One Tin Soldier Rides Away -- my memory of meeting actor Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack)

by Terry 9 Replies latest jw friends

  • Terry

    This is one of my Hollywood memories. I lived in California for ten years from 1974 to almost 1984. I worked in the Art business and had occasion to run into famous people and also has-been's :)

    I met a fella unlike any other.
    Let me tell you about the man--a strange and wonderful guy--one of a kind--but housing two personalities at the same time.

    A fascinating list describing him below:

    1. Hapkido expert who liked to kick pedophiles in the chin

    2. Presidential candidate

    3. Successful producer, writer, Director, and actor

    4. Expert on Jungian philosophy

    5. Self-styled ‘half-breed” peace activist given to fits of violent anger

    6. Former Green Beret who liked to wear a cowboy hat

    7. Intensely private citizen who hated to be recognized in a public place by me!

    Get your attention? If so, settle in and let me tell you when I met him.


    Time: circa 1982
    Place: Creative Galleries (about a mile from MGM Studios in Culver City, California)
    I was 35 years old and working as an Art Consultant.
    If anybody walked into the gallery, whoever was on site would walk up to them and
    Greet them and make them feel comfortable.

    Cue Entrance:

    A 50-year-old man walked into the gallery out of the bright sunlight.
    I have a strange knack about faces... I recognized him immediately.

    The man had been in three or four movies about a decade earlier. I’m a movie
    nerd - so I spotted him and nodded with the ‘knowing’ smile private people cringe at.

    I should say this first off: Unless you’ve seen the Billy Jack cult films of around 1973, his name won’t mean doodly squat to you.

    (Check out this link:)

    (Or just watch a quick trailer for the film:)


    Got it? Good.
    I walked up to the man and nodded.

    I muttered quietly to myself, “Tom Laughlin.”

    It was a statement and not a question.

    Tom Laughlin slowly turned and squinted at me with a certain sort of slo-mo menace. It was theatrical body language meant to scare me off.
    At least, that’s how I assessed the situation.

    Laughlin spoke.

    He looked me right in the eye and his message was clear enough.

    Of course, I knew better than to annoy a celebrity--especially a washed up surly one.

    It’s rude to approach an actor or speak other than a casual greeting.

    That sort of behavior was left to tourists and nut-jobs. Neither of those were adjectives I wanted to have applied to myself.

    “My mistake. I’m sure you get that all the time since you resemble Tom Laughlin 100%.”

    I worded my sentence exactly so he’d know he wasn’t fooling me.

    I was met with another of his slo-mo half turn glares.


    Chatty fellow! I thought to myself.

    Still, I did my job.

    I pointed out various features of the gallery and its artwork consisting of
    framed lithographs, serigraphs, etchings, paintings, photography, and art posters hanging pristine in every sort of matte and frame.

    I turned up the volume on my expertise and charm--suddenly rising to the challenge to do the impossible.

    This was going to be like the old joke told about President Calvin Coolidge:

    ***(Coolidge had a reputation for quietness and speaking as few words as possible.

    One lady, however, at a party at the White House, was determined to overcome the hurdle as she approached the President and spoke. . .

    “Mister President, my next door neighbor bet me I couldn’t get you to say three words. I told her I bet I could.”

    Coolidge looked up from his meal, fork in hand, and simply said, “You lose.”)***


    I escorted Laughlin into a small showing room with special quartz halogen lighting.
    I pointed to a series of triptychs (3 views in separate frames) with Arapaho, Navajo, and Cheyenne Chiefs depicted in shadow-box style Barnwood frames.
    Pressed into the hand-made paper were embossed arrowhead and bear claw indentations.

    I walked over to the rheostat light switch and dimmed the fluorescent lights while brightening the halogen (diamond) lights.

    The dramatic effect immediately impressed Laughlin, I could see it plainly on his otherwise inscrutable face.

    Unknown to me, his life and wife were connected to Native Americans.

    He quickly became more human.

    The pikes, moat, and wall around his citadel of privacy vanished.

    He became engaging and talkative. Bye-bye Calvin Coolidge; hello Chatty Kathy.


    I’ll do my best to approximate the story he told me.

    “I met my-then-future wife in South Dakota where I was a student. She lived on an Arapaho reservation and she invited me for a closer look at how she lived.

    I saw the poverty and degradation there. Worse than that--the racism. When the tribesman went into town to pick up their monthly allotment of flour, some of the local assholes would dump it on their head and try and provoke them. I carried that around inside me for years.”

    He paused and I offered him wine.

    “S’okay if I offer you a glass of Chablis, Tom.”

    His head jerked sideways like a hornet had stung his ear. (Oops!)

    “I’m not Tom Laughlin.”


    What could do other than go along with it?

    “Sorry, not-Tom-Laughlin; get you sip?”

    He loosened up a bit when I gave him the wine.
    He’d have made a helluva poker player.


    After a bit, he continued. . .

    “Delores and I moved around a lot after we married since I worked the TV circuit for years. Bob Altman auditioned me for a film and cast me in the lead and we had to move again; this time to Hollyweird.”

    (Yes, he said ‘Hollyweird.”)

    As he spoke, he sipped his drink. The he stood and made a sweeping gesture with his left hand indicating he wanted to buy the three pieces.

    His voice changed; the tone; the sincerity.

    He began talking (more or less to himself) and I realized I was listening to a kind of personal soliloquy.

    I’m not saying his words were scripted.
    Just spoken with gravitas; a faraway look in the eyes.

    The Native American art had touched him somehow and illuminated a true thing he witnessed in the artwork--a memory and an emotion rooted deep.

    I pulled each framed piece off the wall and proceeded to process the order and wrap piece each separately as he continued speaking his story.

    Once they open up--it just pours out.


    “Altman was a close-minded son-of-a-bitch. I didn’t get on with him at all. He wouldn’t listen or accept any ideas from. . . “

    I interrupted. (I couldn’t help myself!)

    “I’ve heard Altman is the actor’s favorite Director - giving everybody a free hand to improvise or …”

    "Not with me. Everybody “else--just not me. He called me a “pain-in-the-ass.”“

    This actor - this Not-Tom-Laughlin grinned as he relived the private memory.

    His biography became a narrative ...

    “You either make it or you hang on until you disappear. I had other plans. I saved what little money I made. The studio wouldn’t promote anything if they didn’t control it. This was what drove Cassavetes out and Corman got a handle on it and I thought, “Why not?”

    We were now in the main sales office and it was quiet in the gallery; the right time of day for conversation and processing credit cards the old-fashioned way in those little machines we used to have pre-Internet.

    “My wife and I started our own Montessori school trying to make a difference in the world. It’s not all that easy to do if you buck the Hollyweird system. But studios were dying, choking in the garden on TV weeds. So, I wrote my script and took the money I saved and packaged my movie myself. I put the cash into promotion, distribution, without studio help. Sure, two studios got their paws on it and started making changes--but I got it back and did it all myself. I remembered that Navajo reservation and saw how Civil Rights had completely ignored the plight of aboriginal Americans. I wanted to change how people saw the problem and I succeeded. We made back 41 times what it cost and even Hollyweird sat up and took notice.”

    I expected a smile of great satisfaction to accompany his boast.
    He said everything like he was reading the label ingredients on a can of roach powder.

    He reached into his hand-crafted leather billfold and pulled out an American Express card and handed it to me.
    A mischievous thought balloon popped up over my head.

    “So, what name do I put on this order--if you don’t mind me asking?”

    I grinned and waited.

    He pursed his lips and hesitated for a beat and then spoke.

    “Just put down Lloyd E. James.”


    I was holding his American Express card in my hand. The embossed letters on the card clearly shown in the light of the sales office. The card read:

    “Tom Laughlin.”

    What would you have done?
    What would you have said?
    Here’s what I did.

    “Well, I guess I’m going to have to call the police Lloyd.”

    “What? Why?”

    “I have to report a stolen credit card. The real Mr. Tom Laughlin will no doubt appreciate my conscientiousness.”

    Was I a jerk or an asshole or just mischievous?
    Why did I say that?

    I’ll tell you.

    Here sits Tom Laughlin, Billy Jack himself, telling me the biography of Tom Laughlin and yet--for whatever crazy reason--insisting he is Lloyd E. James.
    Why shouldn’t I call him out on it-- in a ‘calling-his-bluff sort of way?
    I mean--just because I thought I could do it. A chess move.

    Laughlin’s face was blank; impassive.
    He worked his jaw a bit. . . calculating a couple of beats and then his eyebrows lifted and he sniffed.

    “I’m not Tom Laughlin. I’m his older, fatter brother.”

    I had to smirk.
    Of course, he was now calling my bluff.

    The ball is in my court . . .

    “Shouldn’t you be Lloyd E. Laughlin and not Lloyd E. James?”

    Unexpectedly, the man laughed out loud!
    Big grin.
    (Much to my relief.)


    He chuckled and wiped his nose with the back of his hand as I handed him his American Express card and gave him the bill of sale to sign.

    “You’ve got a point. You’re probably right.”

    I tore off his receipt and helped him carry the artwork out of the gallery.

    He pulled up his pickup truck and I settled the wrapped pieces on top of some kind of Navajo blanket he kept there nestled safely for the journey.

    We actually shook hands. I couldn’t resist saying:

    “Tell your brother Tom, ‘Hello’ for me. Tell him I’m sorry The Trial of Billy Jack made the list of Worst Films of All Time.”

    The man did not blink.

    “Yep, it only earned 89 million. Heartbreaking.”

    He raised his eyebrows, turned, got into his truck - and away he went.

    I watched his ponderous truck pull out onto Culver Blvd. and make a hard left.
    A trail of blue smoke lingered in the afternoon sunlight and faded into a thin curtain of Hollyweird dreams.

    I thought to myself: “One tin soldier rides away …”


    Lyric to the theme song for Billy Jack

    “Go ahead and hate your neighbor; go ahead and cheat a friend.

    Do it in the name of heaven; you can justify it in the end.

    There won't be any trumpets blowin' come the judgment day

    On the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away. . .”


    Terry Walstrom

    Epilogue : Tom (Billy Jack) Laughlin lived another 32 years. He died at the ripe old age of 82 in Thousand Oaks, California in 2013. He had retired in 2010. I had met him around 1982.


    New York Times Obituary for Tom Laughlin

  • blondie

    I watched that movie, at first because of the song. It was a little hokey and wooden at times, but I liked the message. At the time, I lived in an abusive home. I realized I could defend myself and started looking for ways to equalize the difference between me and my larger parent. I succeeded to the point that I did not have to do anything but smile an evil smile (not learned from this movie). Some called it my look of death.

  • Terry

    Kids need a source of strength (even if it is projected on a silver screen) to ignite and inspire a sense of self-justice; to embolden through example, the will to transcend the rut in which they're trapped (seemingly).
    I think the thirst for a humble, no-nonsense vigilante is an ongoing popular trope just out of the great milieu of injustice evermore surrounding us.

  • stillin

    Terry, your exchange with him was a whole lot better than having him say,"I'm going to put my left foot in your right ear and there's nothing you can do about it.

  • resolute Bandicoot
    resolute Bandicoot

    Terry, I so remember that movie, I was only a youngster at the time, I think the 4th verse of the theme song is very haunting:

    Now the valley cried with anger,
    Mount your horses, draw your swords
    And they killed the mountain people,
    So they won their just rewards
    Now they stood before the treasure
    On the mountain dark and red
    Turned the stone and looked beneath it
    Peace on earth, was all it said.
  • AlwaysBusy

    I loved that movie. My favorite movie lines of all time... “I’m gonna take this right foot, and I’m gonna whop you on that side of your face. And you wanna know something? There’s not a damn thing you’re gonna be able to do about it.” – Billy Jack

  • Terry

    Laughlin was without a doubt in real life a larger-than-life character.
    If you go to his wiki page and begin reading as I did yesterday you'll see he was
    a pretty big activist on a lot of issues.
    But in person - I've got to say - really strange.
    Perhaps "deadpan" is most accurate.
    He liked to provoke and see what was inside of you. Maybe. Maybe just strange :)

  • Still Totally ADD
    Still Totally ADD

    Another great story Terry. I think I was 16 years old when I saw Billy Jack. It was like my own personal coming out party to adulthood. To this day that strong sense of justice has stuck with me because of that movie. Thank you for such great memories. Still Totally ADD

  • I quit!
    I quit!

    I never saw any of his movies. They didn't look that interesting to me of course back then I thought the Watchtower had all the answers and Jehovah would correct any social injustices. Great memory Terry. I enjoyed learning something about him.

  • Terry

    I'll bet if I had been a born-in JW I wouldn't have gone to movies either.
    During the Knorr presidency, the Watchtower was so different than the Org is today.
    That era went from rather liberal to smothered conservatism like a boa constrictor.

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