Tuesday marked thirty years since the untimely passing of Warren Oates. The great, grizzled actor’s work has fallen somewhat out of fashion these days — few, bar perhaps Quentin Tarantino, name Sam Peckinpah or Monte Hellman, Oates’ closest and most frequent collaborators, as influences. If you’re familiar with him at all, it’s likely from his parts as outlaw Lyle Gorch in “The Wild Bunch” or as Sgt. Hulka in Bill Murray comedy “Stripes.” But for a time in the 1970s, Oates was Hollywood’s go-to badass character actor, a man who everyone from Norman Jewison and William Friedkin to Steven Spielberg and Terrence Malick wanted to work with.
Born in Depoy, Kentucky in 1928, Oates discovered acting at the University of Louisville, and soon headed west to L.A. where he swiftly became a regular face in the golden era of TV westerns, including parts on “Rawhide,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” “Have Gun – Will Travel” and “Gunsmoke.” Crucially, this was also where he met Peckinpah, having been cast in several roles on the director’s TV series “The Rifleman.” They became fast friends, and Peckinpah gave him some of his earliest big-screen roles in “Ride the High Country” and “Major Dundee.”
As the ’60s went on, the roles got more and more prominent: first he played Sam Wood, the cop who comes under suspicion for murder in Norman Jewison‘s “In the Heat of the Night,” and two years later, perhaps his most iconic role, as part of Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” Work remained steady, but his hard living took its toll (on the set of Dennis Hopper‘s “Kid Blue,” Oates would reportedly invite co-stars Ben Johnson and Peter Boyle to his trailer for a three-course meal made up of magic mushrooms on toast, Dexedrine in brandy and vanilla LSD), and he fell out with Peckinpah in the mid 1970s.
Things took a brief stumble late in the decade, with the actor reduced to starring in TV remakes of “The African Queen” and “True Grit” (although it’s a testament to him that he could take up the mantle of Bogart and John Wayne), but “Stripes” and “Blue Thunder” (which was released posthumously) seemed to suggest that things were looking up again, until he suffered a heart attack at the age of 53. With thirty years passing since he died, this week seemed like a good opportunity to highlight the much-missed actor, and to pick out five of his finest pictures for those who might not be familiar with him.
“Two Lane Blacktop” (1971)
The richest of an extraordinary era of road films, Monte Hellman’s asphalt classic spotlights James Taylor and Dennis Wilson as two laconic youths drag-racing across the U.S. Of course, it’s about more than that, focusing instead on the sense of youth fading away from these two floppy-haired youngsters. They team with a pretty young girl, but neither have much interest in her, instead focusing on the silent serenity of the open road, creating symbiosis with Route 66. While the two share an appropriately dour thousand-mile stare, they’re paired against G.T.O. (Oates), a man completely out of time. G.T.O. stands to win this competition, though at his somewhat accelerated age compared to our two leads, it’s clear that it matters somewhat more to him than it does to them. With minimal dialogue, “Two Lane Blacktop” forces us to question our relationship with the open road, visually bending the definitions of “journey” and “destination,” as Hellman’s patient camera narrows in on the cinematic space separating a man and his vehicle. “Two Lane Blacktop” is as essential as it is ethereal, not so much a film as it is a vapor, one that lingers in subtle ways, through the concentrated sound design to the artful non-verbal improvisation of our two leads. There’s no end to their journey, and there might as well have never been a beginning. The road lives on forever.
This ain’t no “Public Enemies”… the directorial debut of red meat legend John Milius, “Dillinger” aims to probe the life of the wily criminal from a ground-level approach. Using a typically jittery turn from Warren Oates, “Dillinger” almost feels like a western. Its nattily dressed band of criminals seem like they’re under no illusion as to where they’re going, fueled not by Dillinger’s charisma, but his nervous, desperate energy, and all parties involved clearly feel as if they’re punching a clock. “Dillinger” is very much not about Dillinger’s criminal spirit as much as it’s about desperate men weathering the Depression, as riches aren’t the desired commodity as much as peace of mind. Oates is superb in the lead, naturally; as much as Johnny Depp was swathed in moviestar charisma in his turn as Dillinger, Oates comes from a place of itchy flopsweat and broken dreams. But the entire cast delivers a sea of grace notes, particularly Richard Dreyfuss as the new guard, the morally-bankrupt Babyface Nelson, but it’s impossible to forget the sadness of Homer Van Meter. As played by a typically glum Harry Dean Stanton, he’s one of the most pained of this ragtag gang of killers, and his final moment, coming face to face with an angry crowd of similarly desperate citizens, is a microcosm of the film’s attitude towards the era’s struggles.
“Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974)
The Warren Oates and Sam Peckinpah relationship was a complicated and ambivalent one full of extremes. “I don’t think he’s a horrible maniac; he injures your innocence, and you get pissed off about it,” he once famously said. Just three years earlier, Peckinpah had taken away the promised lead role in “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” (it went to Jason Robards instead), but here he was again in the lead of one of Peckinpah’s scuzziest films “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (their third and final film together). Shot in Mexico and on the cheap, Oates was at home playing a reprobate drunk not unlike his friend the director (even borrowing Peckinpah’s sunglasses for the character) and the story is pretty damn rich. ‘Alfredo Garcia’ centers on, initially, a wealthy Mexican businessman who places a million dollar bounty on the man (the titular character) who broke his daughter’s heart. The vultures descend and two opportunists hire a local barkeep, Oates, to do the dirty work for them. Problem is Garcia died in an accident the previous week, but hellbent on scoring the payday, Oates decides to go on a roadtrip (with his prostitute girlfriend who slept with Garcia) to dig up the body and retrieve the head (which he barters for $10,000 to the duo who hired him in the first place). On the way there’s lots of booze, sex, attempted rapes, and plenty of mercenaries just as intent on collecting the same bounty. But what’s left in the wake of Oates’ smoking pistol is a trail of destruction and death. One could be mistaken if they thought the picture was a Peckinpah autobiography of a weekend in Tijuana. Sordid like a grimy armpit stain and underwear that hasn’t been changed for days, throughout ‘Alfredo Garcia,’ Oates keeps it lean and mean, mostly taciturn, and with just a hint of a soft spot for the whore he loves.
Directors of note had an affinity for Oates’ grizzled mug and his no-nonsense approach. Apart from Sam Peckinpah (who eventually ruined this friendship), the filmmaker best associated with Oates is Monte Hellman. Their third film together, “Cockfighter,” features Oates as the mute and defeated title character who looks back on everything he’s lost. Arrogant, an offhand boast costs him not only the Cockfighter of the Year award and best prizefighting bird, but along with it his trailer, most of his money and his girlfriend in one of the most unwise bets ever made on screen. Disgraced, Oates’ Frank Mansfield takes on a vow of silence until he can redeem himself. Along the way to redemption, Oates is forced to choose between love and cockfighting and you can guess which one wins out in the end. Co-starring Harry Dean Stanton, Laurie Bird and Ed Begley Jr. and loosely structured after the Odyssey, while bloody, slow and grim, “Cockfighter” is surprisingly poignant, in part, thanks to Oates’ cockeyed stare and silent, but evocative empathy.
“Race with the Devil” (1975)
Easily one of the weirdest wide-release movies of the 1970s, which is really saying something, “Race with the Devil” is a wild combination of road race action movie beats and horror set pieces. In the film, Oates plays the owner of a motorcycle repair shop who sets off with his buddy, motorcycle racer Peter Fonda, and their two foxy wives (Loretta Swit and Lara Parker), on a road trip to Aspen, Colorado. Somewhere in the deep and dirty south (the movie was shot in various locations in south Texas) they run afoul of Satanic cultists. Fonda and Oates witness a ritual murder and then are stalked, with escalating severity, by the cult members themselves (in a great aside the wives do a little detective work, consulting the local library for books on the occult). “Race with the Devil” is compellingly strange, starting off more comical before giving way to sequences of genuine suspense and terror and, later, high-octane action. But it’s Oates’ performance that leaves the biggest impact. His mere presence adds an element of grumpy unpredictability to a film already ripe with it. Like his character, Oates seems like he genuinely does not want to be there, and instead of being off-putting it enriches his character like a kind of shopworn realism. When a local sheriff of the largely untrustworthy town (note the creepy woman at the motor inn swimming pool!) recounts how they caught some “hippies” executing a cat, Oates, laying on the gravely, five-pack-a-day drawl, growls, “Well this time they ran out of cats.” Later he’s given a rare opportunity for an actor: to stab a live rattlesnake with a ski pole. Released by Fox in the summer of 1975, “Race with the Devil” was largely overlooked (a year before the studio’s Satanic smash “The Omen”), but has proved itself surprisingly influential on everything from Quentin Tarantino’s similarly schizophrenic “Death Proof” to the 3D Nic Cage action movie “Drive Angry.” It’s a movie perfectly calibrated for the drive-in and Oates’ performance is large enough to make out from the concession stand.
“The Hired Hand” (1971)
One of Oates’ finest and most frequently overlooked performances appears in Peter Fonda’s impressionistic western “The Hired Hand.” As Arch Harris, a traveling companion and partner of Fonda’s Harry Collings, Oates’ hardscrabble charm is allowed to really flourish, acting as Fonda’s steadfast friend and moral compass (and in a larger sense the movie’s beating, dirt-smeared heart). While on their way back to Harris’ wife, after years of estrangement, Oates asks Fonda to describe her. “If I’ve had a horse for more than a year I’d be able to tell you if it has three teeth,” Oates wryly remarks. “She has three teeth,” Fonda shoots back. While the movie’s chief concern is the rebuilding of the relationship between Fonda’s Collings and Hannah (a flawless Verna Bloom), the more memorable, emotional relationship is between the two men, particularly towards the final act, when Oates’ Harris takes off for the west, feeling there’s not much room for him anymore (especially after a wonderfully flirtatious scene between him and Bloom). Fonda retained complete creative control over the project, following the smash success of “Easy Rider,” but “The Hired Hand” was critically lambasted (for what many felt were impenetrably self-indulgent flourishes), creatively compromised (until a restored version debuted in 2001) and commercially ignored (it was seen by most after NBC aired the film in 1973). Watching it now, however, the film is uniquely powerful, with an abstract opening that brings to mind the beginning of “Drive, He Said” (directed by Fonda’s bud Jack Nicholson and released the same year), lush cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, and an unforgettable score by frequent Bob Dylan collaborator Bruce Langhorne. This is one of those obscure gems that really does deserve to be dug up and reevaluated (it seems to be a kind of spiritual precursor to Andrew Dominik’s similarly received “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), all the more for Oates’ fine performance
Also Worth Watching: Any of Oates’ pictures with Peckinpah are worth looking at, as are his films with Hellman, in particular the Jack Nicholson-produced “The Shooting,” which Oates toplined. “In the Heat of the Night” and Terrence Malick‘s “Badlands” are obviously both must-sees — the latter was something of a consolation prize for the actor, as the director had originally wanted him to star in a 12-hour movie set in the jazz age that he couldn’t get made. Finally, he’s terrific in Philip Kaufman‘s Eskimo western “The White Dawn.“
– Rodrigo Perez, Gabe Toro, Drew Taylor, Oliver Lyttelton