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.