Warren Mercer Oates (July 5, 1928 - April 3, 1982) was an American actor best known for his performances in several films directed by Sam Peckinpah including The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). He starred in numerous films during the early 1970s which have since achieved cult status including The Hired Hand (1971), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Race with the Devil (1975). Oates also portrayed John Dillinger in the biopic Dillinger (1973) and Sergeant Hulka in the comedy Stripes (1981).
Oates was born and reared in Depoy, a tiny rural community west of Greenville in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. He was the son of Sarah Alice (née Mercer) and Bayless Earle Oates, who owned a general store. He attended Louisville Male High School in Louisville, Kentucky, until 1945 but did not graduate. He later earned a high school equivalency diploma. After high school he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps for two years serving in the air wing as an aircraft mechanic. He became interested in theater at the University of Louisville and starred in several plays there in 1953 for the Little Theater Company. He got an opportunity in New York City to star in a live production of the television series, Studio One in 1957.
Oates moved to Los Angeles where he began to establish himself in guest roles in Western television series, including Wagon Train, Tombstone Territory, Buckskin, Rawhide, Trackdown, Tate, The Rebel, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun - Will Travel, Lawman, The Big Valley and Gunsmoke. Oates first met Peckinpah when he played a variety of guest roles on The Rifleman (1958-1963), a popular television series created by the director. He also played a supporting role in Peckinpah's short-lived series The Westerner in 1960. The collaboration continued as he worked on Peckinpah's early films Ride the High Country (1962) and Major Dundee (1965).
"There were forty western series, and I went from one to the other. I started out playing the third bad guy on a horse and worked my way up to the No. 1 bad guy," Oates once quipped.
In the episode "Subterranean City" (October 14, 1958) of the syndicated Rescue 8, Oates played a gang member, Pete, who is the nephew of series character Skip Johnson (Lang Jeffries). In the story line, rescuers Skip Johnson and Wes Cameron (Jim Davis) search for a lost girl in the sewer tunnels and encounter three criminals hiding out underground. Pete soon breaks with his gang companions and joins the firemen Wes and Skip in locating the missing child.
In 1961, Oates guest starred in the episode "Artie Moon" in NBC's The Lawless Years crime drama about the 1920s. In 1962, he appeared as "Ves Painter" in the short-lived ABC series Stoney Burke, co-starring Jack Lord, a program about rodeo contestants.
Oates also played in a number of guest roles on The Twilight Zone (in The Purple Testament and The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms, in which he costarred with Randy Boone and Ron Foster), The Outer Limits ("The Mutant" 1964), Combat! ("The Pillbox" 1964,) and Lost in Space ("Welcome Stranger" 1965). During the 1960s and 1970s, he guest-starred on such shows as Twelve O'Clock High (The Hotshot 1965)Lancer, and The Virginian.
In addition to Peckinpah, Oates worked with several major film directors of his era including Leslie Stevens in the 1960 film Private Property, his first starring role; Norman Jewison in In the Heat of the Night (1967); Joseph L. Mankiewicz in There Was a Crooked Man... (1970); John Milius in Dillinger (1973); Terrence Malick in Badlands (1973); Philip Kaufman in The White Dawn (1974); William Friedkin in The Brink's Job (1978); and Steven Spielberg in 1941 (1979).
He appeared in the Sherman Brothers musical version of Tom Sawyer as "Muff Potter", the town drunk. He also starred in The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), Return of the Seven (1966), The Shooting (filmed in 1965, released in 1968), The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973), Cockfighter (1974), Drum (1976) and China 9, Liberty 37 (1978). Oates co-starred three times with friend Peter Fonda in The Hired Hand (1971), Race with the Devil (1975) and 92 in the Shade (1975).
June 18 thru June 26 while making a guest appearance on a segment of Dundee and the Culhane, Warren Oates managed to steal the show with his off camera antics and bloopers that had everyone on the set rolling. After a long day of filming, Warren headed over and set his footprints in cement along with all the other stars that appeared at Apacheland Movie Ranch. It was during this time that "Heat of the Night" was a blockbuster summer flick. Warren's role as "Officer Sam Wood" is spectacular as he plays a peeping-tom officer and possible killer in the critically acclaimed film.
Oates was cast in Roger Donaldson's 1977 New Zealand film Sleeping Dogs together with New Zealand actor Sam Neill. A political thriller with action film elements, Sleeping Dogs follows the lead character "Smith" (Neill) as New Zealand plunges into a police state, as a fascist government institutes martial law after industrial disputes flare into violence. Smith gets caught between the special police and a growing resistance movement and reluctantly becomes involved. Oates plays the role of "Willoughby", commander of the American forces stationed in New Zealand and working with the New Zealand fascist government to find and subdue "rebels" (the resistance movement).
His partnership with Peckinpah resulted in two of his most famous film roles. In the 1969 Western classic The Wild Bunch, he portrayed Lyle Gorch, a long-time outlaw who chooses to die with his friends during the film's violent conclusion. According to his wife at the time, Teddy, Oates had the choice of starring in Support Your Local Sheriff!, to be filmed in Los Angeles, or The Wild Bunch in Mexico. "He had done Return of the Seven in Mexico; he got hepatitis, plus dysentery. But off he went again with Sam (Peckinpah). He loved going on location. He loved the adventure of it. He had great admiration for Sam. Sam Peckinpah and Monte Hellman were the two directors Warren would work with anytime anywhere." In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the dark 1974 action/tragedy also filmed in Mexico, Oates played the lead role of Bennie, a hard-drinking down-on-his-luck musician hoping to make a final score. The character was reportedly based on Peckinpah himself. For authenticity, Oates wore the director's sunglasses while filming scenes of the production.
Although the Peckinpah film roles are his best-known, his most critically acclaimed role is GTO in Monte Hellman's 1971 cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop. The film, although a failure at the box-office, is studied in film schools as a treasure of the 1970s, in large part due to Oates' heartbreaking portrayal of GTO. Famed film critic Leonard Maltin remarked that Oates' performance in this film was as good as any he'd seen and should have won the Oscar.
A year before his death, Oates co-starred with Bill Murray in the 1981 military comedy Stripes. In the role of the drill sergeant, Sergeant Hulka, Oates skillfully played the straight man to Murray's comedic character. The film was a huge financial success, earning $85 million at the box office. In 1982, he co-starred opposite Jack Nicholson in director Tony Richardson's The Border.
Warren Oates died in his sleep while taking an afternoon nap on April 3, 1982 at age 53 in his house in Los Angeles, California, of a sudden heart attack brought on by chest pains and shortness of breath which began that late morning. After his funeral, his body was cremated and his ashes were scattered at his ranch in Montana.
In 1981, nearly one year before his death, he had co-starred in the CBS TV mini-series The Blue and the Gray, which aired in November 1982. His last two films, Blue Thunder (which was filmed in early 1980) and Tough Enough (which was filmed in late 1981) (both released in 1983), were posthumously dedicated to him. Monte Hellman's film Iguana ends with the titles "For Warren" as a dedication.
Today, the actor has a dedicated cult following because of his memorable performances in not only Peckinpah's films, but Monte Hellman's independent works, his films with Peter Fonda and a number of B-movies from the 1970s. His occasionally crude facade, likeable persona and uncommon presence are admired by such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater. During a recent screening of Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, Linklater introduced the film and announced 16 reasons why viewers should love the 1971 movie. The sixth was: "Because there was once a god who walked the Earth named Warren Oates."
The documentary film Warren Oates: Across the Border was produced by Tom Thurman in 1993 in tribute to the actor's career.
Oates was again recognized in March 2009 with the first-ever biography of his colorful life. Featuring interviews with actor's former wives, children, and friends, Warren Oates: A Wild Life, was written by Susan Compo. It has received much acclaim from fans and critics alike.
First Credited Role
The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond
Ride the High Country
Mail Order Bride
Also played uncredited cowboy
Return of the Seven
Welcome to Hard Times
In the Heat of the Night
Something for a Lonely Man
Crooks and Coronets
The Wild Bunch
The Movie Murderer
Jake (Jacob) Remy, Gang Leader
There Was a Crooked Man...
The Hired Hand
The Reluctant Heroes of Hill 656
Cpl. Leroy Sprague
A Job for Mr. Banks
Mr. Elwood Colby Banks
Nominated Saturn Award for Best Actor
The Thief Who Came to Dinner
Saturn Award for Best Actor
The White Dawn
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Hamonica played in bar
Race with the Devil
92 in the Shade
The African Queen
Capt. Charlie Allnut
True Grit: A Further Adventure
Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn
Amore, piombo e furore
The Brink's Job
And Baby Makes Six
My Old Man
Colonel "Madman" Maddox
Nominated BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Baby Comes Home
Captain Jack Braddock
Released Posthumously Filmed in 1980
Released Posthumously Filmed in 1981
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Gunsmoke (1958) as Jed Hakes in "Snakebite",
Gunsmoke (1958-1967, 11 episodes) as Al Tresh/Chris Kelly/Deke Bassop/Speeler/Lafe/Tate Crocker/Sweet Billy Cathcart,
Wanted Dead Or Alive (1958-1961, four episodes) as Jesse Cox/Billy Clegg/George Aswell/Clem Robinson,
The Rebel as Troy Armbruster in "School Days" (1959),
Rawhide (1960-1965, 4 episodes),
Johnny Ringo (1960), as Burt Scanlon in "Single Debt",
Target: The Corruptors! (1961-1962, 2 episodes, "Mr. Megalomania" and "Journey into Mourning"),
The Rifleman (1958-1962, two episodes) in "The Day of Reckoning" as Willie Breen and "The Marshall" as Andrew Sheltin,
"Thriller" (Season 2-1961-1962,episode 57) "The Hollow Watcher",
Bonanza (1962, one episode) "The Mountain Girl",
Stoney Burke (1962-1963, 11 episodes) as Ves Painter (Oates' only regular role on a television series),
The Twilight Zone (1963, two episodes) in "The Purple Testament" and "The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms",
The Virginian (1963-1966, 4 episodes) as Corbie/Roy Judd/Bowers/Buxton,
Combat! (1964, one episode) as Soldier Stark in "The Pillbox",
The Outer Limits (1964, one episode) as Reese Fowler in "The Mutant",
The Fugitive (1964, two episodes) in "Devil's Carnival" as Hanes McClure and "Rat in a Corner" as Herbie Grant,
Twelve O'Clock High (1965) as Lt. Col. Troper,
Lost in Space (1965, one episode) "Welcome Stranger",
The Big Valley (1965-1966, two episodes) as Korby "Duke" Kyles,
The Monroes (1966, one episode) as Nick Beresford,
Shane (1966, one episode) as Kemp Spicer,
Dundee and the Culhane (1967, one episode) as Lafe Doolin,
The Iron Horse (1967, one episode) as Hode Avery,
Cimarron Strip (1967, two episodes) as Mobeetie,
Run for Your Life (1968, one episode) as Deputy Potter,
Disneyland (1968, two episodes) as John Blythe,
Lancer (1969-1970, two episodes) as Sheriff Val "Drago" Crawford,
The F.B.I. (1971, one episode) as Richie Billings,
The Name of the Game (1971, one episode) as John Lew Weatherford,
Black Beauty (TV mini series) (1978) at the Internet Movie Database as Jerry Barker,
Police Story (1978, one episode) as Richey Neptune,
Insight (1979, one episode),
East of Eden (1981, miniseries) as Cyrus Trask,
The Blue and the Gray (1982, miniseries) as Major "Preacher" Welles,
Tales of the Unexpected (1985, one episode) as Harry
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license