He found some success on TV, and fell in with a group of actors who would define their generation. Oates was good friends with Robert Culp and Steve McQueen; he would act against Warren Beatty and Rip Torn and Paul Mazursky. But it became clear that Oates’ rural drawl and unique features were best suited for Westerns, which were booming on television at the time. Culp, who had moved to Hollywood in 1957, soon dragged Oates out and the actor made his Western debut in Have Gun Will Travel, playing a rascal. Maybe such roles came easy to Oates because they were in his blood; a Revolutionary era ancestor had come to Kentucky as he fled the North after killing a man.
Oates’ best work was his friend Sam Peckinpah; the two understood each other in a deep and soulful way. They also came to hate each other - friendships between hard drinking difficult men rarely last. ‘I don’t think he’s a horrible maniac, he just injures your innocence,’ Oates would famously say about the director. ‘You get pissed off about that.’ They met doing TV Westerns - an episode of The Rifleman - and eventually Peckinpah would help bring Oates out of the world of TV (where he continued to find success not just in Western bit parts but also a regular on the rodeo show Stoney Burke), starting with Ride the High Country.
Ride wasn’t Oates’ first film - he had starred in a super low budget steamy indie called Private Property the year before - but it might as well be. Ride the High Country is the film that bridges the Old Western with the New Western, a rebirth of the genre which Oates and Peckinpah would dominate. After the film the two became friends and would go hunting near the Peckinpah family land in Central California (a perfect look at who Oates was as a man - he would end up getting disillusioned with the cruelty of hunting and give it up). There would be plenty of TV work after Ride the High Country, where Oates had a small part, but at the end of the decade Peckinpah would catapult his friend out of TV with The Wild Bunch, one of the greatest Westerns ever made, and featuring one of Oates’ most iconic performances as Lyle Gorch (playing the brother to Ben Johnson, one of Oates’ holiest role models).
The Wild Bunch came at a dark time in Oates’ life, after his second marriage had crumbled and he found himself left out of the many Oscar nominations for In the Heat of the Night. Oates had been offered the lead role in the film that would eventually become Support Your Local Sheriff, but he turned it down to join Peckinpah’s ensemble. ‘I’m happy as a character man and I want to stay a character man,’ he said once.
Peckinpah understood Oates, and Lyle Gorch is the result of that understanding. Rough and murderous but also vulnerable and childlike, Lyle Gorch had the same dichotomy as the hard drinking, womanizing and yet loving and tender Oates. It’s the role that changed his life and defined his career.
Then it was the 70s. The decade for which Warren Oates was made. His drawling acting style and his lived in looks were exactly what was in that decade after the studio system fell apart and Easy Rider changed Hollywood. A man who had a face for theater, or thug roles on Westerns, now discovered his true calling as one of history’s greatest character actors. And Oates didn’t just blossom, he seemed to find perfect role after perfect role.
The 70s seemed to start out inauspiciously with his pal Peckinpah reneging on giving him the lead role in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, but 1971 ended up what Peter Fonda called ‘the year of Warren Oates.’ Oates played in two seminal, unfairly obscure films that year - as GTO in the brilliant Two Lane Blacktop and Arch Harris in the almost sublime The Hired Hand (there’s another 1971 movie, Chandler, a film noir homage that sees Oates playing a PI, but the film isn’t terrible good. Oates hated it and said that he knew it was a stinker three days into shooting).
Oates was hot. Terence Malick wanted Oates to star in a 12 hour long movie about the Jazz age; the two would eventually work together on Badlands, where Oates had a small role as Father. Dennis Hopper had Oates swept up for Kid Blue, a movie better known for the insane antics behind the scenes than the film itself. Hopper, the craziest human being on Earth in the 1970s, led his group of Mad Dogs - Oates, Ben Johnson and Peter Boyle - on brain melting drug rampages. According to Susan Campos’ Warren Oates: A Life, Oates brought his buddies over to the Roach Coach - the Winnebago where he stashed his pot and hung out on set - for the following snack:
[M]agic mushrooms on toast, followed by crushed-up Dexedrine flambeed in brandy. The snack was rounded out with spoonfuls of vanilla-flavored LSD.
All of this must have helped inspire director James Frawley when he went on to make The Muppet Movie.
The musical version of Tom Sawyer intrigued Oates because he wanted to sing; in the end he doesn’t do any of his own singing. He loved the film anyway. Next was Dillinger, the directorial debut of John Milius. Oates was, on the surface, perfect for the part - he looked a lot like Dillinger - but was worried that he didn’t have the character. Anybody watching the film today has to know that he was worrying without reason.
Oates had enjoyed working with non-actors on Two Lane Blacktop and so working with non-actor Eskimos in White Dawn - Philip Kaufman’s underseen film about whale hunters stranded in the Arctic - was no problem. He quickly traded the snow for the desert, though, as the opportunity to work with Peckinpah came again, and this time it would be their greatest collaboration.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was shot in Mexico, the place where Peckinpah felt most at home, and Oates was playing a dissolute drunk that he based almost entirely on the director. He even stole Peckinpah’s trademark sunglasses for the role. It would be the last time the two worked together, and Oates never quite liked the picture. In fact, he recommended people not go see. At the time of release many critics agreed with him, but in the decades since it’s become obvious that while The Wild Bunch is his most entertaining and important picture, Alfredo Garcia is his masterpiece. Bennie, in his white suit and sunglasses, became the pop culture image of who Warren Oates was.
The sunglasses took away Oates’ eyes, supposedly an actor’s most important tool. Cockfighter, which reteamed him with Monte Hellman, would take away his voice. 1971 was the year of Warren Oates, but 1974, which saw the release of Alfredo Garcia and Cockfighter, comes a close second. It was also Oates’ peak. Alfredo Garcia is the high water mark, and while there is much to recommend after that - Race With the Devil isn’t a third of what the poster promises, but it has a great final chase and Oates is endearingly toasted throughout - it would never again be as good. The same was true of Peckinpah, who never made another film even close to as good as Alfredo Garcia.
Oates found his way back to TV, doing remakes of True Grit (the stock Western TV bad guy was now playing a John Wayne character) and The African Queen (all through his career Oates had been called ‘the new Bogart,’ and now he was playing a role Bogie originated). Then it was the 80s, and Oates began to enter the ‘tough authority figure’ phase of his career. It’s a phase that’s especially weird when compared to the films that were closest to who he was, films that were about loners on the edge of society and dropouts and rebels. In fact it almost seems like a joke when Oates is bullying Bill Murray in Stripes; Murray seems like an acorn off the Oates tree. There’s a strange breed of 80s kids who only know Oates from Stripes and Blue Thunder.
Warren Oates died of a heart attack in 1982. At the time of his death he and Peckinpah were on the outs, and the director was specifically told not to come to the funeral. He came anyway. Peckinpah died two years later.
Warren Oates said that he was always a character man, but that just wasn’t true. The 1970s were a time when character men were leading men, and no one personified that better than Oates. He came into the height of his powers at just the right time, when there were people who understood his gifts and strengths, when he could use his theatrical training to create complex but badass characters who resonate across the decades. Oates died way too young, and it’s tempting to imagine what he might have done if he had lived to see the indie film boom of the 90s. What Quentin Tarantino could have done with him.
Oates trying his hand at hunting and eventually giving it up makes me think that he would often play roles perfectly suited for him. Some, like Lyle Gorch, were killers, but most of Oates’ best parts were men trying to do their own thing and getting violent only when the situation truly called for it. It wasn’t that Oates played men reluctant to action but rather men who were careful when it came to action. Dillinger may be the most perfect role, since the man was a thief who surrounded himself with killers, but who rarely - if ever - resorted to violence himself. Oates’ best roles were men whose gruff exteriors barely hid fragile human beings just trying to find their own place in the world.
There’s no better person to be the inaugural member of our Badass Hall of Fame. The rest of this week I’ll be taking a look at films from the Warren Oates canon that prove he was much more than just a character man, even when he wasn’t playing a lead. In the meantime, consider picking up Susan Campos’ Warren Oates: A Life, without which this article wouldn’t have been possible.
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