(See previous post: “‘Billy Jack’: Tom Laughlin Revolutionized Film Distribution Sytem.”) In 1975, Tom Laughlin’s self-produced Western The Master Gunfighter — a remake of Hideo Gosha’s samurai actioner Goyokin, co-starring Ron O’Neal and Barbara Carrera — bombed at the box office after opening at more than 1,000 locations. Laughlin reportedly had spent $3.5 million to market the $3.5 million production, having hired John Rubel, assistant secretary of defense under Robert McNamara, to plan the film’s distribution tactics.
Financially depleted and embroiled in more lawsuits against Warner Bros., Laughlin embarked on the Billy Jack series’ fourth — and, as it turned out — final film, Billy Jack Goes to Washington. A 1977 Frank Capra Jr.-produced reboot of Frank Capra’s 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Laughlin’s final directing effort was barely seen even in its drastically edited form. (I haven’t been able to find international figures for the Billy Jack movies, but they seem to have been a strictly American box office phenomenon.)
At the time, Tom Laughlin accused Warners and its president, Frank Wells, of pressuring banks to withdraw their support for Billy Jack Goes to Washington. Nearly three decades later, he would also blame the U.S. government for his film’s failure, telling CNN’s Showbiz Tonight in 2005:
At a private screening, [Democratic Indiana] Senator Vance Hartke got up, because [Billy Jack Goes to Washington] was about how the Senate was bought out by the nuclear industry. He got up and charged me. Walter Cronkite’s daughter was there, [and] Lucille Ball. And he said, ‘You’ll never get this released. This house you have, everything will be destroyed.’
In Billy Jack Goes to Washington, Tom Laughlin plays the old James Stewart role, an idealist who discovers he has become a pawn for a group of unscrupulous politicians with a dangerous agenda. Delores Taylor is the Jean Arthur-like leading lady, while E.G. Marshall (in the old Claude Rains role) and Sam Wanamaker are two key supporting players in a cast that also included Lucille Ball’s daughter Lucie Arnaz, Suzanne Sommers, Peter Donat, and veterans Kent Smith and Pat O’Brien.
The Return of Billy Jack, in which the returning character was to go after child pornographers, was scrapped in 1985 after Laughlin suffered an injury. About two decades later, there were plans for another Billy Jack movie that never got off the ground: Billy Jack’s Crusade to End the War in Iraq and Restore America to Its Moral Purpose aka Billy Jack’s Moral Revolution.
Tom Laughlin for president of the United States
Besides his film work, Tom Laughlin was also known for his several failed runs for the presidency of the United States. In 1991, he told the Milwaukee Sentinel, "I am the least qualified person I know to be President, except George Bush. I hate politics; it’s just a pit of deceit. It’s a game and a lie and a double deal."
At that time, Laughlin protested at being excluded from the primary ballot in Wisconsin. Also unhappy was the Milwaukee Sentinel, which lambasted the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision to block Tom Laughlin while allowing the inclusion of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, "imprisoned Democrat extremist" Lyndon H. La Rouche Jr., and a "Dodgeville chicken farmer." Later on, Laughlin became an "advisor" to independent U.S. presidential candidate Ross Perot.
In politics, Laughlin also took to task far-right Christians and their "Christo-fascist movement." On his website, billyjack.com, he referred to them as "false Evangelicals" and "false prophets."
Among his numerous other off-screen activities, Tom Laughlin wrote several books on psychology including The Psychology of Cancer and Jungian Psychology vol. 2: Jungian Theory and Therapy, and became involved in the issue of domestic violence after witnessing a neighbor — a police officer — beating his wife.
Note: Actor and filmmaker Tom Laughlin is not to be confused with the wrestler Thomas James "Tom" Laughlin, best known as Tommy Dreamer.
Tom Laughlin article sources
Besides the news outlets and publications mentioned in the body of this three-part Tom Laughlin article, here are the other key sources used for this piece: The New American Cinema, edited by Jon Lewis; Lucien Rhodes’ "The Return of Billy Jack," at inc.com; David A. Cook’s Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970; D.K. Holm’s Independent Cinema; Justin Wyatt’s High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood; Seeing Red — Hollywood’s Pixeled Skins: American Indians and Film, edited by LeAnne Howe, Harvey Markowitz, and Denise K. Cummings; Jack Mathews’ “Tom Laughlin Throws Black Hat into the Ring” in the Los Angeles Times; and Phil Dyess-Nugent’s Tom Laughlin obit for A.V. Club.