Warren Oates

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Warren Oates
Warren Oates 1963.jpg
Oates in 1963
Born Warren Mercer Oates
(1928-07-05)July 5, 1928
Depoy, Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, United States
Died April 3, 1982(1982-04-03) (aged 53)
Los Angeles, California, United States
Cause of death Heart attack
Years active 1956–1982
Spouse(s) Teddy Farmer (1959–1966, divorced)
Vickery Turner (1969–1974, divorced)
Judy A. Jones (1977–1982, his death)

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 Sgt. Hulka in the comedy Stripes (1981).

Early life[edit]

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 (maiden name Mercer) and Bayless Earle Oates, who owned a general store.[1][2] On his father's side, he was of English, Scottish and Welsh ancestry. 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.[3]


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 (1958–63), a popular television series created by the director. He also played a supporting role in Peckinpah's short-lived series The Westerner in 1960.[4] The collaboration continued as he worked on Peckinpah's early films Ride the High Country (1962) and Major Dundee (1965).

"There were 40 [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.[5]

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 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.[6]

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 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 Split (1968), The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973), Cockfighter (1974), Drum (1976) and China 9, Liberty 37 (1978), and played the title role in a 1971 crime drama, Chandler. 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).

While making a guest appearance on a segment of the Western television series Dundee and the Culhane, 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, he headed over and set his footprints in cement along with all the other stars who appeared at Apacheland Movie Ranch.[7] It was during this time that In the Heat of the Night was a blockbuster summer flick. Oates played Officer Sam Wood, a peeping-tom policeman and possible killer in the critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning 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."[8] 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 and bartender 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, Sgt. 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.


Oates was ill with flu in the weeks before his death.[9] He 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 following chest pains and shortness of breath which began that late morning.[5] The autopsy showed he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.[10] After his funeral, his body was cremated and his ashes were scattered at his ranch in Montana.[11]

In 1981, nearly one year before his death, he had co-starred as a fanatical Southern preacher-turned-Confederate officer 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.[12][13] 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."[3]

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.[14]



Year Title Role Notes
1959 Up Periscope Seaman Kovacs Uncredited
Yellowstone Kelly Corporal
1960 The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond Eddie Diamond
Private Property Boots
1962 Ride the High Country Henry Hammond
Hero's Island Wayte Giddens
1964 Mail Order Bride Jace
1965 The Rounders Harley Williams Also played Uncredited cowboy
Major Dundee O.W. Hadley
1966 The Shooting Willett Gashade
Return of the Seven Colbee
1967 Welcome to Hard Times Leo Jenks
In the Heat of the Night Sam Wood
1968 The Split Marty Gough
Something for a Lonely Man Angus Duren Television film
1969 Smith! Walter Charlie
Crooks and Coronets Marty Miller
The Wild Bunch Lyle Gorch
Lanton Mills Gunman Short
1970 The Movie Murderer Alfred Fisher Television film
Barquero Jake (Jacob) Remy, Gang Leader
There Was a Crooked Man... Floyd Moon
1971 Two-Lane Blacktop G.T.O.
The Hired Hand Arch Harris
The Reluctant Heroes of Hill 656 Cpl. Leroy Sprague Television film
Chandler Chandler
1972 A Job for Mr. Banks Mr. Elwood Colby Banks Nominated Saturn Award for Best Actor
1973 The Thief Who Came to Dinner Dave Reilly
Tom Sawyer Muff Potter
Kid Blue Reese Ford
Dillinger John Dillinger Saturn Award for Best Actor
Badlands Father
1974 The White Dawn Billy
Cockfighter Frank Mansfield
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia Bennie
1975 Rancho Deluxe Hamonica played in bar Uncredited
Race with the Devil Frank Stewart
92 in the Shade Nichol Dance
1976 Dixie Dynamite Mack
Drum Hammond Maxwell
1977 American Raspberry Celebrity Sportsman
The African Queen Capt. Charlie Allnut Television film
Sleeping Dogs Col. Willoughby
1978 True Grit: A Further Adventure Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn Television film
Amore, piombo e furore Matthew Sebanek
The Brink's Job Specs O'Keefe
1979 And Baby Makes Six Michael Kramer Television film
My Old Man Frank Butler Television film
1941 Colonel "Madman" Maddox Nominated BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role
1980 Baby Comes Home Michael Kramer Television film
1981 Stripes Sgt. Hulka
1982 The Border Red
1983 Blue Thunder Captain Jack Braddock Released posthumously, filmed in 1980
Tough Enough James Neese Released posthumously, filmed in 1981


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kentuckian Warren Oates Got His Big Break in 1954
  2. ^ Jesse Oates, retrieved 2013-05-05 
  3. ^ a b "Tedstrong, Warren Oates". tedstrong.com. 2002. Retrieved 2007-08-03. 
  4. ^ Weddle, David (1994). If They Move...Kill 'Em!. Grove Press. pp. 153–154. ISBN 0–8021–3776–8. 
  5. ^ a b "Actor Warren Oates Dies", Minden Press-Herald, Minden, Louisiana, April 5, 1982, p. 8
  6. ^ "Subterranean City, Rescue 8, October 14, 1958". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved January 29, 2013. 
  7. ^ http://apacheland.com/footprints/warren-oates.html
  8. ^ Weddle, David (1994). If They Move...Kill 'Em!. Grove Press. pp. 321. ISBN 0–8021–3776–8. 
  9. ^ Compo, Susan Warren Oates: A Wild Life (2010) p. 396
  10. ^ Compo, Susan Warren Oates: A Wild Life (2010) p. 401
  11. ^ Compo, Susan A. Warren Oates: A Wild Life. University of Kentucky Press, 2009, ISBN 0-8131-2536-7
  12. ^ "The Films of Monte Hellman". Retrieved 2007-08-03. 
  13. ^ "Monte Hellman: In His Own Words". Retrieved 2007-08-03. 
  14. ^ Warren Oates - A Wild Life: A Conversation With Biographer Susan Compo

External links[edit]