Writer Susan Compo recently authored an enormously entertaining Warren Oates biography and Oates fans who have not yet read the book can look forward to it with great anticipation. For my money, Warren Oates: A Wild Life is the finest biography since 1998 when Ronnie Pugh's Ernest Tubb biography hit the shelves. The book offers a richly-detailed and definitive portrait of Oates' intriguing life and career and upon finishing it, I decided it might be interesting to talk to the author about Warren Oates and how she came to write the story of his life. I'd like to thank Susan for sharing several unpublished Oates photos (including above right, showing Oates in makeup for The Brink's Job) and for indulging me while I fumbled through my Brian Lamb impersonation.
Oates died of a heart attack in 1982, but if he were still with us he'd celebrate his 81st birthday on July 5.
Greg: Let's start things off with a question about the title of your book, Warren Oates: A Wild Life. Who chose that title?
Susan Compo: The publisher, as happens sometimes in the book world. I had Wild Oates, but they just didn't go for that.
(NOTE: I didn't want to see a good title go to waste, so I borrowed it for this post).
Greg: Sometimes authors get to choose their own titles and sometimes I guess it doesn't work out that way. How do you like the title?
Susan Compo: It's fine......I think it says what it should say and it identifies the book as being about Warren and I guess that was the main point in this crowded world. So I guess they know what they're doing.
Greg: What is it about Warren Oates that makes him compelling enough to devote an entire book to, would you say?
Susan Compo: I think the performances. And I think the fact that the life was, to me, kind of alarmingly contemporary, like it could be lived today in many ways. Well, I mean disregarding things like TMZ, which would have torn Warren to pieces, you know? But other than that, his interest in Zen and road trips and all sorts of other interesting things seemed really in step with our times as much as the times that he lived in.
Greg: He did seem to be a guy who was always infected with wanderlust?
Susan: Indeed, and that's a good thing and a symptom, of our times, too, I believe.
Greg: As an actor, he made a lot of interesting choices in terms of the roles he accepted. In terms of the types of movies he made, he was in a lot of westerns, gangster movies, detective stories, horror-action movies, a musical, drive-in movies like Dixie Dynamite. He was all over the place, wasn't he?
Susan: Yeah, I think he didn't like to say no to anything pretty much. He pretty much liked to take work where he could get it. I mean, he did say no to things like the car salesman movie Used Cars (1978), toward the end of his career. He didn't do that one. Pretty much by and large he took what came his way and that opened up a whole lot of venues for him.
Greg: He certainly seemed to stay busy. There are not too many long gaps in his filmography.
Susan: No, only the Dixie Dynamite and Drum era around that you mentioned. That was the only time that was really quiet, that was only two movies in one year (1976) and he normally did way more than that. And, TV too.
Greg: It seems like perhaps one of the reasons he could find time to accept so many rules is that we was usually more of a supporting actor, than a starring actor. Is that a fair statement?
Susan: I guess so. And I think he was both happy with that and also kind of conflicted. I think he would liked to have been a bigger headline star. But he also loved to work and had a modesty about his work that didn't preclude his taking supporting roles.
Greg: Let's go back to the beginning. When was Warren Oates born?
Greg: And he was born where?
Susan: Depoy...a little town in western Kentucky. There's not much left of it today. Depoy, that is....western Kentucky is still there, I believe.
Greg: I got the sense from your book that even when he was born (with the Depression a couple of years away) that the town was already starting to languish?
Susan: Oh, it absolutely was. But today it's just a few trailers and homes, not even a Post Office, no nothing.
Greg: So it really has kind of vanished?
Susan: It's a bump in the road, yeah. The church he attended as a young boy is still there and it's really kind of the center of what's left of Depoy.
Greg: And in the course of writing the book, you visited Depoy?
Susan: I did, with Warren's brother, Gordon, who now lives in Louisville. It was really a worthwhile trip in terms of the book and a real eye opener for a Californian, that's for sure. So Gordon agreed to show me around Depoy and take me to the old Oates home place. The home is gone now and a trailer is on the lot now. Five houses burned down and it's a sad story.
Greg: At what point did you first become aware of this guy, Warren Oates?
Susan: I had gone to the drive-in to see Two Lane Blacktop because I was a surfer girl who was interested in James Taylor and Dennis Wilson and came away more interested in Warren Oates after seeing his fantastic performance in that movie.
Greg: When you set out to write the story of Warren's life, did you have any specific audience in mind or any targets you were shooting for in terms of the kinds of readers you were trying to attract?
Susan: Yeah, I wanted to keep it lively enough for younger readers or people who are maybe more into sort of the hip side of Warren's career rather than make it really laboriously scholarly. I think in a lot of ways my publisher kind of corrected my tendency to go the other way and make it too pop, I guess, and corrected me more toward a middle approach.
Greg: One thing that I found interesting was that in your acknowledgments....you mentioned that you wrote the book on the most threadbare of shoestring budgets. What was that like?
Susan: It was rough and I had to have help from a lot of people and there were probably some trips I would have liked to have taken. But in the end I think I got it all done.
Greg: Where did you travel in addition to Kentucky to do research for the book?
Susan: Montana, where Warren had a home....Paradise Valley and Livingston and all around there. And Charlotte, where Warren's oldest son and daughter and second wife still live. So I went to North Carolina. And also London. Which was actually really worthwhile. At first I wasn't so sure it would be, but the BFI had some really great archives like an interview with Peter Fonda and Warren Oates at the National Film Theatre, which is one of the few audio interviews I was able to dig up. They had that, so it was really worth it the trip to England.
Greg: Despite the budget limitations that you struggled under, it doesn't seem like that seriously constrained the length of the book too much. It's still over 500 pages, and full of fascinating details on every facet of his life, so is it safe to say that even though you were on a tight budget, you got a lot of his life onto the page?
Susan: I hope so and I think so because I don't think there was anything that was wanting except for the fact that I couldn't find his first wife for love or money, I just couldn't find her. And I also didn't speak with Peter Fonda. And that was...well, a budget wouldn't have changed that. We just never did work it out, which for me was unfortunate. That's the one that got away. That would have been great.
Greg: While we were communicating about setting up this interview, you mentioned that about a third of the book was edited out to make for a more reasonable purchase price?
Susan: Exactly and also to cut the length. And I suppose it probably really was too long. I mean, every person I mentioned somehow interested me in some way, so I would go off on some tangent about this or that person, or restaurant, or place or motel. And also I had to cut some material about some of his television work because there was just so much of it.
Greg: There are hundreds of television roles and guest starring appearances listed in the credits in the back of the book.
Susan: There certainly are. And I won't claim to have seen them all. Some of them are just gone. Quite a few of them still exist, but a lot of those performances are just gone.
Greg: Did you get to play a role in what was edited out or was that handled at the publisher's office?
Susan: I did. I did the cutting so that was a good thing.
Greg: I would assume for an author, that's the best way to go?
Susan: It is. It's fine and I understand their thinking. It's already a pretty expensive book, I realize. And if it were any longer, it would be ridiculous.
Greg: And who was your publisher?
Susan: It is University Press Of Kentucky.
Greg: And they were probably mostly motivated to participate because of Warren's Kentucky roots?
Susan: That's right and in fact it took me a long time to find a publisher for the book and I'd come across a book about Carole Lombard put out by the University of Indiana Press because she was a native of Indiana. And that made me think....maybe the University Press Of Kentucky. And fortunately it worked out. I tried really all the mainstream publishers here and in England and I got kind of close (to a deal) in England but I never really got very close here. The mainstream press just seemed to always say "there's no room for that on the crowded biography shelves" or something along those lines.
Greg: Is the University of Kentucky where Oates attended college?
Susan: No, it isn't. He went to the University of Louisville. And UK is in Lexington about an hour away. So you know, an hour away, I suppose it's a world of difference, but about an hour away. But thank God they're there. They also have a book out right now that's called Being Hal Ashby that's doing really well for them. It's about the director and is by Nick Dawson. They've done some very good film books.
Greg: Also in the acknowledgments, you mentioned that kept some interesting hours when you wrote the book. The writing was done between 4AM and noon. Tell us about those work hours.
Susan: Yeah, it was mainly because those were hours that I could really concentrate, and the phone wouldn't ring and no neighbors would make noise and pretty much no dogs weren't barking. But somehow, I can't shake the hours. I'm still waking up at 4:00 or 4:30AM and it's ridiculous.
Greg: So you'd basically put in a full 8 hours of writing each day by noon?
Susan: That's right. That's right, then I'd go somewhere and do some research or maybe go to a library and look at some microfilm or check something else that would take me out in the world in the afternoon.
Greg: In the midst of all this writing, were you still working full-time?
Susan: At the time, I was teaching at USC and I stepped back from teaching full-time because I could not teach writing and finish the book, I just couldn't do it because there was so much work that I was taking home with me. So I took the job of a substitute teacher for students in grades K through 12 and I took abuse from children in the Los Angeles public school system. It's not easy. We had our last day Friday and it was rough to the bitter end. But it was the kind of job where I could go in, put in the hours and leave. I didn't necessarily take it home with me, unless it was a really dreadful day and even then it was just a memory of it. But if I had to do something else like an interview or whatever, I could decline their offer of work on a specific day if I didn't want to. And there's just not that many jobs where you can do that, so it worked out.
Greg: I also wanted to ask about something that happens, I guess, to all authors these days and that's the fact that as soon as a book is published, almost all of it is instantly scanned and appears on books.google.com?
Greg: And I was able to read quite a bit of it online. Of course, I bought a copy anyway. But I have to think that there are mixed feelings in the writing world about this instant free access. What do you think?
Susan: I think eventually everything will be digital and at that time, I don't know how it will be possible to be a writer unless you're already rich.
Greg: It's already getting harder and harder, isn't it?
Susan: It is. It is and I didn't necessarily see that coming. I do notice that if I'm looking to see what's going on with the book, for a while I could tell it was really high up on Google books which meant it was getting read for free even more than so many other books. And it's dropped off a bit since then, but I could look on Google and see how many people were reading it while at work and who can blame them sometimes?. But it's hard because there's no money.
Greg: In doing research for this interview, I came across references to what was probably your earliest writing and publishing venture: a punk fanzine in Southern California.
Susan: That's true.
Greg: What was the name of it and when did it come out?
Susan: Well, it was called "_____ Generation" or Fanzine For The Blank Generation, which was kind of a take-off on the Richard Hell song, as in "I belong to the Blank Generation." That was fun, we interviewed the Damned their first time through, wrote about early Blondie stuff, covered the Sex Pistols on their 1978 trip through the USA. It was a lot of fun to do and I've actually written a little memoir about the experience and maybe it'll see the light of day one day, I don't know.
Greg: How many issues were published?
Susan: I think something like seven, not very many. But I actually made money from is more than I can say for some books, you know? I was a good experience and a great time to do something like that.
Greg: While on the subject of punk rock, I couldn't help noticing that John Doe wrote the forward for the book?
Susan: Yes, I was really pleased with that. I'd seen a picture of him wearing a Warren Oates t-shirt and so I got in touch with him to ask "how did you come by that t-shirt and what else" and he was just a pretty huge fan. And I love that in the book because, again it's sort of anti-academic, it isn't so formal, but yet it was so heartfelt and really eloquent, too. So it worked out really well, and I think he was happy about it, too. (Laughing) I think Warren would've liked it, too, but I don't know what he would've made of us as punk rockers. I think he might like John's music now.
Greg: Perhaps he would've raised an eyebrow back in 1977 or 1978?
Susan: Possibly, but you never know. He was kind of hard to predict.
Greg: Let's go back to Warren's early years. He wasn't much of a student?
Susan: Oh, absolutely not. It was grim. He left high school before graduating. And also, he did not graduate the University of Louisville and in fact I think their relationship is still a little bit uneasy because of the fact that he was not a full-fledged graduate. He didn't really have an illustrious career there. They are aware that he went there, but they don't really make a huge deal of it, which is kind of a shame.
Greg: And between high school and college, he spent some time in the military?
Susan: That's right, in the Marines.
Greg: And this would have been right after WW II when he joined the Marines?
Susan: That's right, so unlike Sam Peckinpah, who went to Korea, Warren didn't really see any action.
Greg: So he went to high school in Kentucky, joined the Marines for two years, came back to Kentucky, got his high school equivalency degree, attended the University of Louisville, and then dropped out? And then he moved to New York?
Susan: That's right, in 1953.
Greg: And by the time he left for New York, he'd already gotten somewhat established as an actor?
Susan: He'd done a lot of plays and had some really good teachers and mentors who really, I think, helped him hone his craft. I think he really learned a lot in college theater and also independent productions in Louisville.
Greg: How long did he spend in New York?
Susan: He stayed there until 1958, so he was there for 5 years doing theater and television. He was a struggling, absolutely starving actor but he picked up some work in television and theater.
Greg: So he picked up and moved to California, where work was becoming much more plentiful?
Susan: That's right. He was able to find work in the television industry very quickly. He got hot right away and it was just one show after the next. And he spent the money just as quickly as he got it, but he was definitely doing fine and was not starving anymore, unlike his years in New York.
Greg: And he was almost always doing guest shots from week to week, but tell us about the one exception to that, where he was a regular in the cast of a show for an entire season.
Susan: That was Stoney Burke in 1962 with Jack Lord, Bruce Dern and Robert Dowdell which was a very charming fun show that I wish somebody would put out on DVD. It was just funny, well-written and featuring a lot of actors on their way to making it big like Robert Duvall and Ed Asner.
Greg: I'd like to jump in and read a quote from the book that certainly makes me want to see some episodes. "Stoney Burke was a surprisingly textured and superior series of its time. Fans of dark motels with blinking neon, dirt streets populated by big cars with small fins (Mercury was a sponsor, touting its new Comet), bus depots, cocktails bars with starlight glitter ceilings, and tailored western wear by way of Beverly Hills found a spiritual home in Stoney."
Susan: Oh, yes, it's all true. I wish I could walk right into that world, right now.
Greg: That sounds like a fantastic opportunity to see exactly what the streets of America looked like in 1961 or 1962, kind of like with Route 66. It sounds like you were able to view at least a handful of the Stoney Burke episodes?
Susan: I was, thanks to UCLA, where they have a whole lot of them in their TV archives and that's a great thing. Thank God for USC's rival school UCLA, it was wonderful.
Greg: With regard to all those fantastic shooting locations you described in the book, where were the exteriors for Stoney Burke filmed?
Susan: Various places around Southern California, places like Newhall, local ranches, the Disney Ranch, so it was all around here and some scenes even looked like maybe the streets of Beverly Hills.
Greg: Given the fact that Jack Lord starred in Stoney Burke and Warrren Oates was his sidekick, I've always wondered if there was ever any talk about a Warren Oates guest appearance on Jack Lord's Hawaii Five-O. Did you ever hear anything about whether that possibility ever came up?
Susan: That's funny, it seems like it would have been logical, but I guess maybe by that time maybe he didn't need it. I don't know. Or maybe it's possible that he didn't want to go to Hawaii. I mean perhaps he would want to, but he was not the easiest of travelers. So maybe it was that, or maybe he was never asked, I don't know.
Greg: That's too bad. There are many people I think who would have liked the idea of Warren popping up on a Hawaii Five-O episodes....they always had such great villains.
Susan: He did make an episode of Hawaiian Eye. I wish I could have seen that one. There are some episodes of Hawaiian Eye out there, but I couldn't find the one with Warren, though I think it would've looked fantastic too.
Greg: So he was very busy with TV and movies in the early 1960's, but he wasn't entirely done with stage work.
Susan: That's right, in 1965 he appeared in a Los Angeles stage production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. He played the same role that Jack Nicholson later played in the movie version and it's definitely true that Jack Nicholson came to see it. What he thought of Warren's performance, I don't know. But I think it's an interesting idea to imagine Warren Oates in that role. I wish I could have seen it. People who saw it, many of them cite it as one of the best performances they'd ever seen, so there's no doubt that would have been very interesting.
Greg: I was looking over the filmography in the back of the book it seems like he frequently worked for the same directors on numerous occasions. I guess Sam Peckinpah might be the most famous example, but he was also in four Monte Hellman movies, and he was in four or five movies directed by Burt Kennedy. He must have been delivering the goods for these directors?
Susan: I think he was and I think people liked having him around. I think he was fun to have on the set, for the most part. I mean he would maybe have his dark moods on occasion, and Phil Kaufmann might disagree with the idea that Warren was fun to have on the set, but other than The White Dawn, I think he was pretty jovial and fun to have around.
Greg: When it comes to Warren Oates movies, I assume you probably have a handful of favorites?
Susan: Yeah, it depends on my mood. I like everything from The Movie Murderer, the 1970 TV movie he made with Tom Selleck, to The Hired Hand to Two Lane Blacktop. (Laughing) Sometimes even Dixie Dynamite, which is fun to watch.
Greg: I recently watched Race With The Devil for the first time and I thought it holds up very well.
Susan: It does. I think that one really, really does. I know that they were supposedly remaking it. I don't know what ever happened to that....
Greg: The remake is listed on IMDB.com as having a projected 2011 release date.
Susan: Boy, that's taking a long time. That's funny.
Greg: It's an interesting contrast to the way things sometimes happened in Warren's career. Maybe it was the era or the type of movies he chose to make, but sometimes he would shoot a movie and it would come out as little as 3 or 4 months later.
Susan: I know.....you're probably thinking of Cockfighter. It's ridiculous how fast that movie came out. It was shot it in April and released in July, just three months later.
Greg: That had to be one of the most controversial movies he ever made?
Susan: That's definitely true. Understandably, it still arouses controversy due to the fact that they did show chickens actually fighting. And I'm sure there were animals hurt in the making of it....it's impossible that there weren't. I think as recently as a couple of years ago in Scotland it was banned again. It still gets pulled from festivals from time to time due the fact that it upsets people so much. It was certainly very intense. But then, cockfights do exist, you know, so it would be a little hard for a movie with that theme to be otherwise. And I know Warren had some problems with it. He was a little bit squeamish about having a hand in that sort of violence. For instance, in one scene he pulled the head off a chicken.
Greg: And just for those who haven't seen the movie, he actually pulls the head off a chicken onscreen?
Susan: Yes, the chicken wasn't alive at the time, but they filmed that in one take. And Charles Willeford, the author of the novel Cockfighter was also an actor in the movie. He wrote in his diary that it was fortunate that they got it in that one take because Warren wouldn't have done it again. That had to have been hard for him, but as one of Warren's friends says in the book, they were from the country and they came from a place where you would kill a chicken for Sunday dinner, so there was that element to it, too.
Greg: You mentioned Charles Willeford, the author of the novel Cockfighter. He also wrote an extremely rare book about his experiences while filming the movie called Cockfighter Journal: The Story Of A Shooting, of which only 300 copies were published. Then there was another reference you made that I wanted to ask you about. It was about an "all but lost" memoir Willeford wrote called Remembering Warren Oates: Or The Demise Of The First Five In Line. Do you have any information about that?
Susan: Yes, I talked to Willeford's biographer and he can't find any it and nobody can find it again and it would just be absolutely fantastic.
Greg: So it did, in fact, get published?
Susan: I think it did get published in some form, with some tiny number of copies printed. And perhaps it's in the Willeford papers, which I think are in Florida with his widow. It must be somewhere, but unfortunately even his biographer couldn't come up with a copy. It would be wonderful to have, though. That must have been a kick, the pair of them because Willeford was a real character. And I think he was a really really good writer, too.
Greg: The Oates films that probably get the most attention were the ones he made with Sam Peckinpah (Ride The High Country - 1962, Major Dundee - 1965, The Wild Bunch - 1969, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia - 1974).
Susan: I think that's true. The Wild Bunch and certainly Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, at least for those who know about it. There are quite a few people who don't seem to know that one somehow, but among those who do, it's probably his most famous film. And that was a very controversial movie, too.
Greg: It's very interesting that he would make those 2 very notorious movies back to back, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia followed immediately by Cockfighter. Those were 2 of his most "outsider" type roles.
Susan: They really were and it demanded a lot of him and I think he really delivered in both instances. It's pretty phenomenal to watch them today. I find it hard to think of a contemporary actor who could do what he did with those roles in a back to back fashion.
Greg: I wanted to go back for just a minute to Cockfighter. It was filmed in and around Atlanta and you wrote about some very notable visitors that dropped by the set during filming: the Allman Brothers and Jimmy Carter, who was then Governor of Georgia.
Susan: Yes, in his memoir (Cockfighter: The Story Of A Shooting), Charles Willeford said that all the Allman Brothers were scary, except for Dickey Betts (who had a small role in the movie). And, yes, Jimmy Carter also came by and sort of gave his blessing to the proceedings and told director Monte Hellman that his family had engaged in cockfighting for several generations back in the day. If we tracked down Jimmy Carter today and asked him about that I don't know what he'd say, but he'd probably acknowledge it.
Greg: I think there are quite a few people here in Georgia who are unaware of that fact. You mentioned that Warren Oates' own favorite performance was the acting he did for The Brink's Job in 1978. What can you tell us about that?
Susan: Yeah, while it's not necessarily my favorite, it was certainly his. I think the scene where his character breaks down is what Warren thought was his finest hour and was the role that probably took the most out of him, which is really saying something considering the very rigorous roles he played. He really enjoyed the opportunity to give his all and he really liked working with William Friedkin, who pulled a lot out of his actors.
Greg: One actor that Oates appeared with on a few different occasions was the veteran actor Ben Johnson. What kind of impact did Johnson have on Oates?
Susan: He definitely looked up to Ben Johnson and I think Johnson was very fond of Oates in return, but maybe with not quite the same fervor. I think perhaps Ben was a little bit more socially conservative in areas where Warren certainly was not and I know that Warren really didn't want Ben to know about any of his proclivities like smoking pot. Warren was kind of worried about what Ben would think if he knew about the fact that Warren had a few joints here and there. And I'm pretty sure that Ben probably knew just the same, so......
Greg: You mentioned that Ben Johnson is the subject of his own biography?
Susan: Yes, it's being written by Kathryn Jones and it's still in the works. She should be done with it, I hope, this year so it should be out soon and we would like to go on the road and do some readings together when it's out. I can't wait, it should definitely be fun.
Greg: In the back of the book in the acknowledgments, there is a brief mention of the fact that your father and Warren Oates crossed paths?
Susan: Yes, that was when Warren lived in New York and was working the hat check counter at 21. And that's nice to think about today since it's Father's Day. If I were really being honest, I think that's one of the reasons I wrote the book. I remember my father telling me about having drinks with Warren Oates in 21, of all places, the most sublime restaurant and having drinks with the hat check guy Warren Oates when he finished his shift. I was a baby back in Brooklyn at the time and I can certainly forgive my father for having a few drinks with Warren Oates instead of being back by the crib. Of course, there's no way Warren could've known that the man he was talking to had a young daughter who would one day grow up and write his biography. It's a little weird to think about.
Greg: So this was your first non-fiction book, is that correct?
Susan: It is, apart from the memoir from my fanzine days which was probably actually the first one, but that's kind of sitting in the cupboard and hasn't yet been published. I have three novels I've published. And the first one, Life After Death (1990), I'm a little surprised no one's done anything with that, especially in the wake of the Twilight type movies. It's definitely in that vein, but it's set in more of a punk or goth world. I would think it would be a good project for someone to pick up and easy to do....so maybe it'll happen.
Greg: And now that you're done with the Warren Oates book and it's been out a couple of months, have you reached the saturation point and gotten thoroughly tired of having these conversations and answering many of the same questions over and over?
Susan: Not at all. In fact, I have a lot of notes and interview support material here on my table and I keep thinking perhaps I need to think about putting those away and I can't seem to put them away in the box and say "OK, now I don't need to consult those anymore." Eventually, I'll be able to put them away, along with some of the videos that I don't watch as much, but not yet.
Greg: One final question: how long did it take you to write this book?
Susan: Oh, probably four years total. So that's a lot of time and it's a lot of your life to give up, but I'd definitely do it again. I enjoyed it, it was fun to write non-fiction and Warren really gave me a great time. I had no idea how much fun and how interesting the it would be. Like I said, though, I'd do it again.