Tom Laughlin has been aflame with idealism, to the best of his recollection, since the third grade. Thirty years later he played a Jesus figure in a movie he himself created as We Are All Christ, but which was ignored even when eventually released as The Young Sinner. As for his next savior, who would believe a mystical, half-breed ex-Green Beret pacifist with killer skills in the martial arts? Of course, that hero happened to be called Billy Jack, and the title picture and its sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack, have grossed $55 million.
Fans likened Tom and his alter ego, Billy, to the prophet Jeremiah, to Don Juan (not the Casanova but the Castañeda shaman) and to Ralph Nader. And any exploitative violence behind that blockbuster box office, Laughlin declared, was the figment of eastern critical effetism. Similarly discounted were the stories of Laughlin, with his torrential temper, hurling a clock-radio at his secretary or stirring so much terror on the set that even extras got sick to their stomachs.
Yet Tom, at 44, is slightly queasy about his late-coming success. He had set out to change the hearts and minds of American opinion makers, but instead (if aware of Laughlin at all) they laughed him off and puzzled why their own kids demanded allowance money to see his primitive polemics—three times yet. As for his contribution to the cinematic art, the Village Voice summed it up best: Tom Laughlin is the “Jack Webb of the Left.”
The final irony is that the Hollywood establishment felt under siege by his new merchandising technology. Laughlin has bypassed the traditional agents and studios and taken over his own distribution system, renting out whole movie-house chains from his headquarters on the old David O. Selznick lot. Curiously, Laughlin, a sworn foe of the military-industrial establishment, had retained John Rubel, ex-Litton Industries systems analyst and assistant secretary of defense under Robert McNamara, to plot his distribution strategies. Just this month the nation fell under the latest Laughlin-Rubel blitz: a $3.5 million promotion campaign to open a $3.5 million movie, The Master Gunfighter, a Billy Jack Enterprises potboiler starring Laughlin as the great emancipator of the Indians in the California mission period. Right off, it started in 1,000 moviehouses, more than twice the total for Jaws.
“I am not Billy Jack,” Laughlin says modestly. “But Billy Jack lives in me.” Even Hollywood cynics do not question his convictions. “Tom really would like to save the world,” says composer Elmer Bernstein, who scored Billy Jack. “He possesses a grandeur of vision that is quite staggering and quite genuine.” Heavy issues trundle through Laughlin’s films like so many floats in the Rose Bowl parade. Child abuse. Religious persecution. Tragedies simulating Mylai and Kent State. Exploitation of the Indian. However simplistic his presentation, says a friend, “Tom cares more about the Indians than Brando ever thought about.”
Like Billy Jack, he is part saint, part Satan—and the two roil uneasily with in him. The same demons driving Laughlin’s success have also made him a walking time bomb. Executives are hired at breath-stopping salaries, then capriciously fired for “betraying” him. Memos forbid employees to “interface” with Tom at work. “Everything Tom espouses is love and humanism,” says one ex-secretary. “But he’s the nastiest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever worked for.”
“Sure, I know I’m volatile and hotheaded,” Laughlin admits. But he shakes his head at reports of his uncontrollable violence. “The stories are so bizarre that I can’t keep up with them: that I break furniture, that I raped a 13-year-old girl, that I’m a transvestite, that I beat up a reporter. It doesn’t bother me,” he adds, “so long as it doesn’t bother my work or my family.”
Actually, Laughlin’s work is his family. He calls his wife, Delores (Dody) Taylor, “the best producer I’ve ever met.” She also co-wrote the Billy Jack sagas and co-starred in them along with their 16-year-old daughter Teresa Christina (“T.C.”), who herself wrote part of the first picture’s music. Son Frank, 20, who edited portions of The Trial, has been promoted to director of The Master Gunfighter (or so the credits read). Though Laughlin ceaselessly praises his family—and even photographs them in his films to look like what one critic called “the holy family on a crusade”—they, too, do not escape his terrible wrath. Tom claims admiringly that “Frank has more maturity than I do,” but one aide remembers, “I’ve seen Tom tear his son apart.” As for his loyal wife, a former secretary recalls, “I’ve seen Dody crying from Tom’s abuse at least a dozen times. She used to sob and then say, ‘Oh, Tom, I’m sorry…I’m sorry, Tom.’ ”
Tom’s monomaniacal passions subside only at home, a Brentwood compound where the family (including their youngest child, 6-year-old Christina) withdraw behind high walls, electrified gates and two German shepherds. There he is affable Tom, showing off his pseudo-colonial manor with 11 fireplaces, a screening room, a library full of well-thumbed books and two rooms painstakingly re-created from the originals in Monticello. The only inhospitability is the ubiquitous “Thank You for Not Smoking” signs.
“For 16 years Dody and I never really furnished or owned a house,” he recalls. “We would drive through this neighborhood and see Pat O’Brien’s kids romping in this yard. He had a good family life and big success. It was always this house.” He and Dody added an ice-cream parlor because “We used to see pictures of Doris Day’s soda fountain, and it seemed to us that if we had a soda fountain nothing could ever go wrong.” Actually, Tom now finds, “we don’t use it much. Everybody is on a diet.” (He, as is customary between pictures, has ballooned well beyond his playing weight.)
Life wasn’t always so sweet. Laughlin “grew up fighting” poverty in Milwaukee, finding an outlet as a high school football star. “It was so corrupt,” he says of his football days. “I was romanced by all the big colleges, flown around in private airplanes.” He bounced around as a “tramp athlete” from Indiana University to Wisconsin and Marquette, never getting past his freshman year, but “trying to put my life together.” (Laughlin often warns interviewers: “I always lie about my background.”)
He found part of the answer when his half-brother (a radio writer who scripted crime shows like Mr. District Attorney) took him to see a road company of South Pacific. “I’d always thought acting was for queers and sissies,” Tom now confesses, “that false macho thing.” He started his own theater company, but left and wound up at the University of South Dakota. There he met and married Dody, an art student who had “grown up poor” herself, without indoor plumbing, in Rosebud, S.Dak.
The next stop was Hollywood, “because I wanted to change things,” Tom remembers. Instead they found years of the locust while Tom struggled between acting roles. “We were living on $5 a week and eating Spam,” he recalls, adding an O. Henry flourish: “I stole Christmas cards from a church so I could write home saying how well we were, but then I couldn’t afford the stamps.” He attained star billing in the Robert Altman film The Delinquents. But when the Laughlins finally scraped together enough money to produce two cheapie films and both bombed, he and Dody decided to switch causes. “All the illnesses of society flow out of the pond where the malaria is—our schools,” Tom proclaimed. But when he and Dody started a progressive Montessori school the parents soon rebelled at what they considered the Laughlins’ mismanagement. By 1965 the school, and the Laughlins, were bankrupt. “They came in the night and took my car away and Dody’s,” he reflects. “We went through all that degradation.” But at least he had learned that “my nature is too lone-wolf, too tyrannical, to run a school.”
Tom plunged back into movies with typical fury, raising enough money to finance a motorcycle-gang epic, Born Losers, featuring a precursor Billy Jack figure. “Halfway through I had an appendicitis attack, but I had to stay on because Jane Russell was giving me a day at a fee which was for us incredible.” Laughlin finished with his abdomen packed in ice. “My appendix had burst the day before,” he explains, wincing at the memory. “Because I waited so long, the recovery was very bad.” But the money he made was enough to launch the real Billy Jack. He had written the screenplay back in the 1950s, but the idea burned in his mind since the days in South Dakota “when we saw people living in cars.” Again Laughlin went through “unbelievable hell” getting his film out, shotgunning lawsuits at a half-dozen studios and even filching the master soundtrack from a Warner Bros, safe to take over distribution rights.
Even such success cannot totally salve Laughlin’s wounds. The Trial of Billy Jack, with its blitzkrieg marketing, outgrossed in three weeks the six-month take of The Sting. But Laughlin was so outraged by the critical knocks that he bought full-page ads shrilly attacking reviewers and offering a $25,000 first prize for the best essay giving the mickey to the critics. “Tom pretends he doesn’t care what they write,” observes a friend, “but he suffers miserably when his films are panned.”
For all his Agnewesque tilting at effete snobs, Laughlin is practically a card-carrying intellectual himself and brags that he had the highest IQ in the Milwaukee schools. For the past 15 years he and Dody have been devotees of the works of Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung, and last month they personally paid for a conference bringing the world’s Jungian scholars to L.A. Every morning Laughlin’s “dream secretary” transcribes his recollections of the night for presentation to his Jungian “guru.” Laughlin’s conclusions so far are that “men are violent, but underneath they have a feminine side which they feel threatened by. It’s only when a male gets comfortable with his feminine side that he can give up his macho. I knew about Richard Nixon early,” he elaborates, “because I sensed the Richard Nixon in me. Everybody is good and bad, and we have to learn to be comfortable with our destructiveness.”
The coming attractions from Laughlin’s subconscious are the beginnings of a multimedia empire: a new Montessori school funded by his own foundation, a record label, an investigative magazine, books, a distribution company and more message-laden movies. Jane Fonda talked about doing one of them. In the works is a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, to be titled, inevitably, Billy Jack Goes to Washington. The critical jeers at The Master Gunfighter and the suspicion that this new $7 million project might bomb doesn’t faze Laughlin. “Three years from today,” he crows, “we’ll be the new United Artists.” But then, remembering his Born Losers past, he adds, “either that, or we’ll be out on our butt on the street.” Tom Laughlin is employing the personal, not the royal “we.” “Billy Jack,” says his creator, “will not be exorcised.”