system.  He never got equal time on TV, but once the internet took off, you could watch his videos and read his articles.  He loved to punctuate his stuff  with all caps, and the old website wasn’t the greatest.  But you could just tell how much he deeply cared about his country and all its people.  Tom’s  enthusiasm and energy blasted off the webpage.

And you could also read about Jungian psychology, which just so happened to be relevant to my studies in mysticism and self exploration.  Tom was an internationally renowned expert on Jung, a sought after lecturer on the subject.  If he had never made a single movie and had never run for president, he’d still be remembered for his work in Jungian studies.

I’d like to think that if Tom was still around we’d see eye-to-eye on a lot of things.  I always fantasized that I might someday get permission from Tom to write some novels featuring his character.  With Tom gone, and his endearing wife Delores suffering from Alzheimer’s, that probably won’t ever happen.

But, like Tom and his character Billy Jack, I’ve never been one to give up just because it’s impossible.  I sent an email to his estate.  I offered to write a Billy Jack novel and donate 100% of the proceeds to the care of Delores Taylor.

What can I say?  I allowed Tom and his amazing character to inspire me.  Would I have turned out like this if I’d never met Tom or Billy?  Who knows.  I just know that lots of things will inspire you, if you’ll just let them.

2 responses to “Tom Laughlin and the Legacy of Billy Jack

  1. I am 59 now and finally made it to the southwest. I saw Billy Jack when I was about 14 or 15 and have never forgotten it. Saw Born Losers many years later. I guess what I’m saying is that ever since Billy Jack I have had an affinity for Native Americans, the Southwest and being here is the part of me that has been missing.

    • It’s amazing how a B-movie from the 1970s really affected so many people. That movie was like a cultural atomic bomb. It broke genres and changed how movies were made, how they were financed, and how they were distributed. Incredible. Thanks for visiting David!

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