Childhood & Early Life
He was born on July 5, 1928, to Sarah Alice (Mercer) and Bayless Earle Oates, into a small coal-mining and farming community of Muhlenberg County, Depoy, in Kentucky. His father owned a general store near their farm, which he had to shut down because of lack of business and depleting supply.
At an early age, he developed a love for books, passed on to him by his father who was an avid reader. His mother motivated him to get out of town and pursue higher education.
He received his primary education in a two-room schoolhouse and also attended Sunday church school.
Oates was a born actor. He would often hitch rides to the nearby ‘Palace Theatre’ to attend matinee shows. Later, he would enact scenes and recite the dialogues of the movies with a make-believe microphone, for the neighborhood kids.
The Oates family moved to Louisville in 1942. He was only 13 and did not want to be separated from his friends. He joined ‘Eastern Junior High’ in September that year and then joined ‘Louisville Male High School’ the following year.
The Louisville theater row, a 600 block stretch of theatres, became his favorite part of the city, and he watched his favorite actor Humphrey Bogart’s shows multiple times there. He also attended the local library.
On July 22, 1946, after dropping out of high school due to bad grades, 18-year-old Oates joined the ‘US Marine Cops’ at the Louisville station.
Later, he earned a high-school equivalency diploma.
He also attended the ‘University of Louisville.’ In 1953, when he was at the university, Oates became interested in theater and starred in several plays produced by school’s ‘Little Theater Company.’
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In 1954, he moved to New York to pursue his unexploited skills as an actor. He had no place to stay or means to pay the rent. He took up a job at a coffee shop in Greenwich Village. Within days of arriving in New York, he found himself on ‘The Jackie Gleason Show’ on ‘CBS.’
In 1957, on the insistence of his actor friend Robert Culp, Oates moved to Hollywood and got his first role in a Western, ‘Have Gun Will Travel.’ Early on in his career, he understood that he was best suited for characters from the West and appeared in ‘Gunsmoke’ (1958), The Big Valley (1965), Wagon Train (1959), and many such films.
Even though he made his feature-film debut in 1959, with an uncredited role in James Garner’s ‘Up Periscope,’ his later film appearances were for negligible roles in Clint Walker’s Western ‘Yellowstone Kelly’ (1959) and ‘The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond’ (1960).
In the next few years, Oates played significant roles in a few of Burt Kennedy’s Westerns, such as ‘Mail Order Bride’ (1964) and ‘Welcome to Hard Times’ (1967). The latter had Henry Fonda in the lead. He also played a significant role in Norman Jewison’s ‘Academy Award’-winning movie ‘In the Heat of the Night’ (1967).
His association with Sam Peckinpah began in 1958, when the director was casting for two TV series, ‘The Rifleman (1958) and ‘The Westerner’ (1960). Despite their love–hate relationship, Peckinpah gave Oates a prominent place on the big screen, starting with ‘Ride the High Country’ (1962).
The director–actor duo made one of the greatest Westerns ever made, ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969). The movie was acclaimed for its innovative treatment. It also helped Oates come into the spotlight.
During the early 1970s, Oates was rising up in the Hollywood world and even got star billing for The Thief Who Came to Dinner’ (1973). However, he turned down offers such as ‘Support Your Local Sheriff’ to stick to Peckinpah and Westerns. He started getting top billing with ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ (1974), made by his director friend.
In 1971, he starred in the crime drama ‘Chandler,’ in which he was cast opposite Leslie Caron. His second big movie in the early 1970s was John Milius’s high-profile film ‘Dillinger,’ in 1973. He received a ‘Saturn Award’ for his role in the film.
The 1970s also gave him the cult actor image that prevails even today. He appeared in movies such as Peter Fonda’s ‘The Hired Hand’ (1971), ‘Race with the Devil’ (1975), and ‘92 in the Shade’ (1975). He also appeared in Monte Hellman’s cult ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ (for which Leonard Maltin, a film critic, even pointed that Oates should have won an ‘Oscar’).
He experimented with singing in James Frawley’s ‘The Muppet Movie,’ a musical version of ‘Tom Sawyer.’ However, his voice was dubbed over later. Thus, Oates is not mentioned in the cast of ‘The Muppet Movie.’
In the 1980s, he had two huge box-office hits: the military comedy ‘Stripes’ (1981) and Tony Richardson’s ‘The Border’ (1982) with Jack Nicholson.
Family & Personal Life
Warren Oates was married four times. He met his first wife, Roberta Ellis, in 1956, during his stay in New York. She was described as “Feisty, fetching and argumentative Roberta.” She had an emotionally unstable demeanor and was in therapy. In the next one year, Oates got some early success. He decided to marry “Bobbie” Ellis on July 27, 1957. However, he left her after she admitted to aborting her pregnancy. They got divorced on July 24, 1959.
He met his second wife, Teddy Farmer, in 1959, at a club in Hollywood that they both frequented. Though she found his looks unusual for an actor, they dated for almost a year before getting married in August 1959. They had two children: Jennifer and Timothy. They got divorced in 1966.
He met Vickery Turner (his third wife), an actor, playwright, and novelist, on the sets of ‘Crooks and Coronets’ in 1968. They got married in 1969 and were together for 4 years before getting officially separated in November 1974.
Oates got married to Judy A Jones on August 24, 1977. She found him dead on the afternoon of April 3, 1982. He had died of a heart attack in his sleep.