Craggy and steady as a rock, character actor par excellence Warren Oates was a welcome, macho presence in TV and films from the mid- 1950s to his untimely death from a heart ailment at the age of 53 in 1982.
Sadly, Oates was in the middle of the most high-profile part of his career when he passed away. The Kentucky native had key roles in the hit military comedy Stripes—minus his trademark facial hair–and the action thriller Blue Thunder soon before his death.
Oates’ performance as blustery Sgt. Hulka, commanding officer to Bill Murray’s goofball ex-cab driver recruit John Winger, won the actor a new, younger generation of fans as the $10 million film went on to take in over $80 million at the box-office. (For more on the character, see: Drop and Give Me 12 Movie Drill Instructors Not Named R. Lee Ermey
Likewise, Oates received attention for his work as Captain Jack Braddock, cantankerous superior to Roy Scheider’s LAPD loose-cannon helicopter pilot Frank Murphy, in the popular air action saga.
Those who had followed the actor since watching him play an array of characters in a dozen Gunsmoke episodes, his co-starring efforts in the short-lived but well-remembered rodeo drama Stoney Burke, or many other small-screen stints for The Rebel, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Rawhide, Branded, Bonanza, Lost in Space, Thriller, and The Twilight Zone, were not surprised by his growing fan base.
Oates, a Marine Corps veteran who started performing while attending the University of Louisville, had a way of bringing a sense of humanity to intensely private or on-the-edge characters. He was commanding regardless if the part called for quiet or boisterous. Whether the role called for him to be beady-eyed or bulging-eyed, he often appeared to be in need of a shower, shave, and brushing of teeth.
“It’s hard to think of Oates as an optimist,” said film critic David Thomson. “There’s something in his face, the way he looks at things, that suggests a readiness for failure or darkness.”
The actor, who enjoyed booze, drugs and women (he married four times), and was a descendant of Revolutionary War figure Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion, may be best known for his collaborations with the great wild man helmer Sam Peckinpah.
It seemed to be a match in heaven, the gritty actor and contentious filmmaker. But the two eventually had an ugly falling out. No surprise there.
They first worked together on an episode of the popular Chuck Connors western The Rifleman. A pre-“Bloody” Sam enlisted Oates for a part in Ride the High Country, one of his early features, playing a member of a menacing mining clan alongside another soon-to-be Peckinpah favorite, L.Q. Jones. Peckinpah thereafter called upon Oates for the part of the confederate deserter Hadley in the director’s much-tampered with Major Dundee.
Along with a rogue’s gallery of talented performers, Oates made a name for himself in Peckinpah’s iconic The Wild Bunch, playing Lyle Gorch, a member of the titular outlaw troupe commandeered by Pike Bishop (William Holden), in search of one last score.
As for working with Ben Johnson, who played sibling Tector Gorch, Oates paid him a complement in an interview:
”I want to be like Ben Johnson,” he said. “Not just Ben Johnson on the screen, but Ben Johnson in every aspect of his life. He’s a straight, wonderful, natural performer. He’s a purist.”
Meanwhile, for the ferociously nihilistic Peckinpah outing Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia—the one film that the director had final cut approval—Oates was cast in the lead in a role that was pretty much a version of Peckinpah himself at the time: a desperate, driven man at the end of his rope. The character is Benny, a down-and-out piano player in a seedy lounge, who goes on a danger-filled road trip across Mexico in order to collect the bounty on a man who impregnated a powerful general’s daughter. Along with help from his guitar-strumming prostitute girlfriend (Isela Vega) and lots of liquor swigging, Benny encounters gay assassins, threatening bikers, grave robbers and a fly-infested head inside a burlap bag. In order to get in character, Oates wore Peckinpah’s sunglasses throughout the film. Shortly after its release, actor and director stopped talking.
To this day, the film divides audiences. Many criticize its obsessive violence, low-rent characters, and excessive violent mayhem. Others, like Nick Schrager in Slant Magazine claim “For something so bleak, so purposely revolting and unsentimental, there are reservoirs of profound poetry in Alfredo Garcia, the only film that Peckinpah ever considered completely his own.”
Another filmmaker Oates had a long-running collaboration with was Monte Hellman. Oates co-stared in Hellman’s 1966 existential western The Shooting, playing a former bounty hunter who, along with his unpredictable sidekick (Will Hutchins), is enlisted by a woman (Millie Perkins) to partake in a mysterious mission involving a killer (Jack Nicholson). Penned by Nicholson, the film was shot back-to-back with Ride in the Whirlwind.
Also with Hellman, Oates starred in 1974’s Cockfighter (aka Born to Kill) as a loquacious, alcoholic loser whose dreams of glory rest upon owning a winning rooster in the brutal underground sport of cockfighting. It goes without saying that this is not on PETA’s list of favorite films.
The two also teamed four years later for China 9, Liberty 37, a spaghetti western with loads of surprises, as gunslinger Fabio Testi is given a chance to live is he completes his assignment of knocking off Oates, a miner who owns land coveted by the railroad.
One of Oates’ strongest performances came in Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, the magnificent 1971 road movie in which Oates plays GTO, the desperate owner of a new Pontiac, who challenges Driver (James Taylor) and Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) to a cross-country race from California to Washington, D.C.
The movie received great attention when first released, but tanked at the box-office. Why is it considered a cult classic today?
In his piece called “10 Reasons (16 actually) That I Love Two-Lane Blacktop” made for the Criterion edition of the film, director Richard Linklater (Slacker, The School of Rock) explains why he thinks the picture is a masterpiece. Among the reasons:
*Because it’s the purest American road movie ever.
*Because there was once a god who walked the earth named Warren Oates.
*Because Warren Oates has a different cashmere sweater for every occasion. And of course the wet bar in the trunk.
*And, above all else, because Two-Lane Blacktop goes all the way with its idea. And that’s a rare thing in this world: a completely honest movie.
In his latter TV assignments, Oates inhabited some iconic big-screen personae, respectively replacing Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne as Charlie Allnut and Rooster Cogburn in rejected series pilot telefilms for The African Queen (1977) and True Grit (1978). He also took on the role of patriarch Cyrus Trask in the 1981 East of Eden mini-series.
There were certainly other screen efforts by Warren Oates that warrant attention: the police officer investigating the death of a Chicago businessman in Mississippi in Norman Jewison’s Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night; the dapper and dangerous Public Enemy Number One in John Milius’ Dillinger (1973); the domineering, dog-exterminating father of Sissy Spacek in Badlands (1973); a prisoner looking to escape from the pen in There was a Crooked Man… (1970); a Western drifter seeking for a life change with partner Peter Fonda in Fonda’s quietly powerful The Hired Hand (1971); the American whaler out to dupe Inuit natives during an Arctic expedition in the late 19th century in Philip Kaufman’s The White Dawn (1974); a witness to a satanic cult ritual along with his friend (Fonda again) in the drive-in fave Race with the Devil (1975); the ornery owner of a fishing boat monopoly who warns his new competitor (Fonda once more) of his imminent demise if he competes against him, in the moody 92 in the Shade (1975); a sadistic plantation owner in Drum (1976), the incendiary, rarely seen sequel to Mandingo; the demolitions expert involved in the legendary 1950 bank heist known as The Brink’s Job (1978); the crazed colonel defending Los Angeles from a supposed Japanese invasion in Stephen Spielberg’s frantic 1941 (1979); and one of the actor’s last roles, as the unscrupulous boss of Mexico/Texas border guard Jack Nicholson in Tony Richardson’s The Border (1982).
It’s a rogue’s gallery that only a rogue of enormous talent could play.