Warren Mercer Oates (July 5, 1928 – April 3, 1982) was an American actor best known for his performances in several films directed by Sam Peckinpah, including The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). He starred in numerous films during the early 1970s that have since achieved cult status, such as The Hired Hand (1971), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and Race with the Devil (1975). Oates also portrayed John Dillinger in the biopic Dillinger (1973) and as the supporting character U.S. Army Sergeant Hulka in the military comedy Stripes (1981), starring Bill Murray. Another notable appearance was in the classic New Zealand film Sleeping Dogs, in which he played the commander of the American forces in the country.
Warren Oates was born July 5, 1928 and reared in Depoy, a tiny rural community in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, located just a few miles west of Greenville, the county seat. According to the federal census of 1940, he was the younger child of two sons of Sarah Alice (née Mercer) and Bayless Earle Oates, who owned a general store. His brother, Gordon, was five years his senior. On his father's side, Warren was of English, Scottish and Welsh ancestry. He attended Louisville Male High School in Louisville, Kentucky, until 1945 but did not graduate from that institution. He did, however, later earn a high school equivalency diploma. After high school he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps for two years, serving in its air wing as an aircraft mechanic. Oates became interested in theater while attending the University of Louisville, where in 1953 he starred in several plays produced by the school's Little Theater Company. Four years later, in New York City, he got an opportunity to star in a live production of the television series Studio One.
Oates moved to Los Angeles, where in the 1950s he began to establish himself in guest roles in weekly television Westerns, including Wagon Train, Tombstone Territory, Buckskin, Rawhide, Trackdown, Tate, The Rebel, Wanted Dead or Alive, Have Gun – Will Travel, Lawman, The Big Valley, and Gunsmoke. Oates first met Peckinpah when he played a variety of guest roles in The Rifleman (1958–1963), a popular television series sometimes directed by Peckinpah. He also played a supporting role in Peckinpah's short-lived series The Westerner in 1960. The collaboration continued as he worked in Peckinpah's early films Ride the High Country (1962) and Major Dundee (1965).
"There were 40 [western] series, and I went from one to the other. I started out playing the third bad guy on a horse and worked my way up to the No. 1 bad guy," Oates once quipped.
In the episode "Subterranean City" (October 14, 1958) of the syndicated Rescue 8, Oates played a gang member, Pete, who is the nephew of series character Skip Johnson (Lang Jeffries). In the story line, rescuers Johnson and Wes Cameron (Jim Davis) search for a lost girl in the sewer tunnels and encounter three criminals hiding out underground. Pete soon breaks with his gang companions and joins the firemen Wes and Skip in locating the missing child.
In 1961 Oates guest-starred in the episode "Artie Moon" in NBC's The Lawless Years crime drama about the 1920s. In 1962 he appeared as "Ves Painter" in the short-lived ABC series Stoney Burke, co-starring Jack Lord, a program about rodeo contestants.
Oates also played in a number of guest roles on The Twilight Zone (in "The Purple Testament" and "The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms," in which he costarred with Randy Boone and Ron Foster), The Outer Limits ("The Mutant" ), Combat! ("The Pillbox" ) and Lost in Space ("Welcome Stranger" ). During the 1960s and 1970s, he guest-starred on such shows as Twelve O'Clock High ("The Hotshot" ), Lancer, and The Virginian.
In addition to Peckinpah, Oates worked with several major directors of his era, including Leslie Stevens in the 1960 film Private Property, his first starring role; Norman Jewison in In the Heat of the Night (1967); Joseph L. Mankiewicz in There Was a Crooked Man... (1970); John Milius in Dillinger (1973); Terrence Malick in Badlands (1973); Philip Kaufman in The White Dawn (1974); William Friedkin in The Brink's Job (1978); and Steven Spielberg in 1941 (1979).
He appeared in the Sherman Brothers musical version of Tom Sawyer (1973), as "Muff Potter," the town drunk. He also starred in The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), Return of the Seven (1966), The Shooting (filmed in 1965, released in 1968), The Split (1968), The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973), Cockfighter (1974), Drum (1976) and China 9, Liberty 37 (1978), and played the title role in a 1971 crime drama, Chandler. Oates co-starred three times with friend Peter Fonda in The Hired Hand (1971), Race with the Devil (1975) and 92 in the Shade (1975).
While making a guest appearance on a segment of the Western television series Dundee and the Culhane, Oates managed to steal the show with his off-camera antics and bloopers that had everyone on the set rolling. After a long day of filming, he headed over and set his footprints in cement along with all the other stars who appeared at Apacheland Movie Ranch. It was during this time that In the Heat of the Night was a blockbuster summer movie. Oates played Officer Sam Wood, a peeping-tom policeman and possible killer in the critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning film.
Oates was cast in Roger Donaldson's 1977 New Zealand film Sleeping Dogs together with New Zealand actor Sam Neill. A political thriller with action film elements, Sleeping Dogs follows the lead character "Smith" (Neill) as New Zealand plunges into a police state, as a fascist government institutes martial law after industrial disputes flare into violence. Smith gets caught between the special police and a growing resistance movement and reluctantly becomes involved. Oates plays the role of "Willoughby," commander of the American forces stationed in New Zealand and working with the New Zealand fascist government to find and subdue "rebels" (the resistance movement).
His partnership with Peckinpah resulted in two of his most famous film roles. In the 1969 Western classic The Wild Bunch, he portrayed Lyle Gorch, a long-time outlaw who chooses to die with his friends during the film's violent conclusion. According to his wife at the time, Teddy, Oates had the choice of starring in Support Your Local Sheriff!, to be filmed in Los Angeles, or The Wild Bunch in Mexico. "He had done Return of the Seven in Mexico; he got hepatitis, plus dysentery. But off he went again with Sam [Peckinpah]. He loved going on location. He loved the adventure of it. He had great admiration for Sam. Sam Peckinpah and Monte Hellman were the two directors with whom Warren would work anytime, anywhere." In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the dark 1974 action/tragedy also filmed in Mexico, Oates played the lead role of Bennie, a hard-drinking down-on-his-luck musician and bartender hoping to make a final score. The character was reportedly based on Peckinpah. For authenticity, Oates wore the director's sunglasses while filming scenes of the production.
Although the Peckinpah film roles are his best-known, his most critically acclaimed role is GTO in Monte Hellman's 1971 cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop. The film, although a failure at the box-office, is studied in film schools as a treasure of the 1970s, in large part due to Oates' heartbreaking portrayal of GTO. Film critic Leonard Maltin remarked that Oates' performance in this film was as good as any he had seen and should have won the Oscar.
A year before his death, Oates co-starred with Bill Murray in the 1981 military comedy Stripes. In the role of the drill sergeant, Sgt. Hulka, Oates skillfully played the straight man to Murray's comedic character. The film was a huge financial success, earning $85 million at the box office. In 1982 he co-starred opposite Jack Nicholson in director Tony Richardson's The Border.
Oates was ill with influenza in the weeks before his death. On April 3, 1982, at the age of 53, he died of a heart attack while taking an afternoon nap at his home in Los Angeles, California. The fatal attack occurred after Oates had experienced chest pains and shortness of breath earlier that day. An autopsy determined that he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. After his funeral, in accordance with Oates' wishes, his body was cremated and his ashes were scattered at his ranch in Montana.
In 1981, nearly one year before his death, Oates had co-starred as a fanatical Southern preacher-turned-Confederate officer in The Blue and the Gray, a CBS TV mini-series that aired in November 1982. His last two films were also not released until 1983. They are Blue Thunder, which was filmed in early 1980, and Tough Enough, filmed in late 1981. Both films are dedicated to him, along with Monte Hellman's 1988 film Iguana, which ends with the titles "For Warren".
Today the actor has a dedicated cult following because of his memorable performances in not only Peckinpah's films but also in Monte Hellman's independent works, his films with Peter Fonda, and in a number of B movies from the 1970s. His occasionally crude facade, likeable persona, and uncommon presence are admired by such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater. During a recent screening of Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, Linklater introduced the film and announced 16 reasons why viewers should love the 1971 movie. The sixth was: "Because there was once a god who walked the Earth named Warren Oates."
The documentary film Warren Oates: Across the Border was produced by Tom Thurman in 1993 as a tribute to the actor's career.
Oates was again recognized in March 2009 with the first-ever biography of his colorful life. Featuring interviews with the actor's former wives, his children, and friends, Warren Oates: A Wild Life was written by Susan Compo. It has received much acclaim from fans and critics alike.
- Warren Oates Filmography