Delores Taylor, 'Billy Jack' Actress, Screenwriter and Producer, Dies at 85

Billy Jack (1971) - Delores Taylor (as Jean Roberts), Tom Laughlin (as Billy Jack)  - Photofest-h 2018
Warner Bros./Photofest

She appeared as schoolteacher Jean Roberts opposite her husband, the late Tom Laughlin, in the film series.

Delores Taylor, the actress, screenwriter and producer who collaborated with her husband, the late Tom Laughlin, for five films featuring the countercultural hero Billy Jack, has died. She was 85.

Taylor died Friday at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills after a battle with dementia, her youngest daughter, Christina, told The Hollywood Reporter.

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.

She received a Golden Globe nomination for New Star of the Year — Actress in 1972.

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 said.

Taylor was born and raised in Winner, South Dakota, on the edge of the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Her father ran a post office frequented by Native Americans.

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.