The writer, director and producer of the highest-grossing independent film of all time, 1971's Billy Jack, died Thursday, Dec. 12, at his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif., according to family members who confirmed the news yesterday. He was 82.
Metro New York reported that Laughlin "began acting in the 1950s, and made his screen debut in 1957’s regionally made drama The Delinquents. Its director, a young Robert Altman, would later describe him as 'an unbelievable pain in the ass.'"
Described alternatively as merely "stubborn," no one appears to deny that Laughlin had conviction, passion and integrity . In an interview with Sharon Waxman for The Wrap, Laughlin's daughter Theresa (who appears in Billy Jack, notably as the girl playing guitar and singing about losing her brothers in the Vietnam War) said, “There was no halfway to anything [with my father]. As a result of that, it was a double-edged sword growing up as his child. It could be difficult, it also could be a blessing – that intensity.”
Laughlin's intensity charges Billy Jack with an energy that has made it an enduring iconic film. Though fiercely emblematic of late-1960s American culture, Billy Jack doesn't feel dated in a way that robs the movie of its power. Laughlin's Billy Jack character (introduced in 1967's Born Losers) is a champion for freedom, metaphorically, but specifically of wild stallions, Native Americans and counter-culture kids of all races attending the Freedom School, an alternative school on an Arizona Indian reservation. A half-white, half-Navajo ex-Green Beret, Billy Jack struggles to adhere to pacifist doctrine in the face of cruelty, bigotry and corrupt local law enforcement that harasses the school. But sometimes he can't help but kick ass, as in this well-known scene:
Joining Stan Rice, a local boy cast as Martin after the crew arrived on location to start shooting, in that scene is daughter Theresa (in red) and Debbie Schock, who now goes by her married name, Debbie Van Valin, the Laughlins' neighbor and babysitter, who played Kit. She described her relationship with Laughlin and his wife of 60 years and co-writer and co-producer, Delores Taylor, in a 2011 interview:
"I came from a home with a real perfectionist raging father. It was a really dysfunctional and painful family situation and the Laughlins recognized that. They were the first people in my life who knew that what was going on over there was not normal, and they kind of rescued me...They built me up so much. They gave me a more functional family to be a part of. But it was also a riot, too. I remember opening my bedroom curtains with my hair full of curlers and seeing Marlon Brando in the back yard. You never knew what was going on over there."
From a 2005 article in The New York Times: "He was the model for Rambo, for 'Walking Tall,'" said Robert Sklar, professor of cinema studies at New York University. "When you think of what 'Rocky' meant for the culture - Laughlin was ahead of all that. He represented the indomitable outsider, and he was the first one in that era. It was also true in the sense in which he fought to make the film, and fought to get it distributed with this terrific idea of self-releasing.
Because exhibitors were reluctant to gamble on Billy Jack in 1971, Mr. Laughlin pioneered what is known as four-walling a theater: renting space from theater owners and collecting the box-office profits. He said he hired Mormons all around the country to work the ticket booths, figuring they could be trusted with the cash, and the film took in an astonishing $32.5 million."
Laughlin's approach is a noted influence on the mass (and massive) marketing of Jaws a few years later, and his nationwide Billy Jack ad campaign was considered revolutionary in the business. But Laughlin, a three-time presidential hopeful and founder of a Montessori school in Santa Monica in the early '60s, will likely be remembered more for his art and political convictions:
“Whenever he was filming, he was always talking about the golden hour,” his daughter Teresa told The Wrap. “True to him directing his final moment, he passed at the exact moment that the sun tucked behind the hills. It was beautiful, orange light streaming into the room...He was a man who in life never really found peace. It eluded him for a number of reasons. For him to pass so utterly peacefully was a solace to me. He’s finally put down the sword."
Here's the trailer for the movie that introduced Laughlin's Billy Jack, Born Losers, released in 1967: