Tom McGuane said he had the all-time greatest squint in movies. David Thomson suggested that part of his singular appeal came from his being that rare actor willing to look genuinely dumb. (Thomson also fantasized a production of Waiting for Godot where he'd play opposite Harry Dean Stanton, an actor with whom he shared a distinct kinship and, often enough, screen time.) “At first, I played the neurotic hillbilly son or the third man on the horse,” Warren Oates once said, “then worked my way up with tremendous success to being the second heavy on a horse.”
He did countless hours of TV before finding a niche in the New Hollywood of the 60s and 70s, a memorable presence in whatever crazy project in whichever genre was being turned on its head, and was not infrequently the best thing in the movie. He received only a few shots at being something like a leading man—Dillinger (1973), Cockfighter (74), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (74)—but each time filled the screen with cockeyed charisma and a vulnerability that always caught you off guard, made you feel you knew him for real. You may or may not recognize Warren Oates from many films. You surely recognize he face. But if you do know him and his work well, there’s a 50/50 chance he’s one of your favourite actors.
Actress Lee Purcell had another, rather intriguing theory regarding Oates’ peculiar allure: “Warren always had what the best actors had: Warren always had a secret.” If Oates’ secrets were indeed key to his magnetism, then Susan Compo’s Warren Oates: A Wild Life (University Press of Kentucky, $34.95) is for the most careful to keep the allure intact. It’s not that Compo’s especially shy about detailing Oates’ considerable appetites for liquor, women, drugs and the company of Sam Peckinpah; on the contrary, it’s rather that A Wild Life remains largely a work of reportage without too much in the way of analysis, conjecture or reverie. The prose is on the pedestrian side, the use of quotations to verify simple points sometimes excessive, and, while contradictions are duly addressed—Oates the gentle country boy obsessed with the stock market, the Zen-loving pacifist by nature who also described himself as an anarchist—Oates the man is kept at a certain distance.
Still, it needs to be said that Compo has done admirers—and anyone with serious interest in films of the era—a great service. If solid research can be described as loving, Compo’s book deserves the tag. Taking us from Oates’ Kentucky roots through his early struggles in New York and ambling ascent to character actor stardom in Los Angeles, with many wives and many, many riotous and often famous drinking buddies along the way, A Wild Life compresses a life’s trajectory with a balance of tidiness and detours into some terrific anecdotes—after the first few rather stiff chapters are out of the way, Compo offers a very fun read. And if it feels like less than a fully realized portrait, maybe that’s okay. Oates spent his whole career letting us take long hard looks into his rumpled soul.
Something I hope A Wild Life will help remedy is the almost exclusive association of Oates with Peckinpah, who cast the actor so brilliantly in westerns like Ride the High Country (62) and The Wild Bunch (68), not to mention the sublimely demented Alfredo Garcia. As Compo makes clear, Oates’ collaborations with lesser-known Monte Hellman were just as important. Hellman arguably did more to allow the full breadth of Oates' persona to bloom onscreen, developing leading roles that, even when rendering Oates mute (!), would flush out a rich blend of endearing affectation, innocence, curiosity, orneriness, and desperation. Perhaps the increased availability of Hellman-Oates films like Cockfighter, The Shooting (67) and Two-Lane Blacktop (71) especially will also help generate greater interest in their legacy.
I knew how A Wild Life was going to end, obviously, but it still choked me up. No matter how many times Oates was killed in the movies, no one seemed prepared for his actual death, which occurred off-screen, one afternoon while his lunch was being prepared. He was 53. Despite vague concerns about his general health, there were few alarms preceding the event, though the day before the doctor-phobic Oates phoned up Hellman and told him he’d had a heart attack—before chuckling and saying it was actually just indigestion. No one could ever replace Oates, but there is one great little story in here that reminds us that at least one contemporary American performer has taken up the baton. Oates saw Tom Waits on TV in 1976, fumbling through an interview, erratically searching through his pockets for his lighter. as Compo writes, “Oates took one look at the disheveled singer’s predicament and pronounced, ‘That guy stole my act.’”