Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Warren Oates

        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 Dennis Wilson wasn't nearly so bad, that's mostly because the script didn't allow him to say much.** Laurie Bird -- who had a rough life, and would come to a sad end eight years later -- didn't exactly burn 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 Twiggyone 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 two cigar-store Indians with whom he shared 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 the 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 Peckinpah 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.)

Selvedge Yard
Rotten Tomatoes
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 Peckinpah) 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… 


Ed (Sloweddi) said...

No... you are absolutely right about TWO LANE BLACKTOP. But how many great script have we seen become steaming piles of turds once they hit the screen? I also was on a totally different career path until one day someone said, "Hold this cable." When the best thing in the movie(besides Warren Oates) was the 55 Chevy, you know you are in trouble.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE Warren Oates. He was an extremely gifted actor. Whenever you see him on the old GUNSMOKE series or other westerns, he absolutely stands out and always steals every scene. Your right,he died way too young. I watch ANYTHING he has a role in. I don't believe he's ever been given the credit for his talent that he deserves. Brilliant Actor. k

Michael Taylor said...

Ed --

That's one vote against TLB -- I wonder how many readers of this blog have even heard of, much less seen that movie? We'll see if anybody else weighs in…

Anonymous K --

That's why I wrote the post -- even if only six people read it, at least Warren Oates will get a tiny bit more exposure. When I was watching old movies of the 30s and 40s in school, it was a real treat to find really good supporting and character actors doing such great work alongside the stars. I can only hope the current generation feels the same way as they explore the films of the 60's and 70's - and they can start with Warren Oates...

Anonymous said...

thanks for responding to my comment on warren oates. As i watch any of the old TV westerns, i've brought it to the attention on my 40yr old daughter. Show me where you can find these characters today.. its all about tight faces and smooth skin. Back then they looked for people who fit the character and the actor brought that character to life. AS for Warren oates, even when the script or storyline was sub par, his acting was so good it made the rest tolerable. k

Jerry Wolfe said...

I not only saw Two Lane Blacktop, I enjoyed it because it was a car movie, and as I'm originally from Detroit.... Years later the DP on my first feature film as a sound mixer was Greg Sandor who is imdb listed as an "Uncredited" camera man on Two Lane, he had some great stories about the film's production, I wish I had asked him questions about Warren Oates, who I enjoyed even above the Chevy. Also in the cast of 2LB was Harry Dean Stanton, an actor I place on nearly the same tier as Mr. Oates and Dennis Hopper. So it goes....

Michael Taylor said...


TLB had its moments, I'll admit, but my youthful expectations were so high going in - waaaay too high -- that I'm not sure any movie could have lived up to them. I wish I'd had the chance to see it absent such unrealistic expectations.

I too am a fan of Harry Dean Stanton, but don't remember him being in in TLB. Hey, it was a long time ago…

You really should check out that Selvedge Yard link, which has lots of photos of the car and camera rigs. Maybe your buddy Greg is in there.

Hope you're working...

dstarz said...

This is GREAT, and a well-deserved tribute to an under appreciated character actor. But Mike: You left out "Stripes"; his gravitas lends solidity to what otherwise is a silly, but terrific, comedy. I remember seeing him in that, during my youth, and wondering WHO WAS THAT GUY?

Well said, as ever, lad!

Michael Taylor said...

Dstarz --

You're right - I forgot all about "Stripes." My bad.
Thanks for tuning in.