In the same week as Peter O’Toole and Joan Fontaine, writer/actor/director Tom Laughlin has died. The difference between Laughlin and the others — aside from the fact that they were better actors — is that he was more a man on a mission than someone chasing fame and celebrity.
He was committed to the ideals portrayed in the Billy Jack movies. Peace, Love and American Indian Rights, by any means necessary. Long after the movies had passed into the realm of camp, he was still trying to make new movies about Billy. The character was a strange amalgam of political radical and action hero.
His last attempt started out with the working title, “Billy Jack’s Crusade to End the War in Iraq and Restore America to Its Moral Purpose.” In the mind of Tom Laughlin, the world really could be saved by a fictional character with high ideals and martial arts skills.
At this late date, when ideals are used as marketing angles, when we’ve all become the walking dead due to toxic irony, it’s sad to see someone so completely sincere and idealistic die. He was a pretty terrible film maker; not Ed Wood bad, but his work is so self-serious that it is its own best parody. His acting comprised talking in a monotone, keeping a straight face and lashing out violently. His politics were naive and self-defeating. But in his own cockamamie way he was a pure soul.
Tom Laughlin was the ’60s counterculture Don Quixote, and he never stopped dreaming impossible dreams.
If you’ve never seen the Billy Jack movies, you must. They are unique documents of a moment of cultural consciousness. They have aged so badly that they go beyond dated into the realm of alien fantasy. They aren’t Ed Wood or Reefer Madness bad; they’re something else entirely.