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Warren Mercer Oates (July 5, 1928 – April 3, 1982) was a prolific 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 Sergeant Hulka in the box office hit Stripes (1981).

Early life

Oates was born and raised in Depoy, Kentuckymarker (near Greenvillemarker in Muhlenberg Countymarker), the son of Sarah Alice (née Mercer) and Bayless E. Oates, who owned a general store. He attended high school in Louisvillemarker, and enlisted in the Marines in the 1950s. He began his acting career in New York City starring in a live production of the television series Studio One in 1957.

Career

The actor migrated to Los Angeles where he began to carve out a niche playing guest roles in western television programs of the period including Wagon Train, Tombstone Territory, Rawhide,Trackdown, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun-Will Travel, The Big Valley and Gunsmoke. Oates first met Peckinpah when he played a variety of guest roles on The Rifleman (1958-1963), the popular television series created by the director. He also played a supporting role in Peckinpah's short-lived TV 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).

In 1961, he 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 portrayed a number of memorable characters in guest roles on the enduringly popular television series The Twilight Zone ("The Purple Testament" 1960, "The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms" 1963), The Outer Limits ("The Mutant" 1964), Lost in Space ("Welcome Stranger" 1965) and Lancer ("The Man Without a Gun" 1969, "The Buscaderos" 1970).

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) 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).

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 the revenge. 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 '70's, in large part due to Oates' heartbreaking portrayal of GTO.

A year before his death, Oates co-starred with Bill Murray in the 1981 military comedy Stripes. In the role of 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.

Death

Oates died of a sudden heart attack in Los Angeles, Californiamarker on April 3, 1982. He had co-starred in the TV mini-series The Blue and the Gray, which aired in November 1982. His last two films, Blue Thunder and Tough Enough (both released in 1983), were posthumously dedicated to him. Oates was 53 years old.

Legacy

Today, the actor has a dedicated cult following due to 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. His sixth reason, "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.

Warren was cremated and his ashes were scattered in Montanamarker.

References

  1. Kentuckian Warren Oates Got His Big Break in 1954


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