Billy Jack’s First Film
Before Milwaukee native Tom Laughlin hit it big with “Billy Jack,” he made a film here that scandalized the priests and nuns at Gesu church.
Back in 1960, a Hollywood film took up shop in Milwaukee, shooting in high schools, snack drive-ins and such familiar locales as Gesu Church.
Among the future notables engaged in the project was an attractive 18-year-old who chose the stage name of Taffy Paul. Fortunately wiser heads prevailed and switched her moniker to Stefanie Powers. Under that name she went on to considerable attention, which she still enjoys at age 71 – co-starring with John Wayne and Troy Donahue in movies, Robert Wagner in a long-running TV series and also as the real-life partner of star William Holden until his death in 1981. (Indeed, when I interviewed him in 1978, he was amused that teenage me had met teenage her in Milwaukee).
Such memories came flooding back with the death December 12 at age 82 of Milwaukee native Tom Laughlin, the director of that curious film project so heavily covered 53 years ago by local TV and newspapers.
Laughlin would go on to achieve the entertainment fortune he had long sought as the star and often director or quasi-director of the “Billy Jack” movies, including the mega-hit of 1971, sold under the then novel wall-to-wall distribution method (approaching theaters one by one for a profit split). It was a way of making money in a hurry that became much emulated.
Youngsters seized on the heroic Billy Jack – a Native American ex-Green Beret using his karate skills to fight racism and oppression. It was a precursor of stoic loners insisting on mystic aura who then use violence to cripple the bad guys – a theme still rich in movie annals. And it generated big profits for the first movie and a diminishing box office for later movies in the series.
Laughlin was a noted football athlete at Washington High School who made headlines over an eligibility dispute and then became a 1950s member of the Marquette Players. He parlayed those local connections plus his budding television and movie emergence (“Gidget,” “South Pacific,” “Tall Story”) to promote huge free cooperation and even fire trucks for this independent film, which he wrote and directed.
Laughlin was always quite a character, later steeping himself in psychology and cult theories, but in the 1960s he was an entertainment hustler described by colleagues as “steeped in anger at authority . . . a petty god in his own mind … egotistical but a great charmer who hated to be contradicted ” — all descriptions that I heartily concur in.
But he could bring emerging newcomers to his side with gusto. That Milwaukee film included budding talents beyond the young Taffy/Stefanie — such as an actress who became an Elia Kazan favorite and Ophelia to Richard Burton’s “Hamlet,” Linda Marsh. There were Marquette students Charles Siebert (later a noted acting name and director), Bob Colonna (now teacher of drama and yes, son of the Bob Hope sidekick Jerry), Richard Colla (later a director) and William Wellman Jr. (son of the noted director and later a busy supporting actor in some 200 films). There was a line producer related to the Wesley and Charles Ruggles family, and James Stacy, before tragic circumstances a leading man on television.
But there were reasons it took five years to get to the screen and was re-edited (by Laughlin, under an assumed name). Yes, a friend tells me, it is on Netflix and cable stalwart TMC says it is in the vaults as “The Young Sinner.” But it is not a good film.
Laughlin’s death was understandably overshadowed internationally by the passings of a true acting legend, Peter O’Toole, and a genuine screen star, Joan Fontaine. But the usual obit flurry for a hometown celebrity had major holes, including no mention of that summer filming fling. It was big news back then and quickly recalled to me by folks older and younger who cherish that era of Milwaukee.
Why was it not even mentioned in those “local boy makes good” obituaries? Well, no one checked the files, I guess, and historic legacy is no longer a strength of local media.
Nor has there even been been much discussion around Marquette University of the embarrassing aftermath. In 1965, the film was shown in a special Jesuit screening to a collection of the good nuns and priests who had opened their hearts and institutional doors to Laughlin – without ever reading the script and while foolishly agreeing to be barred from the Gesu set.
Imagine the shock among the faithful at scenes with a seduction in the choir loft and the smashing of a statute of the Virgin Mary in the central aisle of the church. But by then it was too late.
Secrecy and schmoozing were two key talents of Tom Laughlin. What a Hollywood talent!
(O’Toole and Fontaine as well as Laughlin will be added December 17 to TCM’s definitive “Remembers” tribute of notable screen departures of 2013.)
The author for 20 years was film and drama critic of The Milwaukee Journal and then senior editor before becoming editor of Milwaukee Labor Press and freelancer in politics and culture.