American International Pictures and The Rise of New Hollywood Part 6

A Counterculture Hero.

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Continued from part 5

The success of Roger Corman’s ‘The Wild Angels’ kick started a cycle of ‘Biker’ pictures with films like, ‘Hells Angels On Wheels’ (1967, s. Jack Nicholson), ‘The Glory Stompers’ (1967, s. Dennis Hopper), ‘The Devil’s Angels’ (1967, s. John Cassavetes) and many many more. Not all the biker films at the time were distributed by AIP but it was a small picture that AIP “picked up” that would be a huge success for them, and its creator.

The Born Losers (1967)

Actor/director Tom Laughlin was wrapping up a film he was making but needed more cash. His investors wouldn’t give him more than the $150,000 they budgeted so off he went to AIP to speak with James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff. (Laughlin had starred in a picture for them in the 50’s called ‘The Delinquents’.) Nicholson & Arkoff  screened the film and loved it. They bought out the original investors and gave Tom $300,000 to finish it up. The film was about a half Native American ex-Green Beret named Billy Jack, who opens up a can of whoop-ass on some bikers who had abducted a few young girls, the film was called ‘The Born Losers’.

Tom Laughlin had originally written a very different film but changed the story to bikers to cash in on the craze. Co-star Elizabeth James, and first time writer, re-wrote the screenplay under the pen name James Lloyd. Despite being exploitive it does have a very strong female lead in the character of Vicky Barrington who doesn’t take much lip from the bikers but gets assaulted by them all the while keeping her strength and dignity.

Tough guy actor Jeremy Slate (who would star later in AIP’s loose remake of Anthony Mann’s ‘Winchester ‘73, Hell’s Belles’) chews up the scenery as biker leader Danny, with his white Jackie-O sunglasses. Burly character actor Jack Starrett ( famous for playing Gabby Johnson in ‘Blazing Saddles’) plays Danny’s cop brother.

Years later Starrett would play almost an identical role as the sadistic sheriff in ‘First Blood’. It has a fantastic soundtrack by Mike Curb and a tune from ‘Davey Allen and The Arrows’. Some scenes were also shot in my neck of the woods, Seal Beach and Huntington Beach, so for me I get to see locations that are long gone like Huntington Shores and The Grinder Restaurant where my mom and I would eat lunch sometimes.

The Born Losers also marks the film debut of ubiquitous 70s and 80s character actor Robert Tessier, this guy was in just about every biker flick from here on out, a couple of Bronson pictures Hard Times and Breakout Pass, The Longest Yard, The Deep, Hooper, Star Crash, The Sword and The Sorcerer and TV shows Buck Rogers, ChiPs, Magnum PI, The Hulk to name just a few.

He was also a stuntman and formed a company with fellow stuntman and director Hal Needham, (Cannonball Run also with Tessier) An Algonquian Indian, Tessier served in Korea as a paratrooper earning a Silver Star and Purple Heart. He sadly passed away of cancer in 1990.

[The Born Losers] – a mixture of vigilantism, paranoia, liberalism and feminist consciousness – must be the most amateurish bad movie that ever wound up on Variety’s list of the highest grossing films of all times – Pauline Kael

The Born Losers would end up grossing 36 million on a $450,000 Budget! It ranked as the 9th biggest grossing film of the year. The film was so successful that AIP decided to back Tom’s sequel, the picture he really wanted to make, ‘Billy Jack’.

Billy Jack (1971)

The film ‘Billy Jack’ would prove to be problematic for James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff at AIP. Tom Laughlin had spent most of the money and still didn’t really have a picture. Sam and Jim panicked a bit, after all they never really had problems on Corman’s pictures, and they wanted to cut their loses. Laughlin went to Fox and they agreed to give him full creative control and bought out AIPs end of it. Fox ended up having the same problem as AIP with their stubborn filmmaker, and then Warner Bros bought it. Warner Bros did a horrible job marketing it and it bombed. Tom Laughlin got a bank loan and bought the picture back from Warner Bros and did something no one had ever done before.

Tom knew that kids listened to the radio more than they watched tv so he decided to utilize the theme song, Coven’s cover of the original Caste song ‘One Tin Soldier’. It only reached #26 on billboard’s top 100 but it was the most requested song of 1973 giving ‘Billy Jack’ tons of free publicity. He did something else that was extraordinary, he “four walled” the film and re-released the film himself! Four walling means he rented out all the screens thus keeping a 100 percent of the box office, which was an incredibly risky move but that Coven song brought the kids in and it became a huge hit, not for AIP, not for Fox, not for Warner’s but all for Tom Laughlin!

AIP re-released ‘The Born Losers’ to cash in on the success of ‘Billy Jack’, and Tom went on a crusade against them as well as flipping the bird to Warner Bros. for not handling the film properly. He would take full page ads in papers like Variety slamming them. Like Billy, he was fighting “The Man”.

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He would make sequels ‘The Trial Of Billy Jack’ and ‘Billy Jack Goes To Washington’ and release them the same way. Tom Laughlin and ‘Billy Jack’ would become 70s cult heroes for a time!

The Trip

With the “Biker Movies” fad in full swing, Roger Corman made a picture for 20th Century Fox! A gangster picture called ‘The St. Valentines Day Massacre’ (1967) starring Jason Robards Jr. as Al Capone and George Segal. Because of his Indie background he brought the picture in under budget and on schedule.

Meanwhile AIP wanted a sequel to ‘The Wild Angels’ so Roger Corman agreed to produced ‘The Devils Angels’.  Corman also wanted to do another counterculture picture, not about motorcycles but drugs…LSD to be specific.

A script was written by Chuck Griffith, but Corman wasn’t happy with it. He wanted to experiment more, he wanted to make something impressionistic, so he turned to his good friend Jack Nicholson to re-write it. Nicholson had written and starred in a couple of westerns that Corman produced, ‘The Shooting’ and ‘Ride The Whirlwind’ both directed by Monte Hellman. These two westerns were not your typical oaters but rather existentialist art films, if you’ve seen Hellman’s ‘Two Lane Black Blacktop’ you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

“Roger was my whole bottom-line support then…I had pretty much given up as an actor…I was happy to write it and make a more demanding picture of it.” – Jack Nicholson

This period was tough for Jack all his buddies were becoming working actors but not him, according to Bruce Dern. Jack couldn’t even land an extra gig on The Big Valley, which they all were getting. Corman was the only one giving him roles for the most part, so he turned to writing. Corman also knew Jack was no stranger to LSD.

Roger realized that if he was going to make a film about acid that maybe he should drop some. So Roger and a few friends went out to Big Sur in California where he laid face down next a tree and for several hours imagining that he was creating a new art form and having a great time.

-Phillip López Jiménez

Next time:
SEE! Roger Corman finishes The Trip.
SEE! Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper have an idea.
SEE! Sam and Jim’s relationship starts to unwind.

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