Delores Taylor, who co-starred with her husband Tom Laughlin in his productions of the Billy Jack series of films, has died in Southern California, her daughter said on March 26.
She was 85.
Taylor was originally from Winner and her father, Harry, was the Winner postmaster.
Teresa Laughlin told The Associated Press that Taylor died March 23 of natural causes at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Home near Los Angeles. She said her mother had suffered from dementia.
Taylor was born in 1932 in Winner, South Dakota. She grew up near the Rosebud Indian Reservation, an experience which she drew from when creating the namesake character of the Billy Jack films in the 1970s.
Taylor starred in three of the four Billy Jack films in which she played a teacher whose progressive school is defended by Billy Jack — a half-white, half-Native American Vietnam veteran who had come to hate war. The films became counterculture favorites.
In 1986, Taylor returned to Winner to attend her 35th class reunion. She was honored at the coronation as then mayor Duane Patmore presented Taylor with a key to the city and Dennis Meyer, president of the Winner Chamber of Commerce, presented her with a dozen roses.
A front page story in the Oct. 1, 1986, Winner Advocate detailed her life in Winner and as an actress. The story was written by Dan Bechtold.
While she and her husband were in Winner they spoke to Winner High School students.
While at WHS, Taylor was active in band, chorus, student council, pep band, pep club and National Honor Society. She was a cheerleader and a homecoming candidate.
After graduating from Winner High School, Taylor worked at the Tripp County Auditor’s office for two years.
After raising enough money, she went to the University of South Dakota and majored in art.
In an interview for the Winner newspaper back in 1986, Taylor said she had a lot of feelings about Winner High School. “The one thing that has struck me the most is that Winner gave me a good solid foundation, an inner strength that i don’t think i would have gotten any place else,” she said.
Billy Jack was first seen in the 1968 biker movie Born Losers, but became widely known after Billy Jack, the second of four films Laughlin made about him (only three made it to theaters).
Billy Jack was released in 1971 after a long struggle by Laughlin to gain control of the low-budget, self-financed movie, a model for guerrilla filmmaking. The film became a surprise hit and the theme song, One Tin Soldier, was a hit single for the rock group Coven.
Taylor was nominated for a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year in 1972.
Taylor appeared in a small role and as the narrator in the first Billy Jack film, The Born Losers (1967), then played the schoolteacher Jean Roberts opposite her husband as the title character in Billy Jack (1971), The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977) and The Return of Billy Jack (1986), which was never released.
Taylor and Laughlin, who were married from October 1954 until his death in December 2013 at age 82, developed the character of Billy, a mystical half-Navajo, half-white Vietnam veteran and martial arts expert who stands up for the underdog in America.
Laughlin also directed all the films in the series, and for much of their off-camera work, he and his wife adopted pseudonyms, including Frank and Teresa Christina to honor their children. (Frank is a film editor, and Teresa appeared in four of the Billy Jack films.)
The couple also self-distributed their features, which explored themes like child abuse, religious persecution and exploitation of Native Americans. After winning a lawsuit with Warner Bros. over Billy Jack, they rereleased that film, made for $360,000, and it remains one of the most successful independent films in history.
On the eve of the release of The Born Losers, Roger Ebert wrote about her:
“Miss Taylor is an independent producer. But not an independent like John Wayne or Kirk Douglas, forming production companies for tax purposes and releasing films through established studios. She is a real independent — which means that she works out of her own living room and pocketbook, finds financial backers wherever she can and sometimes has to stop filming to dig up more money.”
A song from The Trial of Billy Jack, “Golden Lady,” written for her and performed by Lynn Baker, became her trademark. Taylor had not heard it until her character was brought by Billy into a church in a wheelchair in an emotional scene, her daughter noted.
“Just about every letter that she received from her fans after that called her the Golden Lady,” Christina, her youngest daughter told the Hollywood Reporter.
She met Laughlin at the University of South Dakota and was set to marry another man. But Laughlin hitchhiked to South Dakota, arriving on Christmas Eve to talk her out of that, her daughter said.
They were married in Milwaukee when she was working as a graphic artist and he was a dairy deliveryman, then came to Los Angeles in 1955 in a borrowed car and with $200 to their name to figure out a career in show business.
“They completed each other in a way I’ve never seen with anyone else,” said Christina, who is writing and producing a documentary titled Renegades, about 1971’s Billy Jack.
In addition to her three children, survivors include Taylor’s grandchildren, Ellery, Hutch, Lily, Arlan and Jessica, and her sisters, Joan and Darlene.
Her daughter said Taylor was a “reluctant” celebrity and preferred her roles of wife, mother and grandmother.
“She loved performing but didn’t enjoy the Hollywood trappings,” Teresa Laughlin said.