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Tom Laughlin: The Renegade Who Challenged Hollywood and Won

Action flicks of the 1970s featured an army of  two-fisted tough guys with hard stares and gritted teeth, who angrily defied the establishment and did things their own way, especially if that entailed acts of violence at frequent intervals. But none was angrier, more defiant or more willing to kick butt and take names than Billy Jack, the protagonist of a trio of films by actor-director-producer Tom Laughlin.

Tom Laughlin as Billy JackLaughlin, who died on Dec. 12 at age 82 in Thousand Oaks, Calif., created a hero who, in some ways, seemed cobbled together from parts of various  low-budget exploitation genres, from biker films and westerns to Hong Kong chop-socky flicks. A troubled ex-Green Beret with Native American blood, Billy stomped through the West in a black hat and a denim jacket, confronting injustice and protecting hippies and pacifists from small-town bullies and thuggish sheriffs with his martial arts wizardry. All the while, he vociferously debated himself about whether his incipient mayhem was justified – though in the end, that never seemed to stop him. That paradox was exemplified by his trademark  “I … just … go … BERSERK!” scene from 1971’s Billy Jack.  

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In real life, Laughlin was an equally earnest firebrand. Discontented with studio execs who wouldn’t give the first Billy Jack movie the promotional push that he felt it deserved, Laughlin fought a bigger legal battle and eventually got back the rights to his work. He then brazenly kicked a gaping hole in Hollywood’s long-standard distribution system, which let a few executives at the top decide what the public got to see. In 1973, with his own money, Laughlin rented 1,200 theaters across the country and did his own flamboyantly hyperbolic promotion. (“Don’t miss this opportunity to see one of the most popular motion pictures of all time!” one newspaper ad proclaimed.)

Somehow, to the consternation of critics who sneered at the film, Billy Jack was a hit on the second go-round. The film, which cost an estimated $800,000 to make, eventually grossed more than $100 million.

Here are a dozen facts about Laughlin:


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