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When Laughlin tapped Jane Russell for the part of the cheap, sleazy mother of one of the raped girls in Born Losers, the fifties bombshell, who'd been made an overnight sensation by Howard Hughes 25 years earlier, was trying to revive her acting career by playing older roles."Born Losers" availability on video and on DVD from Amazon.com
Laughlin, who was running out of money, planned to use Russell's name to raise enough to finish the picture and lure a distributor. But first, he had to get Russell, who was contracted to act for one day for $1,000 (the price of the Laughlins' station wagon), on film.
Four days before he was scheduled to shoot Russell's scene, Laughlin had an appendicitis attack. He was terrified, but he wasn't about to call off the shoot and risk losing the film's only big name. If he had to shut down, Laughlin figured, he'd at least have Russell's scene in the can.
For three days, gang leader Bob Tessier kept applying ice packs to Laughlin's appendix, but the pain just kept building. Finally, the day before Russell's scene was scheduled to be shot, the appendix burst. The picture was in jeopardy.
Laughlin's doctor agreed to meet him at 3 a.m. in the parking lot of St. John's Hospital for a diagnosis. If it wasn't a burst appendix, Laughlin could save the hospital expense and perhaps return to the set. But after a brief examination in the back of Laughlin's station wagon, the doctor broke the bad news -- Tom's condition required emergency surgery.
The picture had to be shut down for one week while Laughlin was confined to a hospital bed. Fearing he'd lose Russell if he didn't shoot her scene as scheduled, Tom left the hospital.
It was too soon. During the shooting of a small sequence, he tore open the wound. He was in pain; in fact, his condition was serious, but he was determined to wrap up Russell's scene.
That's when the actress called him to her trailer. "Tom," she told him, "I'm quitting the show. I'm leaving now." And by the way, she added, if you ever have the brains to get yourself to a hospital and get well I'll come back and work for free as many days as you want me.
Laughlin took Russell's advice, and after 10 days in the hospital, he was back on the set ready to shoot the big scene.
Russell's scene called for the actress, whose character worked in a B bar, to break down and cry and fly into a rage at the DA and sheriff who promise to protect her daughter against the gang if her daughter testifies. Russell was to pound on them and shove them out of her house, then collapse crying. That's when they knock and open the door. "Excuse me," the DA says, "this is the bedroom." Russell realizes she's pushed him out the wrong door and breaks out laughing uncontrollably.
Laughlin set up shortly before supper time and had Russell run through the scene. That's when he noticed that her acting seemed strained. She was trying too hard. He needed to work up her emotional state before the cameras could roll. To do this, Laughlin came up with a plan.
"Okay, we're all ready?" he asked the crew.
"Jane?" She was ready too.
"Everybody set?" Laughlin finally called out. Then he stopped and looked at his watch. "Oh my God meal time. That's it guys. Hour for dinner, break."
Russell was livid. Here she was, one of the biggest actresses of her time, a star who had worked with the likes of Howard Hawks, Josef von Sternberg and Nicolas Ray and some unknown had the nerve to break her stride after she had just done him a big favor.
The actress stormed back to her trailer, the only one on the set, and called for Laughlin. He refused to see her. In fact, he had left the area so she couldn't get a hold of him. By now Russell is so mad, she was ready to quit. Laughlin's scheme was working out as planned.
On the set everything was ready -- all three cameras were in place (including a low camera to capture a closeup if she broke out crying), every light was pointed, nothing needed to be changed.
As Laughlin had hoped, Russell came back in a rage. She flew through the scene, growing furious at the DA and the sheriff, pounding them with all the force of her anger, driving them out of the house, then sobbing, really crying. It was an incredible piece of acting. Russell was acting out of her emotional psyche.
Then, as scripted, the sheriff and the DA opened the door and excused themselves, and Russell burst out laughing, not just at the actors, but at the realization that had just hit her as the camera closed in on her face howling with delight, tears streaming down, and Laughlin's voice yelled, "Cut."
"You clever son of a bitch," Russell blurted out, using rare language for a Christian woman. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you."
Elizabeth James, Jeremy Slate, William Wellman Jr.
Director: T.C. Frank (Laughlin)
Producer: Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, Director: Tom Laughlin (as T. C. Frank)
Writer: Elizabeth James (as E. James Lloyd), Music: Mike Curb, Cinematography: Gregory Sandor
Assistant Director: Jonathan Hayes, Delores Taylor, Editing: John Winfield
Cast: Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack), Elizabeth James (Vicky Barrington), Jeremy Slate (Danny Carmody), Jane Russell (Mr. Shorn), William Wellman, Jr. (Child), Jack Starrett (Deputy Fred), Stuart Lancaster (Sheriff), Paul Bruce (District Attorney), Robert Cleaves (Mr. Crawford), Robert Tessier (Cueball), Jeff Cooper (Gangrene), Paul Prokop (Speechless), Gordon Hoban (Jerry Carmody), Janice Miller (Jodell Shorn), Julie Cahn (LuAnn Crawford), Susan Foster (Linda Prang), Anne Bellamy (Mrs. Prang), Edwin Cook (Crabs).
The Born Losers came early in the cycle, in the boom year of 1967, alongside Hells Angels on Wheels with Jack Nicholson and Devilís Angels with John Cassavetes. Its unexpected success that summer wrought The Glory Stompers (1968) with Dennis Hopper, The Cycle Savages (1969) with Bruce Dern, The Rebel Rousers (1970) with Dern and Nicholson, and Angel Unchained (1970) with Don Stroud, etc.
Based on a pair of high profile 1964 news items ó the slaying of New York bar manager Kitty and the Hells Angels alleged intimidation of teenaged rape victims in Monterey Ė The Born Losers was distributed by American International Pictures and wound up being their biggest moneymaker until The Amityville Horror (1979) a decade later. Despite its basis in fact, the film quotes from the granddaddy of all biker films, The Wild One (1953) before branching out to straddle the rape/revenge/vigilante drama typified by Walking Tall (1973) and Death Wish (1974). The San Fernando motorcycle club The Devilís Disciples filled out the ranks of the filmís make-believe gang. Extra motorcycles were loaned out by Sears, which Laughlin hid behind the Harleys. The Born Losersí beach house was actually located in Venice, California, and was once owned by Rudolph Valentino. The success of Billy Jack prompted Samuel Arkoff and AIP partner James Nicholson to reissue The Born Losers under the tag line ďThe Original Billy Jack is back!Ē Tom Laughlin sued.
Assistant director Jonathan Hayes had been the star of Roger Cormanís The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). Jack Starrett directed such drive-in classics as The Losers (1970), Slaughter (1972), Cleopatra Jones (1973) and Race with the Devil (1975). Jeff Cooper (Gangrene) later starred in Circle of Iron (1978), in a role written for the late Bruce Lee.
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Laughlin lived near and attended Washington High School with future Willy Wonka star Gene Wilder.
The first Mad Max movie is a biker/revenge flick, in which a group of bikers runs down Mel Gibson's wife & child