Peter O'Toole's passing has attracted many commentaries, richly deserved, for both the length of his career and for the many stirring performances it featured. For my part, I appreciate what he brought to such films a “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Lion in Winter,” “The Ruling Class” and “My Favorite Year.”
But another triple-threat filmmaker died the other day whose passing didn't warrant nearly as much notice. And, I think, unfairly.
Tom Laughlin, who died Thursday in Los Angeles, was a journeyman actor who enjoyed a share of minor fame, even to the point of scoring a speaking part in the 1958 musical “South Pacific.” But it was as a filmmaking entrepreneur that he made a long-lasting impact on U.S. film.
Laughlin served as writer, director, producer and star of the 1971 movie “Billy Jack.” You may have heard of it. If you were watching movies in the 1970s, you likely saw it. Maybe, as I did, at a drive-in. And probably what you most remember is Laughlin, wearing (arguably laughably) a straight-brimmed black hat adorned with a colorfully beaded band, kicking the wit out of a bunch of white guys who had just finished bullying a small group of Indians.
You can go online and read Laughlin's story. How he started out in the movie business, scored a number of roles and quit to start a school with his wife (and later co-star/producer Dolores Taylor). He made “Billy Jack” in 1967 (expanding on a character introduced in 1967's “Born Losers”) and, during its first, traditional run, the movie made what at the time was a respectable $6 million (especially for a movie boasting a production budget of barely $800,000). But Laughlin wasn't satisfied, and his actions would change the movie-making landscape.
He sued to get the film's distribution rights back. He then paid for a national advertising campaign, rented some 1,200 theaters across the country and re-released “Billy Jack.” This time the film, buoyed by its simplistic mix of New Age awareness, argument for peace and justice, and lone-wolf kick-ass fight scenes (that, in a way, predate the “Rambo” movies), ended up making more than $80 million, nearly $40 million in 1973 alone.
Laughlin followed “Billy Jack” with three sequels: “The Trial of Billy Jack,” “Billy Jack Goes to Washington” and “The Return of Billy Jack.” None was as successful as the first. But none had to be. Laughlin had made his mark. And for that, he deserves to be remembered.
Below: The most memorable scene in “Billy Jack.”