In this incredibly thoughtful, fully researched essay, Brendan Murphy, the Chicago based stage actor who broke us down in Clybourne Park and built us back up again in The War Zone Is My Bed explains why Warren Oates was one the finest character actors of his generation: “No settling in or adjustment period, total immersion from the very beginning. This is certainly the desire of any actor. It’s my desire as a human being.”
As luck would have it, Warren Oates sprung to mind, and within days I was asked to write about him. In the 25+ years he worked in television and film, he was able to amass about 124 appearances, mostly as a supporting actor, and much of his work remains elusive, unless you’re willing to dig a little. I believe Warren Oates is possibly the finest, and most underrated actor to emerge from the American south in the 20th century, so well worth the minimal effort it takes these days to find a few. Many are thankfully readily available, as his work in many cases has been recognized as important and accomplished, as the years have passed since his passing in 1982 at the age of 53. He came up through many small roles on television in the 1950’s and 1960’s, dominated by the Western genre. As a result of his thick southern drawl and the popularity of the Western motif at the time, he was a natural. It was one of his final performances, which he is probably most frequently recognized (Sgt. Hulka from Stripes, directed by Ivan Reitman), but this barely scratches the surface as to the range he was capable of in some of his other lesser-known work. Coming from Kentucky with a thick accent, a mouthful of teeth baked into place on his head by the harsh sun, and a scruffy, smallish face that could let you know his mind, he was an unlikely character. He was adventurous, was a plumber of an actor, took what came his way, and made odd choices at times. He had the good fortune to work throughout what might be considered, certainly by me, the last great era in American cinema, the early 1960’s through the late 1970’s.
His talents were recognized during his lifetime, and he was called upon by several directors and writers to work over and over again; Sam Peckinpah, Lee Frost, Thomas McGuane, and Monte Hellman. It was here that he was given additional space, and allowed to step up and away from his more frequent supporting roles. Taking nothing away from his supporting roles, as he proved he was certainly capable of support as well as the lead, though few took that chance with him. He played a beautiful villain. Rarely have I felt so badly for the villain as when Warren told their stories, which is very rare, in my estimation. He laid bare his pain, and with the most understandably human conditions wove jealousy, ignorance, sensitivity, rage, pride and confusion into his characters. His ability to show his wounds and deepest longings and regrets without even speaking is impressive and affecting, to say the least. His thought process, every single step, read on his face, without a single spoken word. The beauty came in the simplicity. It didn’t feel real, it was real. I am continually and immediately sucked in by his performances, as he was able to do what made it all so beautiful, bring a real character entirely to life instantly. No settling in or adjustment period, total immersion from the very beginning. This is certainly the desire of any actor. It’s my desire as a human being.
I followed a very similar path in discovering the work of Warren Oates that many of his fans have. My first memory of remembering his name came with his portrayal of Lyle Gorch in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah regularly lamented the loss of the great American west in his films, and Warren displayed the crazed anger, desperation, exhaustion, regret and unwillingness to accept the inevitable of this situation, resulting in an absolutely pleasurable viewing experience. I would have guessed he had spent every day of his life bathed in sticky sweat, eternally unshaven. It just seemed that it must be the way that he was. His face would contort and screw up into thought to the point his head looked like a balled up and sunburnt fist on top of his neck. Smiles would explode off of his face with an impossible mouthful of huge teeth. It wasn’t even that he was a perfect fit as a result of complete understanding of the material, he was just in it. For real.
My interest led me naturally to his repeated appearances in the films of Sam Peckinpah. In 1962, Warren displayed his ability to portray a man pushed to his limits again as Henry Hammond in Ride The High Country. More dangerous, and more unpredictable, very much the type of accurate portrayal Peckinpah was looking for, certainly. They worked well together, and Warren understood Peckinpah’s behavior. In his defense, Oates said, “I don’t think he’s a horrible maniac; it’s just that he injures your innocence, and you get pissed off about it”.
One of my very favorite performances from Oates and in turn, my favorite Peckinpah film is Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (1974). His down and out character of Bennie, a local piano player in Mexico, decides to take matters into his own hands after bounty hunters sent to avenge a family scandal by returning for the reward, Alfredo Garcia, or at the very least, his head. With a bit of inside information, he believes he can collect the reward, and financial stability. His performance of Bennie might be the sweatiest, most desperate, most pathetic and miserable character he’s ever portrayed. Modeled carefully after Peckinpah himself, Warren delivers an almost surreal, maniacally desperate man, frothing and crazed, following the trail of Garcia’s burial site, deep into the heart of Mexico with his girlfriend. Hope is maintained through nothing but constant failure, and by anyone’s account, an entirely hopeless situation. Watching his choice to descend into a scenario that any sane man would steer entirely clear of is fascinating. Warren Oates throws himself into this world so tightly, and with such reckless abandon, that I might entirely believe he has nothing left to lose, much like Bennie. It plays very much like part surrealistic action thriller, part moralistic fable. The movie was a failure, and aside from a very few kind words from the critics, it’s success and popularity at any level was not celebrated until after Oates passing.
Another director took special notice of Warren, Monte Hellman. Mr. Hellman had good reason to offer four roles to Warren, and he delivered yet again, incredible performances in at least three of these very low budget films; The Shooting (1966), Two Lane Blacktop (1971), Cockfighter (1974) and China 9, Liberty 37 (1978). The fact that he was delivering such consistent, high caliber work is alone impressive, but delivering such honesty and power to no audience and for very little money in every instance is indication of a rare dedication, and a quiet respect for his craft. All worth watching, although China 9, Liberty 37 is plagued with many problems. He manages to deliver a fairly solid, although somewhat one-dimensional performance. For the sake of controlling the length of this bit of writing, I feel it necessary to talk about two of the films he did with Hellman, as they rank highest in his body of work, along with Alfredo Garcia. Because of their importance to me, and without concern for the length of this article, I feel I must talk about two of these four movies.
Monte Hellman was entirely unknown to me until the mid 1990’s, when a renewed interest in Two Lane Blacktop led to a restoration, theatrical tour, and releases from Anchor Bay on VHS, then DVD, with Roan group including it as their final release on laserdisc. It has since gotten a glorious deluxe treatment from the Criterion collection on DVD and blu ray. Two Lane Blacktop was another commercial failure, despite very favorable reviews. A low budget film, released with little to no fanfare on 4th of July weekend. No one saw it, a few good reviews, and it was gone for 25 years. A very special film in many ways, but for the subject of this article forces my hand to concentrate on the truly inspired performance of Warren Oates in this film. Apparently, he was the only one given the script in advance, and miraculously probably the highest paid actor in the film, although with a final budget of $850,000, it couldn’t have been that much, I’m certain. If pressed, or at least on paper, his character of GTO might be labeled as the villain of the story, but I find it very difficult to stick to that label for very long, if at all. The villain is internal, ethereal and certainly not singular. An existential road movie possibly, existing entirely outside of all rules and law, in the most gentle and quiet manner possible…with fast cars. I believe that there might be several reasons for a director’s repeated use of an actor. Outside of the obvious, if a director has the good fortune to find an actor who truly resembles his or herself and represents the vision most accurately, they’re going to use that person. Oates met Hellman on this one and delivered. He knew he wanted Warren on this one, as he was the only precast leading member on the film. No audition. No screen test. In my opinion, he pulls out all the stops, and delivers a thoroughly and entirely entertaining performance in Two Lane Blacktop. I don’t know how Hellman might have kept from laughing after every single take…Oates is just that good. Once again, a layered performance that has his signature all over it. He’s very sensitive and tragic, alone and desperate. How he manages to be as funny as he is in this movie is genius. The dialogue is so natural that, although scripted, sounds as though it’s frequently improvised. Almost every line GTO speaks is highly quotable.
Although Two Lane Blacktop was a failure at the box office, Hellman was well aware of the extraordinary talent of Warren Oates, and offered him the lead role of Frank Mansfield in Cockfighter (Also released on VHS as Born to Kill, 1974). Much like Two Lane Blacktop, this is an extremely bold movie, and very challenging, but for different reasons. Based in the American south-Georgia, to be exact, viciously gritty, and its main subject matter is the blood sport, cockfighting. Hellman found himself working with Roger Corman again, so this is very much a low budget exploitation movie, and apparently the only one that Corman released through American International Pictures that ever lost money. There are actual and terrifying, beautifully shot cockfights included though out the length of the picture. One of the most treasured talents of Warren Oates is greatly exploited in this film. His character has sworn himself to silence after losing a match and his prize cock, and has vowed to not speak until he finally wins that award back. He doesn’t speak for almost the entire film, and he doesn’t have to. He possesses the ability to communicate wordlessly, and it works in this film beautifully. Hellman has recalled that Warren said this was the easiest job he ever had, because he didn’t have to remember any lines. Hellman disagrees, and credits Oates with a very difficult job well done. The movie is a treasure despite its brutal nature, and to many, because of it. Warren’s performance is harsh and comedic, raging and prideful, touching and full of regret.
As one might expect, because of its harsh and cruel subject matter, and the impossible and failed task of marketing the film, this movie was also a box office failure. To this day Cockfighter is banned in several countries, and was almost entirely unavailable until it received a remastering and home video release in 2001, after decades decaying in the vaults. Sadly, Cockfighter is another film whose merit was recognized long after the passing of its star, Warren Oates.
What I have highlighted in the career of Warren Oates is not only a very common set of films generally cited by fans of Warren Oates, Sam Peckinpah and Monte Hellman, but a very small portion of a very large career. I would be remiss in not mentioning at least another handful of films he appeared in, and delivered noteworthy performances, certainly worth any film lover’s time. I am still uncovering his work for my own personal enjoyment, but the following are highly entertaining, and are certainly recommended:
Major Dundee, directed by Sam Peckinpah (1965), The Shooting, directed by Monte Hellman (1966), In the Heat of the Night, directed by Norman Jewison (1967), The Hired Hand, directed by Peter Fonda, (1971), Dillinger, directed by John Milius (1973), Badlands, directed by Terrence Malick (1973), 92 In The Shade, directed by Thomas McGuane (1975), The Brink’s Job, directed by William Friedkin (1978).
He celebrated success, and was a highly valued during his lifetime. A true American original that loved his work as an actor, and said that it beat working, and paid better too. Sadly, much of his finest work has either not yet been recognized, or received a wider recognition after his death. I for one would have been very interested to see what more he had in store.