Go ahead and hate your neighbor; go ahead and cheat a friend.
Do it in the name of heaven; you can justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowin’ come the judgment day
On the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away. ~ Coven
We love the hero—the champion who inspires us and shows us that we can live for something greater than ourselves and be the catalyst to make things right in a world with so much wrong. Whether Greek mythology, Spaghetti Westerns, or Star Wars, we have an unshakeable category in our minds for heroes.
As a boy growing up in the early 70s, I marveled at the heroes I saw in films, but in that, I wasn’t doing anything unique. For me and my brothers, we didn’t think we were doing anything special when we pretended to be the heroes we’d seen in a movie. Isn’t that what every kid did? You see an adventure film with your parents, head outside, and become someone else for a couple hours?
Heroes captivate our imaginations, and if there’s one thing a kid has, it’s an imagination!
My Hero, Billy Jack
When we grow up, we tend to lose our heroes, and sometimes, it’s not because we simply grew out of them. As a boy, I idolized O. J. Simpson. So much so, that for one Christmas, my step-father took my red football helmet and hand painted it to match the Buffalo Bills helmet with number “32” on the back. I loved it.
Needless to say, that hero was crushed, but not all heroes follow the same route, and one hero of mine never lost his luster in my eyes. It was Tom Laughlin, the screenwriter and actor for the film Billy Jack.
Ironically, O. J. Simpson was a close neighbor of Tom Laughlin in Southern California (They lived on the same street) and Laughlin was involved in fighting domestic abuse. He was always a hero.
A True Hero
I’d seen plenty of martial arts movies as a boy, but none made an impact on me like Billy Jack. I think it’s because it was closer to real life than the stories I’d seen by my other heroes Bruce Lee, David Carradine, and Chuck Norris. Billy Jack was real to me, and he wasn’t fighting drug lords, or crooked cops. He was defending the innocent from small town thugs.
What I didn’t realize at the time was how politically-charged Tom Laughlin’s stories were, and that was completely intentional. In fact, by the time he produced The Trial of Billy Jack, he was addressing the very same political issues we deal with today regarding war, fascism, and political propaganda. However, I was cool with it so long as he was still kicking somebody’s ass!
Still, anyone who’s seen Billy Jack remembers the scenes where he used realistic martial arts to put a beating on the bullies that were persecuting the school filled with hippies and indians. Billy was essentially “kicking” the prejudice out of a small town. That much I understood, and for that, I loved him.
But Billy Jack was “cool” too. He was the loner. He was the special forces soldier shaped by a war he didn’t start. He was internally torn because he was half Native American, and that drove his uncontrollable anger against the bigots and bullies.
The symbol of the “half-breed” was seen in his clothing. Billy Jack wore the denim jacket and jeans, the black t-shirt, and the contrast of the Native American hat.
He drove around in a jeep with a rifle, which he only brought out when necessary, and he always seemed to arrive on time. When you saw that jeep coming down the road, you knew things were about to get ugly!
A Real Hero
But Billy Jack felt pain. He suffered loss. He loved deeply, but he also hated, and I identified with both. Billy didn’t hate others. He hated injustice. And in that sense, he appealed to the deepest sentiments of humanity, because we all pant for justice.
Billy was fighting the system, so Billy Jack was the hero of all of us. He was the individual who was handicapped by the system, but he used his strong emotion to resist the system. In the story, this created a conflict between his way of handling evil and the peaceful methods of the woman who directed the school.
For me, I always sided with Billy’s way of dealing with evil. I was a boy, and most boys like to see the bad guys get theirs!
Tom Laughlin created a lasting hero, because Billy Jack was as real a hero as you can create in film. This worked because Billy Jack was one of the highest-grossing independent films ($40+ million in 1973), and much of that had to do with the fact that Tom Laughlin himself handled the distribution. Still, it’s the qualities of Billy Jack, and what the character symbolized, that keeps him a cultural icon to this day.
This is because heroes inspire us, and that’s because heroes themselves are inspired. The word “inspire” means to breathe in, and a hero like Billy Jack is filled with the air of ideals that make the character larger than life. Without this, there simply is no hero. The hero serves a purpose greater than themselves, and for that, they are an inspiration to us all.
The Real Billy Jack
Not many heroes of mine have lasted a lifetime for me, but Billy Jack, and Tom Laughlin, have. I own all the films on DVD, and I’ve been tempted to buy a Billy Jack t-shirt for years. I’ll certainly do so now that the great Tom Laughlin has passed on.
Tom Laughlin was a highly-motivated individual. He was not quiet like the character Billy Jack. Tom was very animated, gregarious, and energetic. His female co-star, Delores Taylor, was his wife and business partner. They were married in 1954 and never divorced. Once again, Laughlin lived a hero’s life in every sense of the word.
Laughlin was a student Jungian psychology, and lectured often on the subject while completing several books on the relation of psychology to cancer. Despite having cancer of the tongue himself—which he said was in remission—it was not cancer that took his life. According to his daughter, the death of the 82 year-old hero was due to complications relating to pneumonia.
Tom Laughlin the Motivator
Tom Laughlin was not all that different from his Billy Jack character, and both personalities inspired me to such a degree that they remain my heroes to this day. I showed the Billy Jack film to all of my sons when they were young, and did so with my daughter just a couple of years ago.
Although a good many celebrities have passed since the millennium, none has meant more to me than Tom Laughlin. His optimism, creativity, and work ethic showed me what real possibility was all about. He was original and then some. I celebrate his life and work like no other. He changed the world with his art. I would not be who I am today were it not for his legacy.