Why do I love Warren Oates so much? Well, my introduction to the man was quite an innocent one. Instead of notoriously gritty fare like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, my childhood was spent with Warren as Muff Potter in Tom Sawyer the Musical. Whaaaaat? Yes, dear readers, it’s true. This musical adaptation of the Mark Twain classic was on heavy rotation throughout my childhood. Musical, you say? Was Warren Oates a great singer? No, but he was a great lip-syncer. Muff Potter’s one big number was a fun little song called “A Man’s Got to Be (What He Was Born to Be)” which was actually sung by Billy Strange. This scene shows Muff and Tom (played beautifully by child star Johnny Whitaker) roaming all over Hannibal, Missouri finding the lovable alcoholic’s multiple hidden bottles of whiskey. A bit of that can be heard and seen in this trailer for the film:
By the end of the song, they’ve run into Huck Finn (Jeff East) and Muff is so drunk that he spills liquor all over the boys before falling backwards off a bridge into the Mississippi River. Kid’s movies used to be awesome, right? This film also featured a young Jodie Foster as Becky Thatcher and Celeste Holm as Aunt Polly, so there was lots to love besides Oates. However, he was always my favorite part about the movie. He was the only person I had, or have, seen play Muff not only as a fun-loving buffoon, but also as a man with some true sadness buried underneath all of his silliness. When he’s accused of murder and visited by Tom in prison, the pain in his voice and eyes ground the character solidly in reality. He is both literally and figuratively sobered by the realization that the people who know him best think he is capable of such a hideous crime. Upon his release, he decides to leave Hannibal, as he can no longer comfortably exist there. Tom begs him to stay, and Muff can only utter: “Oh, Tom. My little friend. Best friend I ever had.” He then gives a forced cocksure grin and heads down the road. It’s heartbreaking stuff, people.
It wasn’t until I had a few more years on me that I realized this guy was actually a very highly respected actor who had made quite a few films. In the aforementioned Terrence Malick classic, Badlands, Oates has a minor but incredibly powerful role as the bewildered father of Spacek’s young Holly. His time on screen is all in the first act, as he fights to keep his only child from being sucked into a relationship with Martin Sheen’s charming sociopath, Kit. This role would have worked and serviced the plot just fine had it been merely played angry. Oates, however, adds a world of depth to this character. Behind his eyes, the audience senses the sorrow of a man who knows he’s only fighting the inevitable and that heartbreak lies in his future.
Perhaps two of my favorite Oates performances are in the Monte Hellman films, The Shooting (1966) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). I was lucky enough to be in attendance at a Weird Wednesday double feature at the Alamo Drafthouse about five years ago, with Hellman in attendance. I had already seen both of these films, but getting to hear some behind-the-scenes stories about both from Hellman shed a whole new light on them. There is one scene in The Shooting in which Oates’ character muses over life and death, mostly to himself. Hellman said that he envisioned it being said with confidence and gusto, perhaps as John Wayne would’ve delivered it. Oates, however, was insistent that it be done in the style of a Shakespearian soliloquy. Knowing this, I can’t imagine it being done any other way. Blacktop is the more well-known of the two films. In it, he plays a poseur driving a GTO (his character’s only given name is also “GTO”) who challenges gearheads, played by singers James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, to a cross-country road race. Along the way, GTO picks up a number of wayward hitchhikers whom he tries to impress in different ways. He becomes increasingly frustrated and strange as no one seems to care about his great car or the supposedly impressive facts he spouts about it. Oates was one of those actors who had the ability to ooze charm in spite his lack of classical good looks. For proof, here’s a little bit of his appearance on the long-running series, Gunsmoke:
In Blacktop, he turns this charm in to false bravado. As fast as his car can go, he can’t overcome his own crippling insecurity to enjoy himself.
What about the Bill Murray comedy classic, Stripes? What about the twisted cult classic, Race with the Devil? 92 in the Shade? Cockfighter? His charming portrayal of bank robber John Dillinger? There isn’t space to go through all of his notable performances and films. While I have seen a shamefully small number of his entire oeuvre, he’s still one of my favorites. I rank him right up there in the top 4 with Daniel Day-Lewis, Peter O’Toole, and Montgomery Clift. He’s highly respected by many film nerds, who revere his strange charisma that burns through the screen. To the general moviegoing public, unfortunately, he’s not all that well remembered. He didn’t win any major acting awards and wasn’t a traditional leading man, so he’s just one of those guys whose face they know. Those that do know him ardently love him. There’s a picture of Oates hanging behind the counter at I Luv Video, where I work. A few weeks ago, a customer asked if the guy in the picture was a friend of ours. I said, “Yup, he sure is. That’s our friend, Warren Oates.”
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