An actor who was known largely for a cult role in the 1970s, but who had a big impact on the way business is conducted in Hollywood, has died. TheWrap.com reports that Tom Laughlin, who starred as an action hero in the "Billy Jack" movies, died Thursday in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He was 82.
Besides his on-screen work, Laughlin was a producer, director and screenwriter, along with being an educator and a political activist. "The iconoclastic actor’s 1971 vigilante film ‘Billy Jack,’ over which he sued Warner Bros., became a cultural lightning rod," the report notes.
Laughlin was married to Delores Taylor since 1954, with Taylor co-producing and acting in all four "Billy Jack" movies. At one point in the past decade, "Billy Jack" was cited as the highest-grossing independent film of all time, adjusting for inflation.
The report notes that Laughlin "drew attention for a groundbreaking promotion and release campaign on 1974′s ‘The Trial of Billy Jack’ that included TV trailers during national news and an ‘opening day’ nationwide release that helped shape the future of film distribution."
"Billy Jack," a sequel to Laughlin’s 1967 motorcycle gang flick "The Born Losers," was produced independently using Laughlin’s own money, the report notes, adding: "The numerous political references — and frontal nudity — caused several studios to shy away, but Warner Bros. finally agreed to distribute it. Laughlin, upset with the studio’s marketing of the film, sued to get it back, won and re-released it himself.
"That re-release brought attention, box-office success and controversy. In it, Laughlin played the title character, a vigilante former Vietnam War hero who defends the hippie-themed Freedom School and its counterculture and Native American students."
In a review of the movie, which was one of the first to present martial arts to a mainstream U.S. audience, famed critic Roger Ebert said: “‘Billy Jack’ seems to be saying that a gun is better than a constitution in the enforcement of justice. Is democracy totally obsolete, then? Is our only hope that the good fascists defeat the bad fascists?”
After the movie became a hit, Laughlin reportedly said: “The youth of this country have only two heroes: Ralph Nader and Billy Jack."