Tom Laughlin, the filmmaker who will forever be immortalized for his character “Billy Jack”, has died at the age of 82.
Born on August 10, 1931 in Minnesota, Laughlin began his acting career shortly after enter the theater program at Marquette University. It was there he met future wife Delores Taylor. In 1954, he came up with the idea of his iconic character, “Billy Jack”, after seeing the mistreatment of Native Americans in Taylor’s hometown of Winner, South Dakota.
However, he wouldn’t introduce the character until 1967 when he made the film THE BORN LOSERS. Using the psuedonym “T.C. Frank” behind the scenes, Laughlin quickly wrote the screenplay to capitalize on the motorcycle gang film. Billy Jack was a half-Native American Green Beret who helped a young woman from a band of motorcycle gangsters. The film did well enough in drive-in theaters that Laughlin decided it was time for a proper viewing of his iconic character.
In 1971, BILLY JACK featured the hero fighting racism against Native Americans by taking on a band of corrupt thugs in a small town. The highlight of the film was that Billy Jack was now an expert in martial arts, preferably the Korean art of Hapkido. Laughlin did receive training from the late Grandmaster Bong Soo-Han. However the Grandmaster did perform certain techniques as Laughlin’s double as well all while choreographing the fight scenes himself. Billy Jack doesn’t believe in violence but must use it only if he has to. His most famous line? “I’m gonna take this right foot, and I’m gonna whop you on that side of your face… ” This line was used in the 1996 comedy MAJOR PAYNE by lead actor Damon Wayans.
The third installment, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK (1974), featured more hapkido action with Bong Soo Han in a supporting role. However, the final Billy Jack film, BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON (1977), featured virtually no action and was a bomb at the box office. Laughlin would later make small appearances in films and television. He was also involved in both politics and psychology, having become an author of three books and attempted three runs for President.
In 2007, Laughlin was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue, which he claimed was in remission. He later revealed he suffered from Celiac disease, an auto-immune disease that caused a series of strokes. On December 12, 2013, he passed away from complications with pneumonia. He was surrounded by his family.
Laughlin is survived by wife Delores, their children Frank, Chris, and Teresa; and sister Joan.
The legacy of BILLY JACK lives on as in 2010, the three Laughlin children founded Billy Jack Rights LLC, which manages the rights of all of their father’s films as a director. This does include the BILLY JACK film series.
Kung Fu Cinema sends its condolences to the family of Tom Laughlin, forever “Billy Jack”.