Tom Laughlin, who played the title role in the 1970s cult classic vigilante "Billy Jack" movies, died in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He was 82.
Laughlin also co-produced movies starring his character Billy Jack, a conflicted Vietnam Green Beret who used his martial arts skills and temper to ward off bad guys while preaching pacifism. His daughter, Teresa Laughlin, told the Los Angeles Times
his health had been declining in recent years.
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Laughlin is survived by his wife Delores, who also appeared in the "Billy Jack" movies, his son Frank, his daughters Teresa Laughlin, and Christina Harrington, and eight grandchildren.
Deadline.com reported that the Billy Jack character first appeared in Laughlin
's 1967 biker flick "The Born Losers," which Laughlin directed under the name T.C. Frank. Then came the "Billy Jack" movie in 1971, followed by two sequels: "The Trial of Billy Jack" in 1974 and "Billy Jack Goes to Washington" in 1977.
The original "Billy Jack," which featured the iconic antiwar song "One Tin Soldier," was re-released after Laughlin fought with Warner Bros. for three years. Laughlin claimed the studio did not do enough to promote the film the first time it was released.
After grossing $6 million with its first release, "Billy Jack" found its audience with a $100 million bump at the box office the second time around.
But Laughlin's fight with Warner Bros. continued as the filmmaker promoted his movies. The Los Angeles Times reported Laughlin "four-walled," renting 1,200 individual theaters across the U.S. and marketing his films like a rock band.
Laughlin helped break the Hollywood marketing mold as one of first actors to advertise on television and open a movie nationwide, rather than gradually release the film.
Later in life, Laughlin made a bid for the U.S. presidency in 1992 as a Democrat, but the party didn’t take him seriously or let him participate in the debates. He ran as a Republican in 2004, with similar results, and ran for a third and final time in 2008. He voiced his opposition to nuclear energy, support for Native Americans and bonded with legendary actor Marlon Brando over activism.
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