The late, great Warren Oates: July 5, 1928 -- April 3, 1982
(Note: Being that I haven't worked since my show died and went to Hollywood Heaven, I don't have much to say about life on set at the moment -- so pardon me while I digress.)
Every journey begins with the first step, so they say, and the genesis of my own Hollywood adventure traces directly back to a single class I took on a lark during the final quarter of my first year at a real college. After dutifully fulfilling the requirements of my local home-town J.C., I transferred to the university as a junior, and managed to get through the first two quarters without being kicked out. But as spring quarter rolled around, only two of the classes being offered applied to the major I'd chosen at the time, leaving a blank spot on my curriculum.
At liberty to take any class I wanted, I chose one called "The Screenplay," which sounded like fun. More than fun -- and I had a blast -- that class marked the turning point in my young life, setting me on the path to Hollywood.
We saw dozens movies I'd never even heard of (everything from Pierrot le Fou to The Lady from Shanghai), then read and discussed a number of screenplays.* As a final project, we each had to write the first twenty pages of our own original screenplay.
During the course of that quarter, Esquire Magazine (which was a big deal back then) came out with a sensational issue that instantly became required reading for the class. On the cover was the starlet of a yet-to-be-released movie called Two Lane Blacktop, written by Rudy Wurlitzer and directed by Monte Hellman, staring two very popular musicians of the time -- James Taylor and Dennis Wilson -- and a young model-turned-actress named Laurie Bird. Hailing the film as "movie of the year," Esquire printed the entirety of Rudy Wurlitzer's screenplay in this issue.
Esquire Magazine, April 1971
For a mainstream-media magazine to print the screenplay of a low-budget movie yet to hit theaters was unheard of -- I'm not sure it's happened before or since -- and better yet, the screenplay was a terrific read. I loved it, and couldn't wait to see the film.
But the trouble with great expectations is that they seldom survive the difficult transition to reality, which can lead to a huge letdown. That's what happened with Two Lane Blacktop. The movie was gritty and bleak, all right -- that much I liked -- but James Taylor was hands-down the worst actor I'd ever seen in a Hollywood movie, and although Brian Wilson wasn't nearly so bad, that's mostly because the script didn't allow him to say much.** Laurie Bird -- who would come to a sad end eight years later -- didn't exactly light up the screen either, but seemed to have been cast for her waifish, petulant-tomboy looks more than anything else. I never quite understood her appeal, but the youth-oriented counter culture back then was infatuated by an emaciated, sexless vision of femininity best exemplified by Twiggy, one of the top models of the time.
Put it this way: as an actress, Laurie Bird was a great model.
Esquire's enthusiasm cooled considerably once the film was released. "The screenplay was wonderful," the magazine said, "but the film was vapid."
I wish I could argue with their assessment, but I can't.
Still, there was an actor in Two Lane Blacktop I'd never seen before, a young man named Warren Oates, who stole every scene in which he appeared. Whether he was really that good or simply seemed so in comparison to the three cigar-store Indians sharing the screen is unclear -- I'd have to take another look at the film to make that judgement -- but Warren Oates turned out to be the best thing about that movie. He single-handedly saved it from being an unwatchable mess.
Oates enjoyed a solid if unspectacular career in television before jumping to features, where he lit up the screen in some seriously strange but interesting movies over the next decade -- several directed by the legendary Sam Pekinpah, including the indisputable classic The Wild Bunch.
Yeah, I know -- it's a western, the very notion of which doubtless bores the pants off a generation weaned on movies laden with routine interstellar space travel, exploding planets, and hideous alien monsters from distant worlds. Hell, there aren't even any cars falling out of airplanes, computer graphics, thunderous soundtracks, Hip-Hop stars or Scientologist actors in it.
The Wild Bunch
Bit it does have Ben Johnson, Warran Oates, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O'Brian, and the great Robert Ryan, among others, all of whom deliver indelible performances in a film so tightly constructed that there's not an ounce of fat anywhere. Sam Pekinpah was at the peak of his creative powers when he directed The Wild Bunch, and if you haven't seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so. It's a great film.***
And part of what makes it great is Warren Oates.
Oates made some bizarre movies, perhaps the most extreme being Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, in which he spends a good portion of the movie driving through Mexico mumbling to himself with a severed head in a gunny sack sitting next to him on the front seat of the car. But in whatever roles he took, Warren Oates owned the screen -- when he was up there, you could not look away. He was a compelling actor. As film writer David Thomson said: "It's hard to think of Oates playing an unqualified optimist. There's something in his face, the way he looks at things, that suggests a readiness for failure or darkness."
That's classic British understatement, because however much a viewer might like the characters Oates inhabited -- and his specialty was playing the troubled-but-charming rogue -- there was seldom any doubt things would go badly for him by the end of the movie.
The best way to appreciate Warren Oates is to see his films, but if you're wavering on that, check out this website -- then click on over to Across the Border, a documentary about Oates narrated (and partially produced, I believe) by Ned Beatty. It's less than an hour, but will give you a good sense of who and what Warren Oates really was -- a uniquely gifted actor.
After that, rent The Wild Bunch. Anybody who claims to have studied film, but hasn't yet watched that movie, has an incomplete education at best. Not only will you get to see a terrific movie (and in the process learn something about constructing tight, suspenseful scenes without space ships or computer graphics), you'll experience the incandescent glory of Warren Oates on the big screen.
He died much too young -- and his death came as a shock. Warren Oates was only 53, and if that seemed a bit old to me then (being that I was a callow 31 the day he died), the subsequent thirty-three years changed my perspective. Hell, he was just getting started, but the heart attack that killed him cheated all of us in the movie-loving world out of another two decades worth of memorable roles. Such is life, I suppose, where the good die young and the rest of us shuffle off this mortal coil in our own sweet time.
Warren Oates was an American original, and something very special. Do yourself a favor and check out some of his moves. You won't be wasting your time.
(Not everybody shares my opinion of Two Lane Blacktop, and truth be told, I really should watch it again before passing judgement -- and maybe I will. Meanwhile, for an interesting spectrum of different views on that film, check out these websites.)
Looking for Two Lane Blacktop
New Yorker Movie of the Week
* I'll have more to say about Lady from Shanghai next time.
** To be fair, James Taylor was not an actor -- he was a very good, gentle, sensitive folk/pop musician -- so it was entirely unreasonable to think he could deliver an acceptable performance as a tough-talking, hard-ass drag racer. Bad casting will kill you every time.
*** Don't believe me? Then read this, then make sure you see the studio version. For all the crap Sid Sheinberg took from the creative community (and Sam Pekinpah) for overruling the director and making a few small-but-crucial cuts, his version of "The Wild Bunch" works better than the Pekinpah Director's Cut. Hey, everybody needs an editor…