Yesterday was a sad day for myself and all fans of Billy Jack. It was announced that Tom Laughlin, the man brought Billy Jack to life, passed away. He actually passed away on Thursday, December 12, although it wasn’t made public until yesterday. He was 82. For those fans that have not seen the homepage of billyjackrights.com, I highly recommend it. It is nothing flashy, just a very well done and well selected image of Mr. Laughlin.
The news hit me hard when I found out. For those that do not know, I played the part of Danny in The Trial of Billy Jack. I knew Tom Laughlin. But not the one everyone else did.
The year was 1973. My family was fresh off a move from New Jersey in December of 1972. While a trip out West means a lot of changes for a family – like finding new schools – my parents had the additional responsibility of finding a place to fit me with a prosthetic. They hoped to find an establishment that was as well respected as the famous Kessler Institute in New Jersey. My parents selected a provider called Arizona Crippled Children, and it is there that my opportunity with Mr. Laughlin began. Unknown to us, Mr. Laughlin contacted Arizona Crippled Children in early 1973 in a effort to cast a one handed child for a role in his upcoming movie, The Trial of Billy Jack. As my parents tell it, I was up for the role along with another one-handed kid. Mr. Laughlin interviewed both my parents and I and a short time afterwards I was offered the role. One thing I vividly remember from that first interview was his voice. With his passing, many people are referring to the famous line from the first Billy Jack movie: “I’m gonna take this right foot, and I’m gonna whop you on that side of your face…”. That is the voice I remember so well from our first meeting. Low key but confident. Even at eight, I got it.
My filming lasted over three weeks, and my time on the set was nothing short of wonderful. Mr. Laughlin and the entire Laughlin family were incredibly kind to my family and I, as were all of the people behind the scenes. Tom and Deloris Taylor’s’ daughter, TC (now known as Teresa Kelly) played the part of Carol, the person responsible for caring for my character, Danny. Needless to say, we worked very closely during the filming. She was so kind to me and helped me out so much; Lord knows I needed the help.
One story about Tom Laughlin I would like to share has to do with the last scene TC and I were in together in the film, my death scene (posted on my video page). Some people say that was the climatic scene of the entire movie. As you can see from the images I have posted, the night of the death scene was extremely cold as pretty much everyone was wearing heavy jackets. Except me…my character had a short sleeve shirt on. For reasons I will try to get to on another post, we shot the death scene twice. After the first shoot, I was by myself waiting for everyone to set up the scene for the second shoot, and I was shivering cold in fake blood. The fact that an eight year old kid was left by himself and shivering cold did not go over well with Mr. Laughlin. It was at that moment I saw Billy Jack for the first time. He may not have had his trademark hat on, but it was him alright. He told his crew to take me to his personal trailer, get me cleaned up, see to it that I warm up and get me whatever I needed. And he wanted it done five minutes ago. Without the threat of a right foot, they listened. But they listened because he cared and so did his people.
Tom Laughlin will be remembered for a lot of things. He created Billy Jack and made the character matter. He wrote the screenplays and starred in the movies, like Sylvester Stallone did with Rocky a few years later. He invented the “Summer Blockbuster” with his release of The Trial of Billy Jack. Not everyone agreed with his politics, and not everyone liked his movies – especially the one I was in. In 1973, however, it can be argued that he was one of the biggest names in Hollywood. And yet he treated a snot-nosed little eight year old like he was the biggest star in Hollywood. For that I will be eternally grateful.
I had always thought our paths would cross again, and I would be able to shake his hand as a man and say ‘thank you’. Unfortunately for me, that will never happen.