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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Many of the kids, now grownups, whom the renegade justice-seeker influenced three decades ago say it is. Obligingly, the hero plans a reappearance.
By Ben Montgomery, Times Staff Writer
Published August 19, 2007
Billy Jack, played by Tom Laughlin, creater of the 1971 eponymous film, wasn't above using violence to get the bad guys and protect the innocent.
[John Springer Collection | Corbis]
[Special to the Times]
Tom Laughlin, at his home in California, is 76 now. He thinks his new Billy Jack film will influence the 2008 presidential election.
First, the story about the little girl, because that's where we must begin, with discovery, in the spring of 1972, inside the Park Plaza Theater in Orlando.
She is 8, sitting beside her mother, left side, middle, when the lights go dark.
On the screen: Wild mustangs charge across the desert mountains, followed by men on horseback. The men kill mustangs for dog food, and for fun.
There are no words at first, just the crackle of a song.
Go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend
Do it in the name of heaven, you can justify it in the end.
The little girl's name is Lisa, and she'll grow up to be an American government teacher at a high school outside Tampa, but not before a movie burns into her brain, changing in a few moments who she is and who she will become.
What happens to the girl, not long after, involves a 50-year-old man and a criminal trial at which she is asked to testify about terrible things.
But let's stay in that theater for another moment, watching the girl watching the movie.
"I'm 8 years old and I'm watching this guy come riding out of the woods, and I'm watching this guy in a black hat stop these men from shooting wild horses," she would say 35 years later.
"And it clicks. I want to be that man."
And so it begins, a story about a movie, a renegade who walked away, and the people three decades later who need him to come back.
Watch his feet. He can kill you with his feet.
There are times in America when the pendulum swings too far and power is displaced.
In 1971, Nixon's people tapped phones in secret while blood ran thick in Vietnam. Students who stood against war were shot dead. The Weather Underground bombed public buildings.
The stage was set for change, and along came a movie.
Billy Jack tells the story of a half-white, half-American Indian ex-Green Beret who lives on an Indian reservation outside a conservative Arizona town. He makes friends with a pacifist named Jean who runs the alternative Freedom School for runaways.
The townies, controlled by a businessman named Posner, persecute the hippie kids from the Freedom School.
So Billy Jack becomes the protector of children, Indians, land and horses, like Jesus Christ and Chuck Norris in the same Stetson, standing in a tornado of cultural and political confusion, bearing the flag of naivety and justice.
When Billy Jack hit the box office in 1971, it flopped.
Tom Laughlin, who played Billy Jack and wrote, directed and produced the film, blamed the marketing. He sued to get it back and re-released it.
Then something magical happened.
1. Even though critics slammed the film, people came in hordes.
2. Those who saw it couldn't stop.
Two boys in St. Petersburg watched the movie 17 times. A kid in Missouri saw it 16 times in the theater, then 10 at the drive-in. Elvis Presley watched it nine times. It played in Canton, Ohio, for 26 weeks. Mothers across the country wrote Billy Jack on birth certificates.
The independent picture landed in the top 100 highest-grossing films. Adjust the numbers for inflation, and it's 53rd all-time.
It would be easy to make claims here, to overstate its impact, because what is the measure of a movie? Jurassic Park grossed $914-million during its release, but what effect did it have on society?
Billy Jack was different.
Billy Jack: You wanna know what I think I'm gonna do then, just for the hell of it?
Posner: Tell me.
Billy Jack: I'm gonna take this right foot, and I'm gonna whop you on that side of your face. And you wanna know something? There's not a damn thing you're gonna be able to do about it.
Billy Jack: Really.
Two camps formed around the film: those who thought it was nonsense and those who thought Billy Jack was power, an unorthodox hero.
"He's a hero to me," said John Picone, a screenwriter in Bangor, Maine. "In everything I write, I try to infuse this ideal that they continue to set out."
"Billy Jack helped me develop a sense of value for the path that a person may choose to make themselves a better person, and to acknowledge that may fall outside of what convention teaches," said Rick Shelly, a 44-year-old teacher outside Detroit, who recently wrote Laughlin a letter. "The majority isn't always right, and refuting common knowledge is sometimes the right thing to do."
Then, without fanfare, Billy Jack disappeared into the American abyss.
He resurfaced a few times, briefly, strangely, but he never made another film like Billy Jack.
He vanished, and we grew distracted. Idealism slipped out of vogue. We got a swimming pool and one of those SUVs with the televisions planted in the headrests.
Now we're at war again. Sixty-nine percent of us disapprove of the president's handling of Iraq. Bush's disapproval rating in June was at 65 percent, a point away from Nixon's record low in August 1974.
It's not just the left that is frustrated. It's the crowd at Applebee's. And it's not just the war they're mad about, it's corrupt politicians, phone tapping, lobbyists, torture, taxes, presidential pardons, doublespeak, $400 haircuts.
That's why I'm headed to L.A, to find Billy Jack.
You've got due process, Mother's Day, supermarkets, the FBI, Medicare, air conditioning, AT&T, country clubs, Congress, a 2-car garage, state troopers, the Constitution, color television and democracy. They've got Billy Jack! Original movie tag
He's late, which is strange, because in the movies his timing is perfect. The doors of the Hyatt in Thousand Oaks, Calif., finally split and an old man shuffles in. He's wearing black. Shoes, socks, pants, shirt, jacket. His hair is thin and ashtray gray.
He looks tired.
"You've come a long way," he says. "What is it you want to know?"
I want to know how to find someone to stop men from killing horses, to protect women, to throw a man through a window when children are degraded. Someone to remove his boots and socks and defend us. To be sensible and strong, to right wrong, to be honest and imperfect.
I don't say any of those things.
I ask about the new movie.
Laughlin has announced on his Web site, www.billyjack.com, that he's making the first Billy Jack movie in 30 years. He says it will influence the presidential election in 2008.
"We were just talking about that on the way here," he says. "We're not sure what the title should be."
The Web site suggests Billy Jack's Moral Crusade, and Laughlin has referred to it as Billy Jack's Crusade to End the War and Restore America to Its Moral Purpose. It has also been called Billy Jack for President.
The film pits Billy Jack against the Bush administration, with a web of a plot that includes an exit strategy for Iraq and teaching people to use impeachment to wrest control from abusive politicians.
"Tom is always ahead of himself," says Robin Hutton, his assistant for 28 years. "He sees things before anybody else can grasp them.
"That's why some people think he's crazy."
He didn't predict his own crash. After Billy Jack came the sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack, which fizzled, and then Billy Jack Goes to Washington, which was never released.
In the 30 years since, Laughlin and his co-star wife, Delores Taylor, have lived quietly, embracing Jungian psychology, lecturing, writing books and teaching at the University of Colorado.
But once in a while, when duty called, Billy Jack stepped out of the frame.
--- Aug. 27, 1986 (United Press International)
NEW YORK - Actor Tom Laughlin, known for his movie role as "Billy Jack," jumped into a bloody street fight on Manhattan's West Side and broke up the brawl, saying, "If it's killing you want, come and get it." . . .
One of the men struck the other over the head with the bottle and threatened to hit him again, as onlookers circled the fighters to watch, said one woman who was in the crowd.
"The guy was just a bloody hulk. He was starting to hit him a third time when Billy Jack jumped in," she said. "Billy Jack yelled, 'Look, you touch him again and I'm going to rip your arm off.' "
Now people are pulling for Billy Jack to ride out of the woods.
"The Billy Jack movies opened our eyes back in the '70s," says John Leach, a 60-year-old instrument technician and Vietnam veteran in Southport, N.C. "It's gotten progressively worse since then."
"I would so much like to see another Billy Jack movie," says Anthony Angellotti, a 57-year-old chef in Ohio. "We seem to have come full circle."
Remember the little girl in the theater in Orlando?
In 1975, when Lisa was 11, she was raped at Yogi Bear's Jellystone Campground in Apopka, which is why we're using just her first name.
Other little girls were present. The manager of the campground was sleeping in an RV nearby. Lisa told. The rapist was arrested.
Lisa testified in open court, and she thought about the movie. It gave her resolve. The rapist was convicted.
A few months ago, she sat down at the computer and typed an e-mail to thank Laughlin all these years later.
"I can tell you that this year's freshman class (the class of 2010) is the most socially aware class I have ever taught," she wrote. "I hope that my message, our message, gets to them."
She says the freshman class held a sleep-out in the Tampa suburbs to raise awareness for children in Darfur. They listen to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin on their iPods. And for the first time since she started teaching, every kid in American government class - 170 in all - turned off the television for a weekend in response to a challenge.
She teaches her kids to question authority. She tells them about Billy Jack.
"The same thing was going on when Nixon was in office, and I don't understand why we're so blind," she says.
"We need Billy Jack."
"People never think of me as an actor. I'm not an actor. I'm Billy Jack." Tom Laughlin, Jan. 26, 1992, Associated Press
I meet Laughlin again the day President Bush is holding a press conference about Iraq. The president fields a reporter's question: "How hard is it for you to conduct the war without popular support?"
The president says it would be a mistake to withdraw precipitously. "Sometimes, you just have to make the decisions based upon what you think is right."
"These are the things that are insane to me," says Laughlin, on hearing Bush's response. "How can one man decide the law of the land?"
Laughlin has just returned from a doctor's appointment. He's battling an eye infection. He talks for a while about his college football days at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and how he and his wife headed to Hollywood in the 1950s to try to change the world through film. They founded the first Montessori school in Los Angeles in 1959.
What's surprising about Laughlin is that he doesn't seem to have a false sense of self. He says he's rarely recognized on the street. He says he still receives about 50 e-mails a week from fans, but he's not sure what that means.
"The passion people feel for the picture is as intense as any I've ever heard of," he says. "As far as any clout that's left, it's not what it once was."
We head to Snapper Jack's Taco Shack for a late lunch. He orders a burrito and lets me pay. He apologizes and says he can't speak while he eats because tongue cancer has left him without saliva glands. So we sit for a while in silence.
"Impeachment is the most powerful tool we have, given to us by the Constitution," he finally says between bites. "With the ability to impeach, we have the ability to control. We have the power. Real political power. . . . It's the ball bearing of democracy.
"We are to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people," he says. "That's it. And we can do it. All we need is a groundswell."
He's on a roll now.
"America needs a major third party," he says. The system isn't working how the forefathers planned, but all it would take is an outsider to slip in and steal an election. For that reason, he admires Ralph Nader, Michael Bloomberg and Ross Perot.
In fact, Laughlin says he campaigned for president in '92 as a protest until Perot joined the race. Then he stepped aside.
His wife hesitates when she's asked about his hints at another quixotic journey.
"It devastated him the last time because people didn't take him seriously," she says. "He was huge. The films were huge. . . . We hoped we would touch people again, and that didn't happen. It was hard."
Hard because it's tough to reconcile Billy Jack with Tom Laughlin, the hero with the human.
Laughlin wipes his mouth and tells his assistant they should take the extra tortilla chips home. He asks if there's anything else he can answer.
Laughlin looks up.
"I would have to be stupid to run for president," he says. "I'd be dismissed as a nut."
He says people would write him off as an egoist with false notions about who he is. And he's older now, 76, though he says he feels fine. "When I get p----- off," he says, "I feel finer."
Then he stops. Takes a sip of water.
He says the only reason to run would be to give the people a chance to reclaim power.
A protest. A sunset standoff.
Billy Jack vs. the Man one more time.
The old man gets up and walks toward his car. He says goodbye as the sun falls off California. His face is wrinkled and soft, but in his eyes you can still see Billy Jack.
In the movie, the sheriff goes looking for Billy Jack. He asks Jean from the Freedom School if she knows where he is.
"Who ever knows where Billy is?" Jean says.
"Well, you must have some way of getting in touch with him if you need him for emergencies," the sheriff says.
"Whenever we want Billy, we just contact him Indian-style," Jean says.
"What's that mean?" the sheriff asks.
"We just want him," Jean says, "and somehow he shows up."