Warren Oates Essential Film Roles

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Warren Oates was one of the most iconic character actors to emerge out of Hollywood kin the 60s. After practically a full decade of playing in Westerns, Oates became an integral part of the shifting cinematic climate thanks to the New Hollywood movement! Oates had an impressive career that unfortunately was cut short after his unexpected passing in 1982, however his roles are among the most timeless in cinema. It’s a shame that such a true artist is so overlooked and underrated, so please check out these films below! They are some of our favorites by one of our favorite actors: Warren Oates!

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THE SHOOTING (1966)

Legendary exploitation director/producer Roger Corman gave director Monte Hellman his start and gave him some money to make two back to back Westerns. The first of the two was The Shooting. The Shooting is truly one of my favorite Westerns of all time. Warren Oates stars as Willet Gashade, one of the top 5 characters Oates ever played, who is an ex-bounty hunter hired by a mysterious woman to guide her through the desert. Jack Nicholson also has an awesome role in this film. Oates’ cool, gruff demeanor perfectly complements the desolate existentialism that looms throughout this film making it one of the best of all of his films!

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THE WILD BUNCH (1969)

The goat Sam Peckinpah polarized audiences as he introduced violence the way it was intended to be portrayed on film with The Wild Bunch. This New Hollywood staple took full advantage of its newly freed to photograph war and made one of the most intense Westerns ever made. Oates plays Lyle Gorch, a member of the Wild Bunch, a group of robbers ready to shed anyone’s blood who stands in their way. He’s more of a supporting character in this film, but Lyle has the most insane scene ever involving a machine gun turret. 

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DILLINGER (1973)

Oates played the infamous bank robber John Dillinger in this John Milius directed biopic. Oates was born to play Dillinger and offers one of his most memorable performances as one of America’s most infamous outlaws. Oates plays Dillinger as he spends the last few months of his life escaping the FBI and attempting to rob banks with his gang along the way. Oates’ natural charisma lends itself perfectly to the characterization of Dillinger and he openly invites you to identify with him as human being.

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BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974)

Oates last collaboration with the legendary Peckinpah just also happens to be Peckinpah’s best film (in my own and Peckinpah’s opinion). This is the only film Peckinpah claims was released exactly as he intended it. Oates is the lead, Benny, an American man running a bar in Mexico. He’s approached by men looking for Alfredo Garcia, and tell Benny they’ll pay him good money to bring back his head. Naturally, he obliges when he finds out Alfredo Garcia is already dead. This film has all the violent and gritty characteristics that make-up Peckinpah’s films and Benny’s character is one of the best in cinema. Oates teeters back and forth over the line of sanity as this death mission sends him to his most primal levels. This is one of my Top 5 favorite films of all time!

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COCKFIGHTER (1974)

Another film made for Roger Corman by Monte Hellman, Cockfighter is one of the more overlooked roles of Warren Oates. He plays Frank, a cockfighter who takes a vow of silence until he can win the championship. His ability to remain silent for about 75% of the film shows just how powerful Oates’s facial expressions were. Every wrinkle in his face looks as if it holds a thousand memories and Cockfighter allows Oates to share them in one of his most introspective roles.

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RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975)

We talked about this film as part of our lookback at Peter Fonda’s career, but both Fonda and Oates are so great together we can’t help but mention it twice. This film is by no means a star vehicle for either of them, but it’s effective in being an ideal genre film of the 70s with a lot of fun moments. Oates and Fonda worked together three times and their chemistry in this one is unmatched, regardless of how effective the story may be.

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STRIPES (1981)

While not a Warren Oates starring role, Stripes presented Oates as an R Lee Ermey type army general in a pre-Full Metal Jacket World. Oates’ stern demeanor, coupled with his age in the early 80s, gave Oates this gruffness that perfectly helps characterize himself as a no-nonsense army general.

Honorable Mentions: Major Dundee (1965), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Two Lane Blacktop (1971), The Hired Hand (1971), Kid Blue (1973).