Tom Laughlin, who died on Thursday at the age of 82, wasn't Native — and didn't claim to be. But as the writer, director and star of Billy Jack, he portayed a "half breed" white-Navajo hero who served in Vietnam and was a master of hapkido, a character that strongly resonated with a good deal of the Native moviegoing public. Both Billy Jack (1971) and The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) were box-office successes, and a contemporary Native American action hero was an appealing idea to Indians who'd grown weary of seeing their people in loin cloths and speaking hokey pidgin ("him heap big chief") on the silver screen.
Laughlin played football in college, first for Marquette University and then for South Dakota, where he met his future wife, Delores Taylor, who would also join him onscreen in Billy Jack and its sequels. “He was profoundly affected by the poverty he saw on the Indian reservations near the University of South Dakota,” his daughter Teresa Laughlin said. “I think the seeds of the Billy Jack character started there.” In another film, The Master Gunfighter, Laughlin played a hero who carries a gun and samurai sword, and at one point tries to foil a massacre of Chumash Indians.
Laughlin is considered a pioneer of independent filmmaking, having created his movies outside the Hollywood system and resisted attempts by distributors to meddle with his work, and the then-unconventional tactics he used to promote Billy Jack — a 2007 PopMatters article acclaims it as "the original blockbuster" — set the template for major movie openings that followed.
Laughlin was politically active in his career, particularly in the antiwar movement, and later in his life embarked on a couple of protest campaigns for the U.S. Presidency. He will always be remembered in Indian country as one of two white actors — the other being his friend Marlon Brando — who strove to raise awareness of the injustices toward American Indians. On his official site, billyjack.com, fans are asked to donate to Friends of Pine Ridge in lieu of flowers or gifts.