Billy Jack has always saved his melodramatic heroics for a time of direst jeopardy. Now it's the turn of his alter egotist, producer-director-scenarist-star Tom Laughlin, 45. He's $7.5 million in hock and reports ominously, "There are rumors about town that they have me by the throat, and that the top executives will drive me out of business." The nameless "they": Warner Brothers.

Tom's travails began when he expanded his staff to 110 with the euphoria over his blockbusters Billy Jack and The Trial of Billy Jack. Unfortunately, his heavily promoted follow-up, The Master Gunfighter, turned comparative turkey. When Laughlin tried to "keep the cash flow going" by rereleasing his first two epics, he found that Warner Brothers had sold TV rights to Billy Jack to NBC. Illegally, contended Tom, and he retaliated with $94 million in lawsuits.

Meanwhile he's chopped Billy Jack Enterprises back to 11 employees (counting wife Delores Taylor and himself) and mortgaged his Brentwood and Vail homes. "I could be personally squeezed out and left in the gutter," he concedes. But he has one last shot: his next film, a remake of the 1939 James Stewart anti-Establishment classic in which Billy Jack, not Mr. Smith, goes to Washington.

Though BJGTW could mean his bankruptcy as easily as his bailout, Laughlin had lost none of his bravado when he recently addressed a conclave of the National Association of Theatre Owners. They're the ones who have him at their mercy, but Tom hardly arrived black hat in hand. "We had one failure, and everybody came at us. You exhibitors are by and large stupid," he sneered. "The major studios have decided to make only 10 pictures a year and you're going to have to play those dogs." Laughlin suggested: "My film will be out in February, and when all the other pictures have fallen in the toilet, come and see me."