Many a great film director is tethered artistically to a trusted actor: John Ford had the Duke, Fellini had Mastroianni and Scorsese had De Niro.
For Sam Peckinpah, the volatile maverick who reinvented the western as a hyperviolent, nihilistic landscape of losers, loners and lunatics, such a muse was a grizzled, world-weary and powerful character actor named Warren Oates.
Any aficionado of New Hollywood cinema readily recognizes Oates' squinted eyes, crooked sneer and rustic cadence. In the 1960s and 1970s, he played wild cards and ne'er-do-wells for Terrence Malick, John Milius, William Friedkin, Norman Jewison and Steven Spielberg, stealing scenes (or entire movies) from better-known costars.
But Peckinpah, who brought Oates to the fore as the whore-chasing, machine-gun-wielding bandit Lyle Gorch in "The Wild Bunch," knew best how to tap into the actor's brute energy and his sympathetic humanity -- two traits that made him much sought-after, if not famous.
Novelist and USC lecturer Susan Compo makes her debut as biographer with "Warren Oates: A Wild Life," an intensively researched account of its protagonist and his oft-overlooked body of work. Drawing on interviews with friends, family members and colleagues, it's a highly readable blow-by-blow of the actor's rocky and too-short life.
Hailing from a Kentucky mining town, Oates seemed destined for an unremarkable life until a college English professor recommended he join a drama troupe. Local theater was followed by live television work in New York. By the late 1950s, Oates was in California, appearing in the westerns then overtaking the prime-time airwaves.
Compo ably captures the vibe of Los Angeles in those days, when the center of gravity was the Sunset Strip. Now-legendary watering holes -- Chez Paulette, the Raincheck Room, Dan Tana's -- provided refuge for Oates and fellow actors Robert Culp, Steve McQueen, Bruce Dern, Harry Dean Stanton and Jack Nicholson to indulge in male bonding and a seemingly endless supply of booze, tobacco and women.
But of all the relationships Oates cultivated, none was as important, nor as tempestuous and complicated, as his friendship with the mercurial Peckinpah.
Off screen, Oates and Peckinpah were kindred spirits. "They both lived hard, enjoyed a drink, and, despite their macho exteriors, cared passionately about their art," Compo writes.
Their mutual sympathy was interrupted by outbursts of alcohol-fueled acrimony and bouts of disloyalty. (When Oates helped Peckinpah get the job of helming "The Ballad of Cable Hogue," the director repaid him by giving the lead role to Jason Robards.)
While "The Wild Bunch" was both praised and excoriated by critics, ecstatic reviews for Oates' performance raised his profile. By 1971 (dubbed "the year of Warren Oates" by friend Peter Fonda), his career had hit its stride, and a Los Angeles Times critic said the actor was worthy of Oscars for not one, but two film roles: the western "The Hired Hand" and Monte Hellman's existential "Two-Lane Blacktop," in which Oates played a pathological liar on a cross-country road race.
The last Peckinpah-Oates collaboration was 1974's "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia," a misanthropic noir with Oates as an aging, disillusioned bounty hunter in Mexico, literally sent to retrieve a dead man's severed head.
The story was so dark that Peter Falk and James Coburn passed on it. Oates finally had top billing in a role that perfectly suited him, but by the time the film wrapped, Peckinpah's on-set belligerence and other problems had terminated the alliance. (Panned in its day, "Alfredo Garcia" is viewed by many critics now as a masterpiece.)
Oates was on a perpetual treadmill during his final decade, with film and TV roles such as the town drunk in a musical " Tom Sawyer" and the near-mute lead in Hellman's twisted "Cockfighter." His last memorable role was as Sgt. Hulka, the gruff drill instructor in the 1981 Bill Murray comedy "Stripes."
The following year, Oates died of a massive heart attack at 53. Such was the rift with Peckinpah that the director was "resoundingly not invited to the service," Compo writes, but "nothing would keep him away."
The parts of Warren Oates' life are greater than its sum; he was not a visionary but a chameleon always searching for a new skin to inhabit. Behind the facade, Compo finds an ordinary human: thrice divorced, imperfect parent, shy and introverted, substance abuser.
Oates never sought stardom -- off camera, he recoiled from the spotlight -- but he did long to transcend his supporting-player niche and become a leading man. That he never quite succeeded, yet became an icon nonetheless, is a testament to his uncanny ability to create characters that were haunting, unpredictable and memorable.
Ryfle is writing a book about Hollywood during the civil rights era.