June 18, 2009

The origin of Billy Jack

Billy Jack Is Back at the Los Angeles Film Festival

LAFF restores a drive-in classic to its karate-chopping glory

By Chuck Wilson
The creation of Billy Jack, the character Tom Laughlin portrayed in four films (all of which he co-wrote and directed), can be traced to the mid-1950s, when the football jock/aspiring filmmaker was dating a University of South Dakota art major named Delores Taylor, who would eventually become his wife, co-writer and co-star. As the couple prepares to bring a restored print of Billy Jack to this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, the 78-year-old Laughlin credits Taylor for inspiring the character that shaped so much of his life.

“Dody is from a small town called Winner, South Dakota,” he explains, speaking by phone from the couple’s Ventura County home. “She was a pale platinum blonde at the time and she had lived around Native Americans all her life. They would always come over and ask if ‘Little Yellowhead’ could come out to play. So when I met her, she was deeply passionate about Indian rights. She was on a mission.

“One time when I was there courting her, she and I drove through a section of town with all these rundown shacks and abandoned cars covered with cardboard and carpet that people were living in,” Laughlin recalls. “‘What the hell is that?’ I asked, and she said, ‘That’s where the Indians live.’ And I couldn’t believe it. I was so incensed.”

Soon after, Laughlin was in Winner’s one and only bar when he heard some locals laughingly describe how they sometimes followed home the area’s Native Americans, most of whom were members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, after they’d come into town for supplies. More than once, these men had stopped the Natives, who were traveling on foot, and dumped a bag of flour over their heads, taunting, “Hey, now you can go back to town and shop in the white man’s store.” Laughlin, clearly still furious a half-century later, takes a deep breath. “Those guys were laughing, so proud of themselves, and I wanted to throw them through the window. I couldn’t do that, but Billy Jack could, so I went back to the motel and wrote the ice cream parlor scene.”

In the scene, which remains potent today, Billy Jack enters an ice cream parlor just after the town bully—a rich man’s spoiled son—has poured flour over the heads of three kids from the Freedom School, a haven for Native-American children and run by Billy Jack’s great love, Jean.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Billy Jack Revisited and The Best Indian Movies.

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