Warren Oates, the gruff, everyman character actor best remembered for his film roles as the dim-witted but intimidating half of the Gorch Brothers in The Wild Bunch and the aptly named Sgt. Hulka in the Bill Murray Army comedy vehicle Stripes, would have been 85 years old today. Oates had succumbed to cancer back in 1982.
Oates seemed to be a chameleon in his roles, a merry-go-round of styles in a various litany of genres; he played famed real-life gangster John Dillinger (in Dillinger), did turns in Sam Peckinpah projects like the aforementioned The Wild Bunch and Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, and did stints with other famed directors like Terrence Malick (Badlands), William Friedkin (The Brinks Job), and Steven Spielberg (the panned at the time, but semi-cult comedy in today’s climate 1941).
All of those films (and plenty more, along with various guest spots on many TV shows, mainly drama anthologies) utilized the craft of Oates in various ways, but what always remained constant was that Warren Oates had an uneasy charisma about his persona on film and in his characters. He had a kind of cocksure, aggressive nature, a wobbly kind of confidence, a big goofy grin which sometimes hid a potboiler of a man inside.
The actor had the rare ability to almost transcend the script and narrative. Whether the film itself was or wasn’t entirely successful, there was something about the presence of Oates which made a picture not only watchable, but grafted a sort of anticipation for the viewer for the scenes he was in, something that was evident and prevalent in what may stand as one of his greatest and somewhat relatively unknown save for the cult masses roles, as The GTO in Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop. To watch Oates in that picture, a film which is soaked with the residue of the kind of youth road films that found its genesis in the late 1960s, crossed with the sort of ambiguity and restless lost identity that also permeated many films of that era, is an absolute joy. His performance stands as one of cinema’s all-time best, again, playing a character who on the outside seems like the calm, awkward soul, but has that hidden allure of mystery. He’s was also funny, whimsical, lyrical and ultimately poignant. Leonard Maltin, a film critic who I personally never really gauge as any authority of a bottom line critique of cinema, regardless of his pedigree, finally hit the nail on the head when he described Oates in this film, as he wrote something along the lines of, “Oates performance is among the best you’ll ever see and should have won the Oscar.” In truth, Oates wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar that year (it went to Gene Hackman for The French Connection), but no question, he should have been. Regardless of the lack of accolades, it arguably does stand as one of cinema’s all time great performances indeed.
But it’s probably Stripes that makes the visage of Oates most remembered to audiences of all generations. Since the film still enjoys a following as one of the most beloved comedies to come in the latter part of the 20th century, Oates sometimes steals the film outright from the vivid high octane, high sarcastic, teddy bear smart ass at-his-peak performance by Bill Murray. And in Stripes, not only does Oates’ portrayal give the film a sort of dramatic and realistic gravitas, it also shows his flair for low key comedy. It showed a newer dimension to the man, and it kept his career alight and even put it on a newer level. Oates, however, died the following year after the success of Stripes, in 1982.
The high visibility of the large cachet of films, cult and otherwise, will keep the memory of Warren Oates still in the minds and memories of movie goers. He also had the wonderful good fortune to exist at a time in his career when Hollywood was churning out adventurous films of narrative and direction. There’s no question that most of his films wouldn’t be green lit today; Oates in a way might have been very out of place in today’s Hollywood, as the very term “character actor” is a sort of antiquated thing. The fact that Warren Oates was able to parlay a successful career as rarely a leading man, but certainly one of its leading presences in all the productions he appeared in, stands as an achievement and even a lesson to today’s filmmakers, one of that actors don’t have to have a certain physicality to carve their place in Tinseltown and that they can even breach stereotypical tenets and still become an awesome force in the history of the genre and have an influence that still runs deep. Are there many other actors in the history of Hollywood who can have the adjectives crude, craggy, uncomfortable, and unorthodox act as positives to their overall resume? Warren Oates did, does and continues to, in his memory.
In short, sometimes the best lessons and influences in what one can get out of Hollywood comes from the most unlikeliest sources. And Warren Oates is a source that runs as rich and deep as a miner finding gold in the recesses of the sparkling waters.