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Victoria native remembers time in film 'The Trial of Billy Jack'

May 23, 2014
Deborah Hill finds herself these days comfortably stowed away in her office at Crossroads Health Center.

Deborah Hill finds herself these days comfortably stowed away in her office at Crossroads Health Center.

She enjoys the medical field, having worked in it for the past several years, but her life now is a far cry from what life dealt her at 18.

Hill, who was attending Southwest Texas State University - now Texas State University - at the time, was part of the choir when she was, as she says, "discovered."

This discovery would take her on the road from being raised in a growing Victoria, to spending a month in Phoenix for a role in a film that still follows her today - the role of Debbie in "The Trial of Billy Jack".

Tell us about being discovered.

Oh, that wonderful story. Tom Laughlin was coming to interview the Strutters at Southwest Texas State, who were very famous at the time. He wanted them in his movie, so while he was there, he thought about having a choir in his movie at that time. He asked the dean of music if he had a black choir there. He said yes. They told me, "Hey, you need to be at the music department no later than whatever time because we've got to sing for Tom Laughlin." And I'm like, "Who is Tom Laughlin?" They were like, "He's the one who is Billy Jack." Well, we had been to see Billy Jack a lot. So I sang "Peace Be Still." It's a hymn. I didn't know he was that impressed with it. I sang the song and went about my business. I went to swimming class, and after swimming class, I went to my music class, and he met me there and asked me, "How would you like to be in my movie?" I was like, "Really?" and he's like, "When you sang that song, I just cried, and you've got to be in my movie." And I was like, "Wow, where do I sign up?" That's how I got that part after the movie.

So what happened then?

Three months later, I was on my way to Phoenix, Ariz. Another guy who directed the choir went with us; he was also in the movie. We filmed it on the St. John's Reservation in Maricopa County; that was an experience for sure. The Indians were living in the mud huts; there was no air conditioning, no windows. It was just amazing. The last scene was at the church on the reservation. It had been built in the 1800s or something. The Native Americans, he had a lot of compassion for. He felt like they were very mistreated. That was one of the other reasons he wanted to do it on location. I was getting paid $400 a week, and in the '70s, it was fantastic.

So, after coming out in the film, what made you not want to continue pursuing a career in acting?

That was a career I did not want to pursue. You're never in one place, and it's so competitive. The one thing that I hate that did not happen; I did get a singing contract, and by the time I realized what was going on in my life, the year was up, and then, it was gone. It's a great experience. Everyone needs to know what movie life is like.

At the time, the movie was huge. What was that like?

Victoria had a very big production. I wasn't here, but everybody, being a cheerleader and very active in the community along with my family - they all made it a really big deal. The thing that really got me was, "There is my name," I have an individual spot with my name. It's not with the extras and stuff. That was the most fascinating thing. I was excited about that. The premiere was in Arizona, and I saw it.

So overall, what has the experience done for you now?

Well, it really makes you more aware of people around you and how to really get along with others. It's like when you go off to college - you're learning new surroundings, how to accept individuals and what people are more compassionate about. The Indians meant nothing at 18 years old, but when you go to see how they live, then you start thinking how blessed you are because they had nothing. It made you really grateful. I would love to do it again. It was real interesting. The people you meet from all over the U.S. and just going back to being young and naive. It was quite an experience. When you can look back, you look at all the opportunities you had and just blew off.

Story by J.R. Ortega - Victoria Advocate