Cast & Crew
In rural Arizona, local sheriff Cole informs his deputy, Mike, that Mike's runaway, fifteen-year-old daughter, Barbara, has been located in San Francisco and is being flown home. Although relieved, Mike declines to meet his daughter, preferring instead to join the town's wealthiest citizen, Stuart Posner, in a slaughter of wild mustangs in order to sell the dead horses to a dog food company. After herding the horses into a corral, Posner orders his son Bernard to participate, but Bernard refuses, angering his father. As Posner and his men are about to fire on the horses, Billy Jack, a half-Indian, Vietnam veteran appears and, at rifle-point, demands that the men disperse as they are on Indian reservation lands illegally. Although frustrated, Posner backs down and as he and his men depart, Billy frees the horses. Mike returns home to find Barbara, but his welcome turns sour when she announces that she has contracted hepatitis and is pregnant. Outraged, Mike beats Barbara, who flees and is later found semi-conscious by Billy who takes her to the town doctor. After tending to Barbara, the doctor recommends to Billy that, as Mike's behavior will likely continue, Barbara should be secretly taken to the Freedom School, a progressive learning center on the reservation run by the kind Jean Roberts. Cole takes the sullen Barbara to the school, where children of all races and ages intermingle and the only rules forbid drugs and ask that everyone take up a creative activity. Initially hostile, Barbara grows curious when Jean and the students introduce her to yoga and psycho-drama role-playing. Asked by the drama teachers to join in a role-playing exercise, Barbara refuses, insisting that she is only at the school because she is "knocked-up." She is startled when the group promptly makes up a Christmas-like story of a virgin birth leading to a new savior whom they welcome with raised, clenched fists. One day Barbara and some of the other girls watch Billy and Jean talking and speculate that they are romantically involved. The next day, the students arrive in town and their exuberance and "hippy" attire immediately set the conservative townspeople on edge. Teenager Martin and some of the girls go to an ice cream store, where they are refused service because several of them are Indian. Bernard and his friend Dinosaur arrive and taunt Martin, then strike him and pour flour over him and the other Indian children. Driving into town, Billy spots Martin and the others and comes to their assistance, attacking Bernard and Dinosaur. Billy then retreats to the park, where Posner and a group of his men wait. Dismayed by Bernard's quick collapse, Posner threatens Billy, who responds by knocking him down. The men then charge Billy who holds many of them off until he is struck from behind and beaten until Cole and Mike arrive and intervene. Back at the school, Martin attempts to ride a horse but is thrown and breaks his leg. When Jean takes him to the doctor, he cautions her that Mike suspects that Barbara is hiding out at the school. Later, Cole serves Jean with a warrant to search the school, but tells her that she can refuse because the school is on Indian land. Jean allows the search, unaware that the recovered Billy has spirited Barbara away to the ancient Indian caves in the hills. Mike then announces a thousand dollar reward for information on Barbara's whereabouts. At a public meeting of the town council addressing the ice cream store incident, an injunction to restrict student visits is announced. The meeting grows fractious when many of the students protest, but several council members agree to Jean's suggestion that they visit the school to witness its operation. The next day, the council members respond positively to the school's atmosphere and after several join an improvisation routine, they suggest to Jean that the school put on a show to demonstrate their methods to the entire town. That afternoon, Jean looks for Billy at the caves and, finding Barbara, invites her to witness Billy's Indian purification ceremony later that day. At the ceremony, Billy, who has been prepared with medicine and a poultice, endures several rattlesnake bites in order to receive a personal vision that will guide his life. After his experience, Billy addresses the tribal elders, unaware that on a hill overlooking the site, Bernard watches with a hunting rifle and vows revenge. Later, when Bernard and Dinosaur see Martin cavorting with Barbara, they inform Mike and the next time the students visit the town, Mike threatens Martin. At the school, the students agree that they must take advantage of the tentative goodwill from the townspeople and agree to stage several public "improv" routines in the park. During one of the performances, Bernard talks one of the female students into riding with him in his sports car, and, brandishing a switchblade, demands she reveal Barbara's location. As Bernard forces the girl to remove her shirt, Jean arrives, followed shortly by Billy. When Billy indicates he must "teach Bernard a lesson," Jean points out that violence will only destroy the advances that she and the students have made with the town and suggests Billy drive Bernard's car into the lake instead. Billy delightedly agrees and later a furious Posner berates Bernard for being humiliated by a "half-breed." A couple of days later, Bernard and Dinosaur wait on the ridge near the school, hoping to come upon Billy. When Jean rides by on horseback, they stop her at gun point and, after making her strip, bind her to stakes on the ground where Bernard brutally rapes her. Meanwhile, Martin tries to teach Barbara to ride a horse, but she falls, causing her to miscarry. Searching for Jean, one of the students, Cindy, is horrified to find her still bound, as Bernard and Dinosaur flee. Jean tearfully pleads with Cindy not to tell Billy of the attack, certain that he will kill Bernard and she will lose the school. Later, the students, Billy and Jean conduct a cremation ceremony for Barbara's baby at the Indian caves. Mike hears of the event and bitterly tells several people the cremation was to disguise the baby's non-white race. Angered, Mike joins Bernard and Posner the night of the school's show to kidnap Martin and Cindy and hold them overnight. The next day, Posner and Mike demand Martin reveal Barbara's location and, angered, Cindy takes one of Posner's rifles, urging Martin to flee in a truck. As the boy drives away, Cindy is attacked by one of Posner's men and Bernard and Dinosaur race after Martin and confront him near the lake. When Cole receives a report of gunfire, he investigates and finds Martin shot to death. At the school, Cindy berates herself for Martin's death, but Billy assures her that she is not to blame. Acknowledging that he knows of Jean's rape, Billy sets off in search of Bernard. Jean implores Billy not to use violence, but Billy explains that as long as the law remains unfairly applied and inequitable he has no choice but to resist with violence. Billy finds Bernard in a shabby hotel room in bed with a thirteen-year-old Indian girl and kills him with one blow to the neck. Meanwhile, Cole and several deputies arrive at the school with numerous warrants and a court order turning Barbara over to the courts pending an investigation of Mike as unfit. Billy sneaks back on the school grounds and finds Barbara, who declares she wants to hide with him. As they sneak away, Mike spots them and shoots at Billy. Taking a couple of rifles and several boxes of ammunition, Billy returns fire and kills Mike. After Billy and Barbara hide out in the school church, Jean receives permission to meet with Billy to seek Barbara's release, but when Barbara insists on remaining, Jean berates Billy for giving in to his violent tendencies rather than seeking the more difficult avenue of restraint. State police soon arrive and despite Cole's protest, mount an assault on the church, but after Billy wounds several officers, the attack is called off. After Barbara receives a mild wound, Billy agrees to have her removed yet refuses to surrender. That night Jean stays with Billy and when he explains he has never had her calm spirit but always felt rage, she dismisses his assumption, claiming she felt great hatred for Bernard after his assault. She says despite this, she decided to put the children and the school before her hate and wonders if Billy could do the same. The next morning the police agree to Billy's surrender terms, which ask for a decade-long guarantee assuring the school will survive with Jean as its head, and he surrenders peacefully. As Billy is taken away in handcuffs, the students stand and salute him with clenched fists.
Earl D. Elliott
Joseph E. Rickards
Mary Rose Solti
Bon Soo Han
Produced a half decade apart and separated by an even greater philosophical divide, Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack (1971) and George Lucas' Star Wars (1977) nonetheless profited handsomely from repurposing the American frontier tale for a new kind of mythmaking. While Lucas transposed traditional western tropes to outer space, Laughlin reversed the traditional white hat/black hat dynamic, making Native Americans (and their supporters) the good guys and identifying villainy among the good ol' boy network of paleface Americans (and their enablers). However modest its earnings may seem in comparison to the Lucasfilm juggernaut, Billy Jack returned $80 million on an investment of $800,000. A labor of love for Laughlin and wife/costar Delores Taylor, the film had taken almost two decades to reach the screen.
Born on August 10, 1931, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Laughlin had segued from gridiron glory and university theatrics to bits in such Hollywood films as South Pacific (1958) and Gidget (1959). His first lead role was as a troubled high schooler in The Delinquents (1959), shot in Kansas City, Missouri, by up and coming talent Robert Altman. The brooding, Brandoesque Laughlin and the autocratic Altman clashed during production but both benefited from the collaboration. Altman's work won him praise from Alfred Hitchcock (for whom he directed two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents) while Laughlin became a filmmaker in his own right, with The Proper Time (1960) and Like Father, Like Son (1965).
Married in 1954, Laughlin and Taylor had strong personal ties to the Rosebud Sioux of Taylor's native South Dakota. Stories about their mistreatment by local whites inspired Laughlin's first draft of Billy Jack, which he spent the next 17 years trying to finance. In the interim, the couple founded a pioneering Montessori school in San Diego (Marlon Brando's son Christian was a student); when that venture failed, they attempted to raise capital by cashing in on the vogue for biker flicks following the success of Roger Corman's The Wild Angels (1966). Dropping half-breed Vietnam veteran Billy Jack into the middle of a hastily-written script inspired by two high profile news items (one involving a Philadelphia ex-Marine who intervened on the behalf of a victim of gang rape, the other a case in which members of the San Francisco chapter of Hells Angels were implicated in a rape and intimidation scheme), Laughlin and Taylor attempted to make The Born Losers (1967) on their own but ran out of money. Producer Samuel Z. Arkoff of American International Pictures pumped $300,000 into the failing production, the success of which allowed Laughlin and Taylor to actualize Billy Jack at long last. Boiler plate western in its broad strokes, Laughlin's former Green Beret comes to the rescue of The Freedom School, an alternative learning center whose student roster of hippies, runaways and redskins enflames the locals, prompting intimidation, rape, murder and retribution, and leading to a Fort Apache-style siege.
American International had agreed to foot the bill for Billy Jack but when Arkoff and partner James Harrison viewed Laughlin's dailies (which Arkoff described in his memoirs as hours of footage of wild horses running), AIP backed out of the deal. Laughlin and Taylor turned next to Twentieth Century Fox but as shooting progressed found themselves enmeshed in the same creative disputes. When Fox too bailed, Warner Brothers came to the rescue. Yet despite the substantial profits from The Born Losers, Warners put Billy Jack into limited release as if embarrassed by their acquisition. Two years later, Laughlin and Taylor liberated the film's soundtrack from the Warner vaults and threatened to erase one reel per week until the studio agreed to sell the film back to them. Warners capitulated, releasing the negative for $100,000. Laughlin and Taylor re-released Billy Jack via a radical self-distribution gambit known as "four walling." Renting cinemas with their own money, exhibiting the film, and pocketing 100% of the receipts (the cinemas retaining concession sales, which reliably exceed profits from tickets), the couple turned Billy Jack into another sleeper hit. The film grossed $32 million in domestic re-release alone. A contrite AIP returned to distribute a sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), but the deal was queered by arguments and lawsuits from both sides. Self-distributed, The Trial of Billy Jack was one of the highest grossing films of 1974. AIP countered by re-releasing The Born Losers with the slugline "the original Billy Jack is back."
Producer: Tom Laughlin (as Mary Rose Solti)
Director: Tom Laughlin (as T.C. Frank)
Screenplay: Tom Laughlin (as Frank Christina), Delores Taylor (as Teresa Christina)
Cinematography: Fred Koenekamp, John Stephens
Music: Mundell Lowe
Film Editing: Larry Heath, Marion Rothman
Cast: Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack), Delores Taylor (Jean Roberts), Clark Howat (Sheriff Cole), Victor Izay (Doctor), Julie Webb (Barbara), Debbie Schock (Kit), Teresa Kelly (Carol), Lynn Baker (Sarah), Stan Rice (Martin), David Roya (Bernard Posner).
by Richard Harland Smith
"Billy Jack vs. Hollywood," Tom Laughlin interview by Beverly Walker, Film Comment, July-August 1977
Tom Laughlin interview, Good Day Sacramento, January 25, 2001
Interview with Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor by Chuck Wilson, LA Weekly, June 18, 2009
"So You Make a Movie Will the Public Ever See It?" by Stephen Farber, The New York Times, February 24, 1974
Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-1979 by David A. Cook
5001 Nights at the Movies by Pauline Kael
Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff by Mitchell Zuckoff
Altman on Altman, edited by David Thompson
The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English: A Crunk Omnibus for Thrillionaires and Bampots for the Ecozoic Age by Grant Barrett
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood by Peter Biskind
The Complete Billy Jack Collection - A Tom Laughlin Overdose on DVD
Tom Laughlin's wildly popular Billy Jack character is an equally exploitative concept. An American Indian ex- Green Beret, Billy Jack battles motorcycle gangs and land barons like a re-born Lone Ranger. Laughlin's ambition to become a film producer paid off in 1967 with the first Billy Jack film, The Born Losers. A moderately competent actor partial to imitating the mannerisms of Marlon Brando, Laughlin fought hard to retain control of his work. He and his wife, writer/actor/producing partner Delores Taylor used fabricated credits to make their films seem less like family productions.
Image Entertainment's The Complete Billy Jack Collection DVD set begins with The Born Losers, an update of Marlon Brando's motorcycle gang classic The Wild One. A renegade biker club terrorizes a California beach city, beating up innocent motorists and gang-raping foolish young girls. The devilish gang leader Danny (Jeremy Slate) kidnaps and threatens co-ed heiress Vicky Barrington (Elizabeth James). She escapes after witnessing the rape of two other young local girls, who are too frightened to testify in court. Laconic horse trainer Billy Jack (Laughlin) enters the fray to protect Vicky from more brutality.
A western with jeeps and motorcycles instead of horses, the crude but effective The Born Losers exploits its rape scenes while claiming outrage for the traumatized victims. To the film's credit, the girls admit that they were indeed looking for kicks; one teen intent on escaping parental control shouts that she liked being gang-raped. Guest star Jane Russell overacts as a cocktail waitress (or prostitute?) tearfully shielding her daughter. The girl practices striptease dancing in her spare time, eager to follow her mother's example.
The townspeople and their sheriff are craven cowards easily intimidated by bikers with comical names like Gangrene and Speechless. William Wellman Jr. is a biker called Child and the popular Robert Tessier debuts as the formidable Cueball. The usual swastikas and iron crosses are featured, although Danny wears rather silly-looking plastic sunglasses.
The direction and acting are wildly uneven. Star Elizabeth James is quite natural in some scenes but contributes her fair share of groan-inducing line readings. Repetitive standoffs and hostage negotiations slow the story to a crawl. We're quite happy when the amiably violent Billy Jack commences killing the bad guys, just to stop the endless talk. At 113 minutes the film is at least a half-hour too long.
As "T.C. Frank", director Tom Laughlin gives himself plenty of adoring close-ups. His camera blocking reveals a fondness for images borrowed from Sergio Leone (some in-depth compositions) and Howard Hawks (the bikers' war-whoop). The editing is particularly chaotic, as seen in a final escape scene. Vicky bolts from the biker's lair. Six or seven long cuts later, when Vicki should already be halfway to town, she's still exiting the house. The movie begins and ends with slow zooms to the setting sun, perhaps foreshadowing Laughlin's later affectation with spiritual themes.
Released by American-International, The Born Losers earned sleeper hit status. Laughlin and Delores Taylor redoubled their efforts on 1971's Billy Jack, which became a major phenomenon. The noble loner hero has moved to Arizona to defend Indian rights and liberal values against a rural county run as a racist fiefdom. Local big shot Stuart Posner (Bert Freed) steals horses from Indian land to be sold for dog food, and browbeats his son Bernard (David Roya) into criminal acts against the Freedom School on the reservation. The federal school's curriculum consists of horse riding, spiritual enlightenment, political songwriting and improv theater. One of the drama teachers is played by Don Sturdy, a.k.a. popular actor-comic Howard Hesseman.
Troubled teen Barbara (Julie Webb) returns from Haight-Ashbury defiantly pregnant, prompting a beating from her father, bigoted deputy Mike (red-haired Ken Tobey). Freedom School director Jean Roberts (Delores Taylor) takes Barbara in, and the teen soon warms to the pacifist communal atmosphere. Native American spirituality figures heavily in the school's counterculture philosophy. Whiny folk songs and weak improv comedy routines pad the film's running time out shamelessly.
The slow talking, fast kicking Billy Jack hovers over the school like a protective Shane, forcibly ejecting Posner and his crooked deputies from Indian lands and fighting back against town bullies taunting the Indian children. Laughlin's well-choreographed Hapkido moves were considered a sensation in the film's one major fight set piece; Billy Jack preceded the 70s wave of martial arts epics. In his broad brimmed black hat and bare feet, Billy Jack became an instant icon.
The plot mechanics soon boil down to more hostage-taking and ugly rape scenes. Billy Jack retreats into noble posturing, mumbling about the spirit power he derives from a ceremony in which he subjects himself to several rattlesnake bites. Second lead Delores Taylor is particularly weak in scenes that require her to cry over the threat to "the children". She suffers a rape in silence, so Billy Jack won't run wild to avenge her. The movie adds up as a particularly flaky stacked deck of hippie philosophy, Native American Pride and bitter distrust of governmental institutions.
Billy Jack followed a crooked path to success. Abandoned by two studios during production and denied satisfactory distribution by Warners, Tom Laughlin successfully took back control of his film and reissued it in 1973. Instead of hiring a distributor to contract with theater chains, the Laughlins took their show directly to theaters, renting facilities for a flat fee and handling ticket sales on their own. The much-publicized technique came to be known as "four-walling". Billy Jack broke independent box office records everywhere. Taking control of the "first coin" directly from the box office yielded a far higher return for the filmmakers, and gave credence to the notion that distributors and exhibitors routinely cheated film producers.
The finale of Billy Jack saw our hero a Christ figure in chains, unjustly charged with murder. 1974's The Trial of Billy Jack is a wildly overwritten and overwrought direct sequel. Stepping onto a cinematic soap box, Laughlin's confused harangue wrings emotional clichés from twenty hot-button political topics yet refuses to truly deal with any of them. Billy Jack and Jean continue their struggle against the corrupt system. The movie wants to be sincere but comes off as ludicrous. Some subplots, such as an abused, crippled child with a pet bunny, make us think we're being kidded, as in the spoof Airplane!.
The frankly irresponsible message is that the government is too corrupt to function and must be resisted at all costs. Supposedly a liberal cry of outrage against right-wing attacks on college campuses (Kent State is evoked several times), The Trial of Billy Jack is more likely to inspire political extremists on the right. The finale, a massacre of innocent kids by mindless National Guardsmen and State Police, is compared via flashback to a My Lai- like Vietnam atrocity. Infantryman Billy Jack refused to participate, thus forming his identity as an anti-establishment rebel.
While Billy Jack serves four years in prison, Jean Taylor develops the Freedom School into a self-governing Utopian commune. Freed from the presumed oppression of state schools, Jean's self-taught students make breakthroughs in the rehabilitation of abused children. They also "dig for the facts" to expose governmental corruption, especially on the issue of Indian land management. The school spreads its findings via its own television station, a gambit that provokes the wrath of powerful interests.
Once freed, Billy witnesses more injustices to his Native American tribe and expels a camping party of fat cat politicians and their prostitutes illegally poaching Indian game. The "liars and thieves" in Washington have been stealing large parcels of reservation property. Billy goes on an elaborate spiritual quest for the next level of enlightenment. He's forced to defend the Freedom School students from redneck vigilantes, knowing that powerful interests are looking for an opportunity to have him killed.
The Trial of Billy Jack benefits from Panavision and a score by Elmer Bernstein. Key scenes are played out against the backdrop of Monument Valley, just for postcard appeal. But in expanding his franchise Laughlin has lost all narrative sensibility. At three hours the show lacks forward momentum and soon breaks down into a series of position speeches and lectures. A narrator rattles off a laundry list of flaky buzzword activities at the Freedom School: bio-feedback, anybody? We never learn how the students ferret out secret political conspiracies in Washington; they simply report their shocking findings as absolute proven fact.
The acting is worse than ever, with Delores Taylor spending at least half of her scenes weeping with a runny nose. Daughter Teresa Laughlin (Kelly) offers more ear-grating folk songs. Billy Jack is either off painting himself red to meditate or engaging in irrelevant Hapkido fights against various redneck goons. Positively nothing happens that's not preceded by a long speech, or three. Laughlin's staging of a Vietnam War atrocity is offensive in too many ways to list, as is the inflammatory massacre of scores of unarmed kids at the finish. The parallels with the notorious Waco, Texas standoff twenty years later are disturbingly prophetic. The paranoid hysteria of The Trial of Billy Jack has since been co-opted by radicals at the other end of the political spectrum.
1977's Billy Jack Goes to Washington is a full-on remake of the 1939 Frank Capra film. Taking up the Jimmy Stewart role of a gee-whiz junior congressman, Billy Jack brings his kickboxing skills to the Beltway. Produced by Frank Capra Jr. but rewritten by Laughlin and Taylor, the film adds a disturbingly cynical twist to the original: it maintains that all business in the Federal Government is done at the behest of lobbyists for major corporations. They control not only our elected officials, but the media and the intelligence agencies as well. The once all-wise Billy Jack has been re-imagined as a naïve outsider, achingly reverent of Jefferson and Lincoln and shocked to discover that our government is a complete fraud.
A senior Senator dies unexpectedly, and a crooked governor appoints the newly pardoned Billy Jack to fill the vacant seat. As in the Capra original, Billy Jack only slowly learns that he's the dupe of grafters pushing through a bill to build a nuclear plant. When Billy objects, the full weight of Washington corruption comes down on his head, with falsified charges accusing Billy of profiting from a land scheme. New sub-plots portray Washington D.C. as a Sodom and Gomorrah of political corruption. An ambitious lobbyist is murdered for trying to blackmail his way into a cushy White House job. The paranoia meter hits the ceiling when black hoodlums threaten Billy's young associates: they turn out to be F.B.I. or C.I.A. agents working for evil lobbyist power brokers.
Production values are reasonably high, and with good actors assaying roles firmly associated with the likes of Claude Rains and Jean Arthur, most of the dramatics are at least competent. Sam Wanamaker, Pat O'Brien, E.G. Marshall and Lucie Arnaz are at least watchable. Delores Taylor returns to contribute a weeping scene or two. The film never received a general release and for video was cut by at least half an hour, minimizing or eliminating familiar faces from the earlier films. Suzanne Somers appears in the cast list but seems to have been dropped as well. The editorial cut-down must have happened in 1979 after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, as Billy Jack's filibuster speech has been amended with new dialogue referring to the partial meltdown.
The film reaches a high level of demagoguery when an uproar from the Senate gallery interrupts government business. Billy Jack preaches that "the people" need to retake control of their own Government, and it is presumed that all Real Americans support him. It's also disturbing to see Billy Jack, formerly a monastic loner distrustful of all social interaction outside of tribal matters, now quoting Jefferson and imbued with a righteous spirit of democracy. When it comes time to replay the original film's filibuster scene, Tom Laughlin drops some of his Brando mannerisms in favor of the halting speech patterns of Jimmy Stewart and does reasonably well. "One Tin Soldier" plays again over the end credits, but the franchise's emotional call for revolution is as irrational as ever.
Image's four-disc DVD set of The Complete Billy Jack Collection uses good enhanced transfers with a decent level of encoding. Born Losers (incorrectly dated 1969) looks far better than old A.I.P. television prints. All of the films come with two sets of audio commentaries, a 2001 track with Delores Taylor and Tom Laughlin and a newer one that adds son Frank Laughlin to the mix. I audited the tracks only briefly; near the end of Billy Jack Goes to Washington Tom Laughlin expresses his belief that American democracy is irreparably broken. Although Laughlin's ambitions were to make the Billy Jack character a political symbol, most of his fans were more interested in the escapist action thrills of his first two features, and deserted the franchise when it took itself too seriously.
For more information about The Complete Billy Jack Collection, visit Image Entertainment. To order The Complete Billy Jack Collection, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
The Complete Billy Jack Collection - A Tom Laughlin Overdose on DVD
Kenneth Tobey (1917-2003)
Born in Oakland, California on March 23, 1917, Tobey originally intended to be a lawyer before a stint with the University of California Little Theater changed his mind. From there, he went straight to New York and spent nearly two years studying acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where his classmates included Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach and Tony Randall. Throughout the '40s, Tobey acted on Broadway and in stock before relocating to Hollywood. Once there, Tobey soon found himself playing a tough soldier in films like I Was a Male War Bride and Twelve O' Clock High (both 1949); or a tough police officer in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and Three Secrets (both 1950). Such roles were hardly surprising, given Tobey's craggy features, unsmiling countenance and rough voice.
Needless to say, no-nonsense, authority figures would be Tobey's calling for the remainder of his career; yet given the right role, he had the talent to make it memorable: the smart, likeable Captain Hendrey in The Thing From Another World (1951); the gallant Colonel Jack Evans in the "prehistoric dinosaur attacks an urban center" genre chiller The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, a must-see film for fans of special effects wizard, Ray Harryhausen; and as Bat Masterson, holding his own against Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957).
Television would also offer Tobey much work: he had his own action series as chopper pilot Chuck Martin in Whirlybirds (1957-59); and had a recurring role as Assistant District Attorney Alvin in Perry Mason (1957-66). He would also be kept busy with guest appearances in countless westerns (Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Virginian) and cop shows (The Rockford Files, Barnaby Jones, Ironside) for the next two decades. Most amusingly, the tail end of Tobey's career saw some self-deprecating cameo spots in such contemporary shockers as The Howling (1981); Strange Invaders (1983) and his role reprisal of Captain Hendry in The Attack of the B-Movie Monsters (2002). Tobey is survived by a daughter, two stepchildren, and two grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
Kenneth Tobey (1917-2003)
You know what I think I'm gonna do then? Just for the hell of it? I'm gonna take this right foot, and I'm gonna whop you on that side of your face- Billy Jack
, and you wanna know something? There's not a damn thing you're gonna be able to do about it.- Billy Jack
I try, I really try... but when I see this girl of such a beautiful spirit suffer this indignity... I just go BERSERK!- Billy Jack
Now, which is it gonna be: drive your car in the lake or get a dislocated elbow?- Billy Jack
You're illegally on Indian land.- Billy Jack
I'm sorry about that. I guess we just got caught up in the chase and crossed over without knowing it.- Mr. Posner
You're a liar.- Billy Jack
We got the law here, Billy Jack.- Mr. Posner
When policemen break the law, then there isn't any law--just a fight for survival.- Billy Jack
You're makin' a mistake.- Mr. Posner
I've made 'em before.- Billy Jack
Contract disputes between Laughlin and various producers caused the film to change hands between three different film studios, and delaying its release for three years. In 1973, Laughlin filed a fifty-one million dollar lawsuit against Warner studios for "improperly publicizing" Billy Jack.
The opening and closing cast credits differ in order, with the closing credits excluding the names of several of the film's actors who portrayed villains. Although the opening credits indicate that the National Student Film Corporation copyrighted the film in 1971, the film was not registered for copyright. "T. C. Frank" and "Frank Christina," credited as director and co-writer respectively, are pseudonyms for the film's star, Tom Laughlin, as is the producer's name Mary Rose Solti. "Teresa Christina" is a pseudonym for Laughlin's wife and co-star, Delores Taylor. Teresa Kelly, who portrays "Carol" in the film, is the Laughlins' daughter. Actor Howard Hessemann appeared under the name Don Sturdy. Just prior to the film's production Hessemann had been involved with a Los Angeles improvisational acting group called The Committee, which had roots in the San Francisco "improv" theater. The Committee and members of the cast are acknowledged in the closing credits for "special improvised material. For more information on The Committee refer to the entry for 1968 Funnyman.
Billy Jack opens with voice-over narration by Taylor as the character of "Jean Roberts," which continues sporadically throughout the film. The Freedom School in Billy Jack was inspired by the Montessori method, a form of educating children that emphasizes the individuality of each child to discover and explore his or her unique gifts and talents, free from criticism or restriction. Laughlin and Taylor, longtime supporters of the method who opened the first Montessori school in Los Angeles according to a February 4, 1972 Los Angeles Times article, incorporated many of its tenets within the story of the film, which was shot on location in Arizona and New Mexico. Although Taylor appeared as an extra in Born Losers, Billy Jack marked her official feature film debut.
The following information was compiled from several news items and articles from 1971-1978: According to Filmfacts, AIP, the distributor of Born Losers, was originally to release Billy Jack, but Laughlin bought himself out of the deal because of repeated "suggestions" during filming. Laughlin then made a deal with Richard Zanuck, then head of Twentieth Century-Fox. When Laughlin discovered that Zanuck intended to re-edit and re-score the film, he protested vigorously. Unable to deter Zanuck, Laughlin stole the soundtrack, prompting the producer to sell the film negative back to Laughlin for $100,000.
Laughlin himself subsequently previewed the film in twenty cities and sent the enthusiastic preview cards to studio heads, but none expressed interest in its distribution. After Warner Bros. executive Ted Ashley privately screened Billy Jack, he urged the studio to buy it. In March 1971, Warner Bros. paid Laughlin $1.8 million for the film, but reneged on their original promise to full publicize the film and, with little or no fanfare, placed it in what Laughlin described as "porno houses" and drive-ins. Frustrated with the "hippie drug flick" advertising by Warner Bros., Laughlin devised his own campaign for Billy Jack and successfully raised revenue in small town theaters. Despite continued refusal by Warner Bros. to screen the film for major critics in big cities, within twenty months, due to Laughlin's personal marketing, Billy Jack grossed over $10 million dollars, making it a surprise box-office success.
According to a February 1972 Hollywood Reporter news item, Laughlin and Taylor sued Warner Bros. for $51 million dollars, accusing the studio of falsely representing intentions for distribution and promotion of Billy Jack and a 'monopolistic block booking' whereby the film was sold for fees drastically below those of other successful pictures." Daily Variety's February 2, 1972 article on the suit lists the amount as $34 million. According to articles in Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter on December 21, 1972, Warner Bros. settled the suit out of court, and in January 1973, the studio devised a re-issue of Billy Jack with a new advertising campaign valued at over $70,000. An April 1972 Daily Variety item stated that Elizabeth L. James filed suit against Laughlin and National Student Film Corp. for $900,000 claiming that in 1966 she had entered an oral agreement to write and compose literary works for films in which the profits would be equally divided. The outcome of the suit is unknown.
By March 1973, with the film playing in major city theaters, Billy Jack grosses exceeded all expectations. In June 1973 Warner Bros. and Laughlin's Billy Jack Productions were asked by the Federal Trade Commission to soften the advertising campaign which described the film as "the most popular picture of our time," and compared its public impact to major blockbuster films like The Sound of Music and IThe Godfather . According to a November 1973 Variety news item, the film was predicted to be on the road to becoming "a $60 million phenomenon," credited largely to Laughlin's marketing and heavy booking saturation. In 1976 Laughlin brought another suit against Warner Bros. for $94 million, based on the film's sale to television. The suit was settled in August 1978, according to articles in both Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter.
Reviews of Billy Jack ranged from dismissive to enthusiastic. The Washington Post reviewer called the film "a horrendously self-righteous and devious action movie," and maintained it was as much an exploitation movie as Born Losers, the 1967 American International production that introduced the character of "Billy Jack" (see below). As with Billy Jack, Laughlin's producer and director credits were under pseudonyms. Variety acknowledged Billy Jack was clearly a "labor of love," but found it heavy handed and overly long. The July 1971 New York Times review praised Laughlin and Taylor, in particular, then noted that "some of the non-professional delivery of lines...is incredibly awful," and found the violence predictable. The August 13, 1971 Los Angeles Times review called the film "crude and sensational, yet urgent and pertinent [and]...in its unique, awkward way one of the year's important pictures." In a second, later review, critic Charles Champlin acknowledged the film was "wildly and justifiably successful," and noted that in a year that saw the release of several brutally violent films, Billy Jack demonstrated "alternatives to violence" and was "a stunning piece of work."
After the box-office success of Billy Jack, Laughlin and Taylor re-teamed for a sequel, entitled The Trial of Billy Jack (see below), which was released in 1974 by Laughlin and Taylor's own company. A third sequel produced in 1976, Billy Jack Goes to Washington was never released in theaters. In a June 20, 2005 New York Times interview with Laughlin and Taylor, they announced their intention to produce another "Billy Jack" sequel, out of frustration with political and social events, including the 2003 Iraqi war.
Released in United States June 2009
Released in United States May 1971
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1971
Shown at Los Angeles Film Festival (Behind the Scenes: Films with Extended Conversations) June 18-28, 2009.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1971
Released in United States May 1971
Released in United States June 2009 (Shown at Los Angeles Film Festival (Behind the Scenes: Films with Extended Conversations) June 18-28, 2009.)