Never quite a star, actor’s actor Warren Oates gets his due in a lively biography.
Compo (Professional Writing/Univ. of Southern California; Pretty Things, 2001, etc.) delivers an affectionate history of Oates, an eccentric screen presence with a devoted cult following who, despite the universal regard of his directors and fellow actors, never attained the star status of buddies such as Jack Nicholson and Steve McQueen. Born in rural Depoy, Ky., a directionless Oates began to pursue acting in earnest after a stint in the Marines. He quickly found steady, if unglamorous, work in the live TV dramas produced in New York in the 1950s before moving to Los Angeles and building a career as a quintessential “working actor,” appearing in countless westerns and developing a persona as an uncouth, often menacing, yet somehow sympathetic oddball. Compo provides ample evidence of Oates’s preternatural geniality—the homely actor attracted a slew of gorgeous women (marrying several of them) armed only with a gap-toothed smile and an irresistible personal charisma. These qualities caught the attention of legendary auteur Sam Peckinpah, who cast Oates in important roles in a number of major films, including Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch and the controversial Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Oates won critical raves for these performances, as well as for his work in such seminal films as In the Heat of the Night and Badlands. Compo notes Oates’s many romantic entanglements, financial problems and chronic drug and alcohol abuse, but the author creates an impression of the man as a largely passive figure (he often touted his “zen”) looking for a good time rather than a driven hell-raiser in the Peckinpah mold. Shortly before his death, Oates won a new generation of fans with his performance as Sgt. Hulka in the Bill Murray vehicle Stripes, scoring perhaps the biggest laugh in the movie with his delivery of the line, “Lighten up, Francis.”
An informative, welcome portrait of an underappreciated American icon.