Warren Oates (1928-1982) was an earthy, plain-spoken character actor who specialized in somewhat grubby roles, progressing to leads but still seeming more like that offbeat, unshaven guy who lurks on the sidelines. Film historian David Thomson wrote of Oates that ?You can smell whiskey and sweat on him? He has a face like prison bread, with eyes that have known too much solitary confinement.?
Such evocative writing, along with Tom Thurman?s appreciatory 1993 documentary Warren Oates: Across the Border, have helped establish Oates as a cult figure. This unassuming yet riveting actor is especially remembered for a series of films he made for Sam Peckinpah ? although he worked with on-the-edge directors throughout his career. Oates was born in Depoy, Ky., and attended high school in Louisville before enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps. He worked in university and community theater before heading to New York and then Los Angeles to find work on television. He seemed especially at home in TV Westerns and acted for many of them including Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, Wagon Train, Rawhide, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Lawman and Have Gun ? Will Travel. Oates first met Peckinpah when he was cast in guest roles in two series created by the director, The Rifleman (1958-63) and The Westerner (1960).
Oates made his feature-film debut in the James Garner Navy adventure Up Periscope (1959), in an uncredited bit as a sailor who?s always hungry. He earned his first credit as ?Corporal? in the Clint Walker Western Yellowstone Kelly (1959), and played the sickly brother of Ray Danton as the real-life gambler in The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960). His first Peckinpah feature was Ride the High Country (1962), playing the loutish brother of villain James Drury in this much-celebrated Western starring Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott.
Oates had roles in two Westerns directed by Burt Kennedy, Mail Order Bride (1964) starring Buddy Ebsen and Welcome to Hard Times (1967) starring Henry Fonda. 1967 was also the year of Norman Jewison?s Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, with Oates as a police officer who becomes a suspect in the murder case that?s central to the plot.
Peckinpah?s The Wild Bunch (1969) was a seminal Western, arousing admiration with its stylistic innovations and controversy with its violent action. The story revolved around a gang of aging outlaws struggling to survive by any means, with Oates playing a character called Lyle Gorch and getting fifth billing after William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan and Edmond O?Brien.
Three Oates films from the 1970s are TCM premieres as of August 2015. There Was a Crooked Man (1970), the only Western directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, has Kirk Douglas and Oates as prison inmates, with Henry Fonda as their warden. Oates received star billing with Ryan O?Neal and Jacqueline Bisset in The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973), playing an insurance investigator on the trail of jewel thief O?Neal. Peckinpah?s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), with Oates given top billing as a man on a bizarre mission to ransom the head of a corpse, was not considered a success in its day but has since achieved cult status.
In the meantime Oates played the title roles in two high-profile films. In Dillinger (1973) for director John Milius, he turns in a subtle and believable performance as the notorious bank robber. For that film, he received a Saturn award as Best Actor. In the neo-noir film Chandler (1971) Oates plays a private eye hired by the government to protect a Frenchwoman who is an important witness. In one of the more unlikely couplings in film history, Leslie Caron stars opposite Oates as the woman on the run.
Oates made three films with his good friend Peter Fonda: The Hired Hand (1971), Race with the Devil (1975) and 92 in the Shade (1975). These movies, along with Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), all helped in building his reputation as a cult figure. Critic Leonard Maltin felt that Oates gave such an outstanding performance in Two-Lane Blacktop that he should have won an Oscar. In Terrence Malick?s highly praised Badlands (1973), Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek play a violent young couple, with Oates as the girl?s father, who becomes a catalyst in the pair?s killing spree.
Oates reportedly enjoyed the chance to sing (although he was later dubbed) as Muff Potter, the town drunk, in a musical version of Tom Sawyer (1973). Oates, who also remained active in television movies and series, had a big box-office hit in the military comedy Stripes (1981), playing straight man as a drill sergeant to Bill Murray?s comic recruit. He supports Jack Nicholson in Tony Richardson?s The Border (1982), with Nicholson as a disillusioned Texas border crossing guard and Oates the chief of his unit.
Oates died in his sleep at age 53. His final two films, Blue Thunder and Tough Enough, were released posthumously in 1983 and dedicated to him. He was married three times and had three children.