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Warren Oates

Warren Oates: A Wild Life

Susan A. Compo
Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 512
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  • Book Info
    Warren Oates
    Book Description:

    Though he never reached the lead actor status he labored so relentlessly to achieve, Warren Oates (1928--1982) is one of the most memorable and skilled character actors of the 1970s. With his rugged looks and measured demeanor, Oates crafted complex characters who were at once brazen and thoughtful, wild and subdued. Friends remember the hard-living, hard-drinking actor as kind and caring, but also sometimes as mean as a blue-eyed devil. Married four times, partial to road trips in his RV affectionately known as the "Roach Coach," and famous for performances for directors ranging from Sam Peckinpah to Steven Spielberg, Warren Oates remained a Hollywood outsider perfectly suited to the 1960s and 1970s counterculture.

    Born in the small town of Depoy in rural western Kentucky and reared in Louisville, Oates began his career in the late 1950s with bit parts in television westerns. Though hardly lucrative work, it was during this time Oates met renegade director Sam Peckinpah, establishing the creative relationship and destructive friendship that produced some of Oates's most unforgettable roles in Ride the High Country (1962), Major Dundee (1965), and The Wild Bunch (1969), as well as a leading part in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). Though Oates maintained a close association with Peckinpah, he had a penchant for working with a variety of visionary directors who understood his approach and were eager to enlist the subtle talents of the consummate character actor. With supporting roles in In the Heat of the Night (1967), The Hired Hand (1971), Badlands (1973), 1941 (1979), and Stripes (1981), Oates delivered solid performances for filmmakers as diverse and talented as Norman Jewison, Peter Fonda, Terrence Malick, Steven Spielberg, and Ivan Reitman.

    Oates's offscreen personality was just as complex as his on-screen persona. Notorious for being a nightlife reveler, he was as sensitive and introspective as he was outgoing and prone to periods of exuberant, and at times illegal, excess. Though he never became a marquee name, Warren Oates continues to influence actors like Billy Bob Thornton and Benicio Del Toro, as well as directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater, all of whom have cited Oates as a major inspiration. In Warren Oates: A Wild Life, author Susan Compo skillfully captures the story of Oates's eventful life, indulgent lifestyle, and influential career.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7332-0
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[x])
  3. 1 Population Boom
    (pp. 1-18)

    When the last firework had given up its ghost and the cookout embers had ceased smoldering, the population of a small town in the soft coalfields of Muhlenberg County in western Kentucky welcomed a late reveler. “I was due on the Fourth of July but I arrived a few hours late,” said Warren Oates, who was born the morning after in 1928, in what he would refer to as “the little dirt town of Depoy,” a coal-mining and farming community past its prime. Although Depoy had been through hardship before, this time it seemed a little deeper. The Great Depression...

  4. 2 A Good Horse
    (pp. 19-35)

    In April 1948, Corporal Warren Oates was a Marine Corps reservist in Louisville. He carried with him a Good Conduct Medal—which had been hard to earn, as it meant he had not caused any trouble whatsoever—plus a World War II victory medal, some souvenirs, and other perfunctory items. His service record was not remarkable, yet what it afforded him was life altering: the GI bill enabled him to go to college at no cost. Even for a Louisville Male High School dropout, it must have seemed like a viable plan. All he needed to do was pass the...

  5. 3 Hi, I’m Warren
    (pp. 36-51)

    Near Pittsburgh, it was hard to keep morning at bay through the gap in the bus’s playhouse-sized window curtains. Not all passengers had drawn them. Some preferred to soak in the night ride’s sateen sheen and, like Oates, take a little nip of something fortified between naps and to round off another cigarette. The trip to New York was long—almost twenty-four hours—but highways would be a familiar seam in Oates’s life.

    On the evening of February 20, 1954, the bus lurched to a stop outside New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, 803 miles from Louisville. Oates had the address...

  6. 4 Have Gumption—Will Travel
    (pp. 52-66)

    To ride or drive across the continental United States in the winter of 1958 was to encounter a transforming world: fenced-in towns were letting out their hems to reveal ragged edges, and city limits seemed almost arbitrary. New buildings were often starkly linear or leaning toward whimsy, and a hitherto unnoticed breed—the teenager—could be found usually in clumps lurking sullenly or spiritedly beneath the neon signs of drive-in restaurants. The world of Tom Joad was in evidence too. In bas-relief, now shabby auto courts abutted the two-lane highway, sometimes with campsites right beside them. Route 66, the Mother...

  7. 5 Bullfights and Boots
    (pp. 67-77)

    Warren Oates had a given name that lent itself to westerns, themselves often less than respectfully referred to as “oaters.” Over his considerable career, he played characters named Deke, Jed, Lute, Sonny, Drago, Bowers, Mobeetie, Tate, Kemp, Dink, Korbie, Buxton, Hode, Ves, and Jace. He was Speeler, Orville, Rabbit, Stark, Hanes, Jep, Shep, Clem, and Cat Crail. He was Private Hurd Maple, Troy Armbruster, and Silas Carpenter. He was Weed, and he must have enjoyed that. He played Muff, which could not have been lost on him. He was both Willet and Coyne Gashade and Perce and Frank Clampett. He...

  8. 6 A Diamond, a Daughter, and a Drunk
    (pp. 78-84)

    Southern California insomniacs with a penchant for movies till dawn might have tuned into the Lindy—as in ink pens—Theater’s “Four Uninterrupted Movies” starting at eleven o’clock on KABC, channel 7, on Sunday, September 27, 1959. Among the gemsShadows of the Thief,A Very Big Man,Alibi, andUncle Azry, they would have seen a guest interview with Warren Oates. It was Oates’s first—and practically last—such appearance. He would make a point of shying away from television talk shows and interviews and anything that presented him, a private and even shy man, as the focal point....

  9. 7 Meanwhile, Back at the Raincheck
    (pp. 85-97)

    Warren Oates had longstanding groups of friends who, like whiskey and rocks, blended with hesitancy. Some were divided geographically (Montana, California, New Mexico), others by era, and still others by temperament. Oates’s friend Bob Watkins remembered a volatile dinner party rounded off by two rowdy personalities. “Sam Peckinpah and Dennis Hopper were very much alike in that they both got totally out there and were always intense. They want drama every five minutes and they’ll create it. Some people will hang around them because the energy is wild, but if you’re a real easygoing person, you’ll get nauseous from the...

  10. 8 It’s Chicken One Day . . .
    (pp. 98-110)

    By the time Stoney Burke started trying to win his Golden Buckle, it was looking less likely that Warren Oates would be playing a leading role any time soon. He rationalized this: “I’m happy as a character man and I want to stay a character man. The world is full of Tony Perkins types,” he toldTV Scout. And the role of Jack Lord’s sidekick and often side ache Vesper P. Painter was made to order. Ves was, in Oates’s words, “a rural American petty con man.” But then he added a stinger. “Bad guys are all the roles available...

  11. 9 . . . And Feathers the Next
    (pp. 111-126)

    After Oates went fishing, he went hunting. Fern Lea Peckinpah (now Peter) recalled, “My brother Sam, my husband Walter, and Warren all went on a hunting trip where they were meeting my older brother. Somehow there was a flat tire, and they were off the road, and they were stuck.” Oates volunteered to go off in search of assistance and then, from out in the middle of nowhere, returned with hot tea and help. The eventual help was a given; it was the tea that was the Oates touch.

    He sometimes joined the group on deer hunting expeditions in the...

  12. 10 Cloudy and Cool
    (pp. 127-153)

    During a particularly rough patch, Warren Oates’s wife Teddy plucked up her considerable courage and suggested that her husband moonlight as a taxi driver. Teddy was no shrinking violet—she had danced with Mick Jagger, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Henry Fonda and had rustled up cornbread and beans on a moment’s notice for Jack Nicholson—and she did not need to dig deep to summon up what she knew would be received as audacity. “I’m an actor,” her man wasted no time in replying. “I’m not a cab driver.”

    Indeed, Oates held deep convictions about his craft. “I try to be...

  13. 11 Beyond the Valley of the Summer of Love
    (pp. 154-168)

    At midlife in the middle of the 1960s, a newly separated Warren Oates did what many single men did, or dreamed of doing. He took his new Buick convertible and moved to the marina.

    Securing a quintessential bachelor pad with a view of docked boats and yachts and their fluid blue path to the wide-open Pacific, he might have been content, but the failure of his marriage had devastated him. “It really hurt Warren; it really, really did,” said L. Q. Jones. “I don’t think very many people realized just how unhappy he was. He was unhappy because he loved...

  14. 12 All Sam’s Films Are War Films
    (pp. 169-184)

    As decisions go, it was not one that called for much mulling over. To Teddy, an estranged wife still very much in the picture, the choice was cut and dried. Her husband should stay home in Los Angeles and make another film with Burt Kennedy, “The Sheriff” (which would becomeSupport Your Local Sheriff, starring James Garner), rather than run off to a remote location in Mexico with Sam Peckinpah and company.

    “No, Warren, do this one,” Teddy insisted, about the work that would keep him close to home. She knew how precarious their relationship was and that another separation...

  15. 13 Leaving No Turn Unstoned
    (pp. 185-201)

    Warren Oates had one showpiece song that he played on his guitar, which he had had various cohorts sign as if it were a stuffed toy autograph hound. There is no way to know what the melody was, but the lyrics, which he wrote “a little crocked one morning at 4am,” went like this:

    I’m a careless heart, a wandering lover

    and there ain’t no way I’ll settle down

    the diesels whine way over yonder

    and the mystery of that other town.

    Match that restlessness with a touch of reverie and no fixed abode, and you have a lonely, wandering...

  16. 14 Spread upon the Earth
    (pp. 202-225)

    Warren Oates was a creature of habit, and whenever he could, he slipped into patterns as suited to him as the woven Navajo blankets he cherished. In the late morning (“At six o’clock in the morning I’m just barely alive anyhow”), he would drive down the hill in his red Mazda rotary engine truck to get coffee and pastries. “Warren liked to go meet his men friends for coffee at Pupi’s on the Strip in the morning,” Vickery said. “Warren was a very shy man and could get tongue-tied around some people, but he loved his friends who he could...

  17. 15 The Year of Warren Oates
    (pp. 226-241)

    When Peter Fonda proclaimed 1971 “the year of Warren Oates,” in critical terms he was not far off. The reviews Oates received were ecstatic. “Warren Oates is a total smash as another drifter whose insecurities are no different than those of his younger companions. Much of the story’s import is on his back and he carries it like a champion in an outstanding performance,” ravedDaily Varietyof Oates inTwo-Lane Black-top. Kevin Thomas insisted Oates “has what it takes to hold the center of attention in the big leagues.” By the end of the year, he would be hailed...

  18. 16 Secrets and Strengths
    (pp. 242-262)

    On the flight from London to Chupaderos in the state of Durango, Mexico, Oates was unaware that a sultry, auburn-haired young beauty was about to make virtually the same semiarduous trek. He probably did not give his transgressions against married life much thought on the long ride. After all, he had always had an eye for the ladies; in New York City women and drinking were nearly all he and Howard Dayton had lived for. And his age, forty-three, resoundingly late midlife in 1971 terms, had done nothing to abate his ability to fall for a pretty face, regardless of...

  19. 17 Three White Suits
    (pp. 263-289)

    Warren Oates had a surprise for his wife. As she entered LAX upon return from London, the grieving woman with a faltering marriage was met by her husband, his press agent Stan Moress, a photographer, a brass band, and three giggling, screaming girls holding balloons and a “Welcome Home” banner. “I was very embarrassed,” Vickery said. In her fictional version, the narrator was far more charitable about the misfiring welcome wagon. “Leon looked quite heroic in a white suit. . . . Behind them was a small brass band that struck up a tuneless rendition of ‘Rule Britannia’ as soon...

  20. 18 Family Style
    (pp. 290-302)

    Some things didn’t jibe, maybe, in there but as far as my personal gratification, I got more out of ‘Alfredo Garcia,’” Oates said. “But as a human being, I get more out of ‘The Wild Bunch.’”

    Oates would be home in Los Angeles briefly at the beginning of 1974, long enough to see Teddy and his two children make their move to Atlanta. Teddy, who had been working for NBC, would eventually join the growing Turner Broadcasting Network. Her ex-husband had told her he would stake her three months on the road as she went around the United States to...

  21. 19 The Grand Experiment
    (pp. 303-322)

    In 1974, Livingston, Montana, and nearby Paradise Valley were as pretty and remote as could be reached by RV or four-wheel drive. “The Montana mountains . . . are more beautiful than any woman ever born,” Oates exclaimed. “Mountains and their snowcaps are breathtaking in their grandeur.” He said he was writing a film about them.

    In cognoscenti terms, the area had been homesteaded by Tom McGuane, Peter Fonda, and William “Gatz” Hjorstberg. Oates would join their group, which was sometimes referred to as the Montana Mafia. Livingston and its environs would provide Oates with a community and a fly-fishing...

  22. 20 Another Wilderness
    (pp. 323-342)

    Rebecca Crockett McGuane—both Bob Watkins and Oates refused to call her Portia—had meant something big to Oates. “I know he was crazy about her,” said Dana Ruscha. “I would know. I was very interested in it all.” She added, “He liked Isela Vega too.”

    Vickery Turner had since married the actor Michael Shannon, prompting one witness to say she had left her husband for a younger man. Whether or not that was the case, “Vickery was good for Warren,” Verna Bloom insisted. “Warren’s darker and crazier side got the better of her.” “I met Vickery once at an...

  23. 21 Dog Days
    (pp. 343-362)

    Warren would give you the character you wanted,” Judy Jones said. Although she was speaking in personal rather than professional terms, the statement was equally applicable. Bob Watkins agreed. “Everybody puts on a different face,” he said. “Everyone who knows you sees a different you. I think about Judy and Teddy, they knew a different Warren. The wives were married to him at different times, professionally, economically, maturity, all those factors. Everybody had a different idea of who he was. Warren had many facets.” It is doubtful that Oates’s public would have thought of the rabble-rousing tough guy as someone...

  24. 22 Something Incredible
    (pp. 363-383)

    It probably was not a guilty conscience that prompted William Friedkin to cast Warren Oates in his next movie. Instead, when Friedkin began assembling a group of middle-aged ruffians, Oates fit the bill. It was fortunate: Oates turned in a performance that became his favorite. It was playing an unstable safecracker, not a head-hunting piano player, that Oates believed to be his finest hour.

    Or half-hour: Specs O’Keefe was not the dominant role inThe Brink’s Job. That went to Peter Falk, who played Tony Pino, mastermind of a $2.7 million robbery of the Brink’s vault in Boston’s North End...

  25. 23 Kettledrums Roll
    (pp. 384-397)

    Ted Strong, who has a loving, lively, arch, and hip Web site filled with material essential and frivolous about Warren Oates, says that for theSaturday Night Livegeneration, Oates is best known as Sergeant Hulka, the end-of-his-tether military man who makes life difficult for Bill Murray and Harold Ramis inStripes. Hulka the drill instructor, and the three-word, five-syllable retort he dispensed to a strung-out recruit, entered the American lexicon.

    The recruit introduces himself. “Name’s Francis Sawyer. Everybody calls me Psycho. Any of you guys call me Francis, and I’ll kill ya.”

    “Lighten up, Francis!” Hulka tells him.


  26. 24 No Magic Hour
    (pp. 398-408)

    The cluster of emergency vehicles on the narrow street had howled on their way up the hill. Now they were still, with only their lights flashing a steady beat. Judy’s luncheon friends had scattered. A couple of them looked after the children while she dealt with the paramedics and fire department officials. Battalion chief Robert Ewert had made the pronouncement, but it would take more than that for it to sink in.

    Oates’s neighbor David Peckinpah phoned to alert his uncle. Judy had forbidden Sam to call, so he contacted Becky Fonda.

    “Something’s going on at Warren’s house,” Peckinpah told...

  27. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 409-412)
  28. Appendix: Credits and Broadcast Appearances
    (pp. 413-426)
  29. Notes
    (pp. 427-468)
  30. Index
    (pp. 469-502)
  31. Illustrations
    (pp. None)