“Listen, children, to a story that was written long ago … ” So begins “One Tin Soldier” the relentlessly catchy theme song to Billy Jack, the 1971 cult film classic about a karate-chopping half-white/half-Indian ex–Green Beret who tends to “go berserk” when he sees Native Americans being abused by redneck whites.
The creation of Billy Jack, the character Tom Laughlin portrayed in four films (all of which he co-wrote and directed), can be traced to the mid-1950s, when the football jock/aspiring filmmaker was dating a University of South Dakota art major named Delores Taylor, who would eventually become his wife, co-writer and co-star. As the couple prepares to bring a restored print of Billy Jack to this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, the 78-year-old Laughlin credits Taylor for inspiring the character that shaped so much of his life.
“Dody is from a small town called Winner, South Dakota,” he explains, speaking by phone from the couple’s Ventura County home. “She was a pale platinum blonde at the time and she had lived around Native Americans all her life. They would always come over and ask if ‘Little Yellowhead’ could come out to play. So when I met her, she was deeply passionate about Indian rights. She was on a mission.
“One time when I was there courting her, she and I drove through a section of town with all these rundown shacks and abandoned cars covered with cardboard and carpet that people were living in,” Laughlin recalls. “‘What the hell is that?’ I asked, and she said, ‘That’s where the Indians live.’ And I couldn’t believe it. I was so incensed.”
Soon after, Laughlin was in Winner’s one and only bar when he heard some locals laughingly describe how they sometimes followed home the area’s Native Americans, most of whom were members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, after they’d come into town for supplies. More than once, these men had stopped the Natives, who were traveling on foot, and dumped a bag of flour over their heads, taunting, “Hey, now you can go back to town and shop in the white man’s store.” Laughlin, clearly still furious a half-century later, takes a deep breath. “Those guys were laughing, so proud of themselves, and I wanted to throw them through the window. I couldn’t do that, but Billy Jack could, so I went back to the motel and wrote the ice cream parlor scene.”
In the scene, which remains potent today, Billy Jack enters an ice cream parlor just after the town bully — a rich man’s spoiled son — has poured flour over the heads of three kids from the Freedom School, a haven for Native-American children and run by Billy Jack’s great love, Jean. Taylor, who had never acted before, took the role of Jean with three days’ notice — “I tricked her into it,” Laughlin notes, laughing.
“I was terrified,” the soft-spoken Taylor admits. She is a woman of few words — “the introvert’s introvert,” her husband declares — but onscreen that reserve gave Jean great power, never more so than in a wrenching monologue she gives after being raped.
In her November 1971 New Yorker review of the film, critic Pauline Kael wrote that she “can’t remember another movie in which the rape victim explained what the invasion of her body meant to her or how profound the insult and humiliation were.”
“Dody improvised that speech,” Laughlin says proudly. “We went up to a mountaintop lake and I just put a long lens on her and then stepped back. I got out of her way. She did it all. It was stupefying.”
Taylor brushes aside all praise. “I can’t explain it,” she says. “Something just took over.”
Asked why she never acted in films other than those she made with Laughlin, Taylor makes it clear that she never gave a big-screen career a second thought. ”Acting wasn’t something I was expecting, or dreaming of,” she says. “It’s just that I got hooked up with this guy, who had these big dreams. He was so driven, so talented.”
Then Laughlin gets in the last word, saying, with obvious delight, “As you can see, after 54 years, I still have her conned.”
Billy Jack screens at the Billy Wilder Theater on Sunday, June 21 at 6 p.m.