In the late '60s, former bit player and juvenile actor Tom Laughlin created a new kind of antihero and launched three low-budget films featuring Billy Jack, an enigmatic Anglo-Native American, ex-Green Beret/biker loner who used considerable martial arts skills to pound his pacifistic principles into the skulls of his adversaries. Laughlin made his screen debut in 1956, playing small parts first in These Wilder Years and then in Tea and Sympathy. The first leg of Laughlin's career lasted through the early '60s, when he left Hollywood to run a Montessori preschool. He returned to movies in 1965, this time as a director, cinematographer, editor, writer, and an actor. Working on a low-budget independently of major studios and utilizing several pseudonyms on the credits -- including T.C. Frank, Donald Henderson, Lloyd E. James, and Frank Laughlin -- he made The Young Sinner (1965).
His alter ego, Billy Jack, made his debut in the exploitation biker pic Born Losers. In 1971, Laughlin released Billy Jack which starred himself and his wife, Delores Taylor. Initially released through American International Pictures (the company that distributed Born Losers), the film was picked up by Fox and then by Warner Bros. Laughlin regained control of the film by 1972 and marketed it and the sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack, by renting over a 1,000 theaters (known as "four-walling") and releasing the films simultaneously while saturating the market with an agressive multimedia advertising campaign. The technique brought results: The sequel grossed between 22 and 30 million dollars in a month and the recently re-re-released original grossed even more. The success of these gritty, critically panned, low-budget films was in large part due to the social unrest of the early '70s, when young audiences were looking for idealistic antiheroes to fight the immovable Establishment. The film's success led Laughlin and wife Taylor to create the ambitious Billy Jack Enterprises which Laughlin and associates envisioned as an empire comprised of record, book, and film subsidiaries that they would use to "change the world," making it a better place for "the little guy." At one time, Laughlin announced his intention to purchase the CBS West Coast Production Center. Unfortunately for Laughlin, times were indeed changing and his third series entry, Billy Jack Goes to Washington, was so over-earnest and unsubtle that it was barely released. His first non-Billy Jack movie, The Master Gunfighter (1975), was a virtual atom bomb at the box office. By 1976, Billy Jack Enterprises was on the brink of ruin. Still, Laughlin managed to hang on and his company survived, though it was not as big as it once was. He continued to work as an occasional actor and to promoted himself as an expert in Jungian psychology, a major innovator in the rise in American independent films, and an instigator of social reform. He announced an interest in running for president in 1992, 2004 and 2008. He died at age 82 in 2013. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi