Nationality: American. Born: Depoy, Kentucky, 5 July 1928. Education: Attended high school in Louisville, Kentucky; University of Louisville, 1950–53. Family: Married Vickery (Oates) (second marriage), two children. Career: 1948–50—served in the U.S. Marine Corps; studied drama in New York, worked as hat-check at 21 Club and tested gags on Beat the Clock TV show; worked on New York stage: roles in Who's Happy Now? and The Wisteria Trees ; 1958—film debut in Up Periscope! ; 1962–63—regular appearances in TV series Stoney Burke ; 1978—in TV mini-series Black Beauty , and East of Eden , 1981. Died: Of heart attack, in Los Angeles, 3 April 1982.
Films as Actor:
Up Periscope! (Douglas)
Yellowstone Kelly (Douglas) (as Cavalry corporal); The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (Boetticher) (as Eddie Diamond); Private Property (Stevens) (as Boots)
Hero's Island ( The Land We Love ) (Stevens) (as Wayte); Ride the High Country ( Guns in the Afternoon ) (Peckinpah) (as Henry Hammond)
Mail Order Bride (Kennedy) (as Jace)
The Rounders (Kennedy); Major Dundee (Peckinpah) (as O. W. Hadley)
Return of the Seven (Kennedy) (as Colbee); The Shooting (Hellman) (as Willet Gashade); Welcome to Hard Times ( Killer on a Horse ) (Kennedy) (as Jenks)
In the Heat of the Night (Jewison) (as Sam Wood)
The Split (Flemying) (as Marty Gough); Something for a Lonely Man (Taylor—for TV) (as Angus Duren)
The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah) (as Lyle Gorch); Smith! (O'Herlihy) (as Walter Charlie); Crooks and Coronets ( Sophie's Place ) (O'Connolly) (as Marty Miller)
Barquero (Douglas) (as Jake Remy); There Was a Crooked Man (Mankiewicz) (as Floyd Moon); The Movie Murderer (Sagal—for TV) (as Alfred Fisher)
Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman) (as "G.T.O."); The Hired Hand (Fonda) (as Harris); Chandler (Magwood) (title role); The Reluctant Heroes (Day—for TV) (as Corporal Leroy Sprague)
The Thief Who Came to Dinner (Yorkin) (as Dave Reilly); Tom Sawyer (Taylor) (as Muff Potter); Kid Blue (Frawley) (as Reese Ford); Dillinger (Milius) (title role); Badlands (Malick) (as Holly's father)
The White Dawn (Kaufman) (as Billy); Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Peckinpah) (as Bennie); Cockfighter (Hellman) (as Frank Mansfield)
Race with the Devil (Starrett) (as Frank); Ninety-Two in the Shade (McGuane) (as Nichol Dance)
Dixie Dynamite (Frost) (as Mack); Drum (Carver) (as Hammond Maxwell)
Sleeping Dogs (Donaldson) (as Willoughby); Prime Time ( American Raspberry ) (Swirnoff) (as Celebrity Sportsman); The African Queen (Sarafian—for TV) (as Charlie Allnot)
Amore, piombo, e furore ( China 9, Liberty 37 ) (Hellman) (as Matthew Hellman); The Brink's Job (Friedkin) (as "Specs" O'Keefe); True Grit (Heffron—for TV) (as Rooster Cogburn)
1941 (Spielberg) (as Maddox); And Baby Makes Six (Hussein—for TV); My Old Man (Erman—for TV)
Stripes (Reitman) (as Sergeant Hulka)
The Border (Richardson) (as Red)
Blue Thunder (Badham) (as Braddock); Tough Enough (Fleischer) (as James)
By OATES: articles—
Interview with A. Garel, in Image et Son (Paris), April 1974.
Interview with David Thomson, and others in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1981.
On OATES: articles—
Eyles, Allen, "Warren Oates," in Focus on Film (London), Spring 1973.
Checklist in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), June 1982.
Obituary in Films and Filming (London), June 1982.
The Annual Obituary 1982 , New York, 1983.
McGillivray, David, "Warren Oates," in Films and Filming (London), September 1984.
Film Dope (Nottingham), July 1992.
Stars (Mariembourg), Winter 1992.
Hoberman, J., "Home on the Range," in Premiere (Boulder), February 1993.
On OATES: film—
Warren Oates: Across the Border , documentary, directed by Tom Thurman, 1993.
* * *
The character actor Warren Oates has been described by the critic David Thomson as ". . . on first sight grubby, balding, and unshaven. You can smell whisky and sweat on him, along with that mixture of bad beds and fallen women. He's toothy, he's small . . . and he has a face like prison bread, with eyes that have known too much solitary confinement. But the eyes bulge and shrink in a sweet game of fear and courage. And for some of us Oates is the only human being in pictures." The essential believability of Oates's characters is one of the most notable aspects of his film career. Rather than a simple projection of a man-on-the-street identity, however, his believability rests on a more sophisticated use of nuance and unpredictability, which, in combination with his unpolished physical appearance, gives his screen roles a substance that succeeds in suspending the audience's disbelief.
Whatever his role, Oates always manages to convey a certain degree of familiarity on the screen, as opposed to portraying an impossibly perfect hero. A case in point is his performance in the title role of Dillinger . At a time when roaring twenties desperadoes were being glamorized on film (for example, Warren Beatty's Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde ), Oates's conception of "Public Enemy Number One" is neither glamorous nor romanticized. Instead, his swagger is offset by his insecurity, making his eruptions of violence seem the inevitable result of human frustration and frailty.
In an interview, Oates once expressed his feelings of insecurity about playing major figures, particularly in Westerns. In his opinion, John Wayne had become the model for that sort of mythic figure, and he himself possessed none of the requisite visual attributes. This "inadequacy" may be responsible for Oates's career as a supporting player, but all of Oates's characters are nonetheless memorable, because each has its idiosyncracies and quirks. The ability to project such qualities is indispensable for a supporting actor, as his roles are often fragmented and do not evolve over the duration of the film.
A particularly good example is Terrence Malick's Badlands , in which Oates plays Sissy Spacek's domineering father, who is brutally murdered by Spacek's boyfriend, played by Martin Sheen. Oates's appearance in the film is brief, and his characterization must therefore be drawn quickly. Rather than playing a more standard supporting role, Oates's character instead actually extends the film's plot. Just when Oates seems to be the most predictable, he explodes in a fashion which foreshadows the violence of Sheen's character. Oates's performance gives the film a cutting edge suggesting that Spacek's relationship with Sheen is not in fact escape, but a continuation of her relationship with her father.
To film enthusiasts, Oates's signature performances were undoubtedly those in his three films for director Sam Peckinpah. In Ride the High Country , The Wild Bunch , and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia , Oates got perhaps his widest exposure. These were certainly the only instances in which it could be said that Oates was in big-budget films. In fact, the final shoot-out in The Wild Bunch had a longer shooting schedule (about 25 days) than most of the rest of the films he appeared in. In Alfredo Garcia Oates played what may be his only major role. His character is central to the action and is sustained for the film's duration. Oates himself cited this as his favorite role for that very reason. Alfredo Garcia typifies Oates's role as the "bad guy," yet even his bad guys are charming, and not without a level of humor and humanity. Human, then, is the word for Warren Oates on screen. Not "real," necessarily, but believable and charming, because his characters possess a range of qualities the viewer can identify as his or her own.