BAD GUYS beware. Billy Jack is back. Actor-producer-director-screenwriter Tom Laughlin, that is, after a five-year absence from America's movie screens.
In his 1971 youth-vs.-establishment movie "Billy Jack," Laughlin created the character of the moody, mythic half-Indian, ex-Green Beret pacifist, who found himself frequently torn between his liberal do-gooder impulses and the desire to beat the tar out of anyone who looked at him cross-eyed. With equal doses of message and melodrama, "Billy Jack" became the 61st top-grossing film of all time ($32.5 million to date, according to Variety), despite critical catcalls.
This time Billy Jack/Tom Laughlin is going after bigger and badder: corrupt government officials right here in Our Nation's Capital. Laughlin plans an October release for "Billy Jack Goes to Washington," the third in the "Billy Jack" series, completed in 1977. It's a remake of Frank Capra's 1939 classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," adapted by Laughlin with his wife and constant costar, Delores Taylor. The movie, which also stars Pat O'Brien, E.G. Marshall, Lucie Arnaz and Laughlin's daughter Teresa, had a bunting-bedecked Washington premiere and was scheduled to open Christmas 1976. Why the five-year wait for national release?
"We did extensive test-marketing and found out that, at the time, no one really cared about the issue, the whole substance of the picture, which is a senator going to Washington, fighting for a national initiative for nuclear freeze," Laughlin says. "Since no one was interested, it would have been foolish to release it then. So we felt that sooner or later there'd be another meltdown, or you know, some nuclear disaster."
"We had amazing difficulty filming in Washington," Laughlin says of his red-tape-ridden 10 days of on-location shooting. "We literally had to quit and go back to L.A. because of the bureaucracy.
"We got all our location permits, from every official and every bureaucrat. When we went back to shoot, for instance in the Jefferson Memorial, we were suddenly told that we could have the actors inside, and the microphones, but not the camera at the same time. Or we could have the camera inside, but not the actor.
"Another example. In the script, we had a bum sleeping on a bench in Lafayette Park, in front of the White House. And Billy Jack is getting there in the morning and says, 'We can put men on the moon, but we can't put our own people to work.' And they the Parks Service said there are no bums in that park, and refused to allow us to have the bum. Image.
"That morning, when we came and shot there, we got there before dawn, we woke up all the bums sleeping in the park. One of them stole our script supervisor's briefcase! So I can't tell you why it all happened. I guess they didn't like the nature of the script." Actually, a Parks Service official said the problem was that Laughlin wanted to move the bench to where benches don't normally go.
Between finishing "Billy Jack Goes to Washington" and plotting its return, Laughlin and Taylor have been teaching at the University of Colorado. "I taught Jungian psychology, special groups for drug addicts, suicide attempts and anorexics at the graduate school for clinical psychology. And I wrote a major book on that subject, called 'Jungian Psychology: Theory and Therapy.' Nobody's going to buy it," Laughlin says with a laugh. "And Delores taught a special group for women on the development of women's assertiveness and self-sufficiency."
Laughlin and Taylor live in their mansion in Brentwood, Calif., where Laughlin plays a lot of tennis at his own tennis court. Laughlin, a Thomas Jefferson fan, has made several rooms in his house exact duplicates of rooms in Monticello. They have three children, Frank, a director and screenwriter, who Laughlin says heads Gene Wilder's development corporation; Teresa, a New York fashion photographer, who Laughlin hopes will star in his next movie; and 13-year-old Christina.
"We're about to start a picture in September called 'The Mysterious Stranger,' with the same kind of characters my wife and I played in our 'Billy Jack' pictures. She plays a Quaker lady running a home in Times Square for kids that are victims of child prostitution. Kind of like a Father Flanagan's Boy's Town. And she's a pacifist, and the mysterious stranger comes along, looking for a runaway for a friend, stumbles into this oppostion and fights back," Laughlin says. "I play the mysterious stranger."