Tom Laughlin Dies

Tom Laughlin as Billy Jack

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

updated 12/15/2013 AT 8:00 PM ET

originally published 12/15/2013 AT 8:50 PM ET

Actor-writer-director Tom Laughlin, whose production and marketing of Billy Jack set a standard for breaking the rules on and off screen, has died. He was 82.

Laughlin’s daughter told the Associated Press that he died Thursday at Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Teresa Laughlin, who acted in the Billy Jack movies, said his cause of death was complications from pneumonia.

Billy Jack was released in 1971 after a long struggle by Laughlin to gain control of the low-budget, self-financed movie, a model for guerrilla filmmaking.

He wrote, directed and produced Billy Jack and starred as the ex-Green Beret who defends a progressive school against the racists of a conservative Western community. The film became a counterculture favorite and the theme song, “One Tin Soldier,” was a hit single for the rock group Coven.

Laughlin was in his mid-30s when he created Billy Jack with his wife and collaborator, Delores Taylor. Billy Jack was half-white, half Native American, a Vietnam veteran and practitioner of martial arts who had come to hate war. Billy Jack was first seen in the 1968 biker movie Born Losers, but became widely known after Billy Jack, the second of four films Laughlin made about him (only three made it to theaters).

Billy Jack was completed in 1969, but its release was delayed for two years as Laughlin struggled to find studio backing. He eventually successfully sued Warner Bros. to retain rights and – with no support from Hollywood or from theater chains – Laughlin made the radical decision to distribute the movie himself and rent theaters to show it in. He also was among the first to advertise on television and to immediately open a movie nationwide, rather than release it gradually.

Billy Jack initially flopped at the box office, but generated an underground following and became a substantial commercial success and inspiration to independent filmmakers. The title character has been cited as a forerunner for such screen avengers as Rambo.

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