— Michael Lloyd, Rockville, Md.
It seems inevitable that writer/director/actor Tom Laughlin would eventually find himself in the nation’s capital. Both as a character and a filmmaker, Laughlin made a career out of sticking it to the Man. And nowhere is the Man bigger than in Washington.
Laughlin had already given the Man a headache in Hollywood. He tangled with two studios — Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros. — before regaining control of his 1971 film, “Billy Jack.”
The title character is a half-Native American ex-Green Beret who defends a school full of hippie children from bigots in a Western town.
In any Billy Jack movie — there are four — there’s a scene where Billy slowly slips off his boots and pulls off his socks. It’s not because he wants to let his feet breathe. It’s so he can break out the hapkido — a Korean martial art — and deliver a roundhouse kick to some villain’s head.
Even if you didn’t see “Billy Jack,” you’ve doubtless heard the song played during its credits: “One Tin Soldier,” sung by Jinx Dawson of the band Coven. (Weird trivia: Dawson was supposedly the first person to do devil horns with her fingers, now a metalhead staple.)
After wresting “Billy Jack” from Warner Bros., Laughlin released it himself, pioneering the practice of opening a movie simultaneously in theaters nationwide. The $800,000 film made close to $50 million.
After a profitable sequel — “The Trial of Billy Jack ” — Laughlin set his sights on Washington with a remake of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Its plot involves a cabal of corrupt politicians and businessmen intent on boosting the nuclear power industry.
He brought on as a producer Frank Capra Jr., son of the director of the 1939 original. The cast included Lucie Arnaz, in her movie debut, and Kathy Cronkite, CBS anchor Walter’s daughter. Joe Klein, later to pen “Primary Colors,” had a cameo.
Laughlin and his crew came to the District in May 1976. They left after 10 days.
“It’s totally impossible to make a film in Washington,” he told reporters. “We’ve never in our lives experienced the kind of harassment we found here.”
Laughlin claimed that the National Park Service stopped him from filming a bum on a park bench across from the White House.
“I’d expect that in Russia, in Cuba, in China but not in the U.S.A.,” he said.
Teresa Laughlin, the actor’s daughter, who appeared in the films alongside her siblings and mother, Delores Taylor, told Answer Man: “There was talk at the time — and I have no idea how valid it is — that people didn’t love the message that was being told in the film.”
Among the haters: Sen. Vance Hartke (D-Ind.) and his wife, Martha. Rumors circulated that during a prerelease screening in California, the couple declared the film a calumny. Mrs. Hartke allegedly punched Laughlin, while the senator said: “If you dare to put this picture out, they will get you.”
Which is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to hear in a Billy Jack movie, not about one.
“Billy Jack Goes to Washington” premiered April 22, 1977, at the K-B Cinema. The screening and reception raised funds for victims of the Hanafi Muslim siege, which had taken place a month earlier.
The reviews were … not good. The Post’s Gary Arnold called it “talky, static, derivative.”
It seems to have been shown in only three markets: Washington, Omaha and San Diego. It was Laughlin’s last film. He later ran for president.
“There was an interesting duality in my dad,” Teresa said. “He believed so strongly in his own vision. And certainly in [1971’s “Billy Jack”] he put his finger on the pulse of the moment. Even though the film itself had anything but high production values — it was literally something we put together as a family — it hit a chord.”
Teresa said there is occasional talk of reviving the black-hatted character.
“Billy Jack Goes to Washington” is available as part of a DVD box set, with commentary from Tom and Delores. It has not aged well, though it’s fun to see D.C. from that era.
“BJGTW” did leave one legacy: Three years after Laughlin decamped in a huff — and a year after the crew of “The Seduction of Joe Tynan” ran into similar problems — the District formed the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development to make it easier for filmmakers to work here.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.