One mark of a Cool Actor is the number of truly iconic roles in his career. Warren Oates can measure up to the best of them, with lead roles in true classics like Cockfighter, based on the Charles Willeford novel, Dillinger, written and directed by John Milius, Two Lane Blacktop and of course his roles in two of Sam Peckinpah’s best films, The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Oates managed to combine a tough guy demeanor with a small town Kentucky charm and vulnerability that made audiences sympathize with him, no matter how despicable his actions on screen.
Oates received his only Academy Award nomination for the title role in 1973’s Dillinger, a gritty, realistic film that portrayed Dillinger as a sadistic thug with a craving for celebrity and a love for violence. Even the trailer is intense.
EDIT: Oates was NOT nominated for Dillinger or any other film. I foolishly trusted Wikipedia on this one even though it didn’t sound right. Thanks to multiple readers and Facebook followers for pointing out my error.
I think Oates was at his best as Bennie the piano player out for one big score in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. His journey from drunken piano player in a desperate bid for a better life with his lover Elita to his single-minded pursuit of revenge turns what could have been a shaggy dog story into an emotionally powerful and almost surreal character study.
Warren Oates died of a heart attack in 1982, not long after possibly his most visible role as Sgt. Hulka in Stripes. He was only 53 years old. Despite a career that spanned four decades I’ll always picture Warren Oates in those faded 70’s colors of the American Southwest, driving a muscle car across the desert, or a beat up station wagon through the Mexican countryside.