Sit a spell and listen to my story.
I once 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.
Here’s a quick list to capture your interest.
Hapkido expert who liked to kick pedophiles in the chin
Successful producer, writer, Director, and actor
Expert on Jungian philosophy
Self-styled ‘half-breed” peace activist given to fits of violent anger
Former Green Beret who liked to wear a cowboy hat
Intensely private citizen who hated to be recognized in a public place by me!
Did that get your attention? If so, settle in and off we go!
The 50-year-old man walked in out of the bright sunlight and I recognized him immediately. After all, who hadn’t seen the cult hit film, BILLY JACK?
I muttered quietly to myself, “Tom Laughlin.”
I worked Sundays at Creative Galleries in Culver City, California less than a mile from MGM Studios. It was nothing unusual for celebrities to drift in and take a glance around.
It was my job to approach all who entered and chat them up. After all, I was an ‘art consultant’ and expert on all the artwork hanging on the walls.
I approached the man and smiled.
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.
He looked me right in the eye and his message was clear enough.
I knew better than to annoy any celebrity--especially a surly one.
It was considered rude to approach an actor or speak other than a casual greeting.
That sort of behavior was left to tourists and nutjobs. 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 slo-mo half turn and stare.
Chatty fellow! I thought to myself.
Still, I did my job.
I pointed out various features of the gallery and its artwork. There were framed lithographs, serigraphs, etchings, paintings, photography, and art posters hanging pristinely in every sort of matt 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.”)
As luck would have it, I took Laughlin into a small showing room with special lighting containing a series of triptychs (3 views in separate frames) with Arapaho, Navajo, and Cheyenne Chiefs depicted in shadow-box style Barnwoo frames. Impressed into the hand-made paper were embossed arrowhead and bear claw bas relief indentations.
I sat him down in front of them as I walked over to the rheostat light switch and dimmed the fluorescent lights while brightening the quartz halogen (diamond) lights.
The dramatic effect immediately impressed Laughlin, I could see it plainly on his otherwise inscrutable face.
Naturally, I had no idea how connected was his life and wife to Native Americans, but I seized on his intense scrutiny as a pretext for a presentation.
I won’t go into all that was said by me--this story is about Laughlin. Suffice it to say, he opened up. He became more human. I breached the pikes, moat, and wall around his citadel of privacy. Transformed, he became engaging and talkative. My version of Calvin Coolidge spoke more than 3 words after all!
“I met my then future wife in South Dakota where I was a student. She lived on an Arapaho reservation and invited me for a closer look.
My stomach churned when 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 thoughtfully and I offered him the sort of libation available for V.I.P. customers.
“Can I offer you a glass of Chablis, Tom.”
His head jerked sideways like a hornet had stung his ear.
“I’m not Tom Laughlin.”
This amused and puzzled me, of course.
“Sorry, not-Tom-Laughlin, may I get you a refreshment?”
He loosened up a bit. I couldn’t read his expression. He’d have made a helluva poker player.
Presently, he continued. . .
“We moved around a lot after we married since I worked the TV circuit for years. Altman auditioned me for a film and cast me in the lead and we had to move again; this time to Hollyweird.”
As he spoke, he sipped his drink, stood and made a sweeping gesture with his left hand indicating he wanted to buy the triptych. He continued speaking and I suddenly realized I was listening to a kind of personal soliloquy. There was no part where I had to prod or move things along.
I’m not saying his words were scripted. It was simply spoken with gravitas and a faraway look in the eyes, no doubt triggered by some 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 each separately as he took up with his story.
I thought to myself, “This is what happens to the shy, quiet types who hold everything in check. Once they open up--it all spills out like gold dust!”
“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!)
“Wait, I thought Robert Altman is famous for the freedom he gives actors to improvise their parts?”
“Not with me. Everybody else--just not me. He called me a “pain-in-the-ass.”
Not-Tom-Laughlin grinned as he relived the memory.
“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 swiping 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. There was none. He said everything like he was reading the label on a can of roach powder.
He reached into his leather, hand-crafted 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:
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.”
“I have to report a stolen credit card which Mr. Tom Laughlin will no doubt appreciate.”
If you really knew me you probably wouldn’t say I am a jerk or an asshole--I’m just mischievous. Why did I say that?
Well, 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--for the challenge, you see?
Tom Laughlin’s face was 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.”
Now it was my turn. I had to smirk. Of course, he wasn’t Tom Laughlin’s older, fatter brother--but--he was now calling my bluff.
It was my return serve . . .
“Shouldn’t you be Lloyd E. Laughlin, then?”
Unexpectedly, the man laughed out loud at that! (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’re probably right about that. 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 in on top of a Navajo blanket he kept there nestled safely for the journey.
We 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 didn’t blink. He shot back:
“Yep, it only earned 89 million. Heartbreaking.”
He attached a half-smile and actually winked!
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.
“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. . .”
Epilog: 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,