Two-lane backup: The steadfast friendship of Harry Dean Stanton and Warren Oates

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Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton, alums of cult director Monte Hellman’s acting stable in “The Shooting,” “Two-Lane Blacktop,” and “Cockfighter,” were true compadres off camera. Stanton even entrusted an acoustic guitar to Oates which the latter dutifully carried on location shoots, asking contemporaries that he admired to autograph it. In the accompanying authentic still one had better be on a sharp lookout for this Depression-era quartet of dastardly machine gun-toting gangsters. Oates [bearing a striking resemblance to the titular character], Stanton [“Homer Van Meter”], Geoffrey Lewis [“Harry Pierpont”], and John P. Ryan [“Charles Mackley”] are seen plugging the Great Depression crime drama “Dillinger.” Directed by John Milius, “Dillinger” was given an unusually large $1 million budget by the often cash-strapped American International Pictures and unleashed on June 19, 1973, to mixed reviews. In modern times “Dillinger’s” reputation has improved significantly with annual screenings on cable television, and costar Ben Johnson is on record as giving the film high praise indeed, saying “I thought Warren did a great job in it. I don’t know who they could have picked to do a better job.” Image Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy

Susan Compo, author of Earthbound: David Bowie and The Man Who Fell to Earth, is also accountable for Warren Oates: A Wild Life, a sweeping biography examining the Sam Peckinpah stock company alum and perpetually exasperated Sergeant Hulka in Stripes. Compo commemorates the death of 91-year-old Oates confidant Harry Dean Stanton with a keen account of her visit to the Lucky protagonist’s modest, albeit multi-million dollar Mulholland Drive home in Los Angeles.

Stanton spent significant time with Oates in January 1961 on Catalina Island, about 20 miles off the coast of Southern California, as struggling character actors filming the overlooked Hero’s Island, an early 18th century pirate adventure set in New England and starring the erudite James Mason [“Love Thy Neighbor,” a devastatingly tragic 30-minute Gunsmoke episode effectively directed by series regular Dennis Weaver, is the duo’s debut celluloid pairing filmed several months earlier].

Possessing contradictory natures of reticence and hell raising, the rural Kentuckians, kindred spirits born only two years apart with Stanton the eldest, no doubt regularly traded campfire tales of lost roles and romantic conquests inside the Raincheck Room, a bar catering to artistically driven types, in West Hollywood. Other times Stanton casually observed a jealous, hotheaded Oates banging down a beer bottle and threatening to whip an innocent patron who he wrongly suspected had hit on second wife Teddy Farmer.

Soon competing for the same parts but maintaining a healthy respect for one another’s talent and humanity, Oates’ sudden death of a heart attack at age 53 brutally thwarted those late night rendezvous. Espousing a philosophy of Zen-like acceptance, Stanton attended the funeral at the behest of elder brother Gordon Oates and told an anecdote of his comrade’s encouragement when a mutual scene from Peter Fonda’s 92 in the Shade was near the brink of collapse. Evidence of Oates’ and Stanton’s unforced chemistry is also readily visible in The Shooting, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Cockfighter.

Oates never lived to see Stanton’s name billed above the marquee. Two years after his passing and an astonishing 30 years since his inauspicious debut in an episode of the forgotten Inner Sanctum anthology suspense series, Stanton’s big break was precipitated by two successive, critically acclaimed films in 1984 — Paris, Texas and Repo Man.

Two weeks after Stanton’s own demise on September 15, 2017, he starred for only the third time in his career in Lucky, a modestly budgeted drama probing a spiritual atheist’s mortality. Directed by Fargo actor John Carroll Lynch, Lucky garnered Oscar buzz for Stanton — like Oates, he shockingly never received an Academy Award nomination.

Stanton purposely shunned the limelight post-Repo Man as relayed by perennial right hand man and Lucky screenwriter Logan Sparks in a USA Today profile — “Harry said, ‘I could have been far richer and more famous than I wanted. I just didn’t want to try that hard…producers promised me more money, more girls, and more fame than I could possibly imagine. In the back of my mind, I thought it was a deal from the devil. So I turned it down.’”

Harry Dean Stanton [“Jack Burke”] and Warren Oates [“Frank Mansfield”] warily eye one another as their respective roosters duke it out in “Cockfighter,” distributed by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures to dismal box office returns on July 30, 1974. The two comrades in arms played chess between set-ups and even partook in a genuine Southern buffet-style meal of fried chicken, catfish, and country ham. Oates’ paucity of dialogue, precipitated by a hell-bent obsession to nab the “Cockfighter of the Year” medal, is revelatory and definitely a wooly booger. Image Credit: Anchor Bay Entertainment / screengrab

The Susan Compo Interview

Back when I was researching Warren Oates: A Wild Life [2010], I was given, surreptitiously, Harry Dean Stanton’s home address. Because I was still teaching in the University of Southern California’s graduate writing program I used USC letterhead to write requesting an interview.

I don’t think Harry Dean in particular was a Trojan fan but his personal assistant Logan Sparks — writer of the lovingly moving film Lucky that now serves as Harry Dean’s swan song — definitely was and is. I think this moved my request near the front of the line, and I was invited to Harry’s home on July 27, 2007, to conduct one of my earliest interviews for A Wild Life.

Trying to avoid meandering Mulholland Drive, I came up from the valley side and parked as soon as I could. Harry’s lifelong pal Jack Nicholson lived nearby. I walked up the long driveway to the modest — multi-million dollar, though, for sure — home and was greeted by Logan.

It was three in the afternoon but Harry was just getting up — he’d held forth at Dan Tana’s red sauce Italian restaurant in West Hollywood the night before. Once he found his pants — his words, not mine — he came out and sat on a Tartan couch with me. Oh boy, that rectangular den was dark with an attached kitchen. There was a bowl of guitar plectrums on the table and a wide array of aviator sunglasses — trendy now but am not sure about then!

I most remember that he had a Christmas plate from George and Nancy Jones on display even though it was July. I have the same plate that I got at Goodwill but I suspect he came by his legitimately. On the wall was a Russell Chatham painting that was either quite dusty or part of the artist’s signature, sort of impressionist style.

Harry was not the type to wear cologne, I don’t think, and no particular scent goes with the memory. Harry was a lifelong smoker. Interestingly enough I don’t remember the house smelling of smoke, and I would have caught that with my allergies.

He started by asking me how old Warren was when he died. When I answered, Harry replied, “Fifty-three is too young. How old would he be now? [Oates was born on July 5, 1928]. Harry played his friendship with Oates very close to his chest. His loyalty was all. There’s a scene in an episode of Stoney Burke [“Point of Honor,” aired October 22, 1962] where they play pool together, and their delight in being scene mates is palpable. Their friendship was probably just like that.

Harry never forgot the encouragement Warren gave him, which he also recounted in an on-camera interview for Tom Thurman’s 1993 documentary Warren Oates: Across the Border [As cantankerous, working class fishing guides, the comrades-in-arms were filming Thomas McGuane’s 92 in the Shade in 1974, smack dab in the breezy, humidity-soaked Florida Keys. Stanton stated, “We had a scene together. I remember going to Warren and saying, ‘I don’t know what the hell to do in this scene. It makes no sense to me whatsoever.’ Warren replied, “Harry Dean, just remember one thing — whatever you do is right.’”].

The interview just wound down with Harry wondering where I lived in Pasadena as he walked me to the door. He also lived in Pasadena when he first moved to California. Incidentally, he and Warren never talked about their tough upbringing in Kentucky!

I don’t recall him saying, “Let me know if there’s anything else you need” or anything like that. Sadly I didn’t take any photos that day. Once A Wild Life was published, I never received any feedback from Harry — but I don’t think it was his style to follow-up.

In looking back over my notes there was more content than I thought. Compared to some of my interviews, this one is a gold mine and fountain of info! I understand that the University Press of Kentucky has commissioned a Harry bio.

Of course, I love the “Point of Honor” episode of Stoney Burke. Harry’s moving performance as a gay hitchhiker in Oates’ Two-Lane Blacktop [1971, directed by Monte Hellman] left an indelible impact upon me. The Straight Story [1999], featuring Richard Farnsworth’s Oscar-nominated turn as a determined old man making a 300-mile cross country drive on a John Deere lawnmower to patch things up with his ailing sibling [Harry], is a beauty of a movie.

[Author’s Note: In “That Guy You’ve Seen but Can’t Remember His Name: Inside Cult Actor Warren Oates,” Compo exclusively profiles the idiosyncratic cowboy who left cinema enthusiasts “with vibrant, real performances that still resonate today.” Compo’s latest tome, Earthbound: David Bowie and The Man Who Fell to Earth, sheds light on the making of the 1976 cult classic film starring David Bowie as an alcoholic extraterrestrial seeking water for his ravaged, faraway planet].

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An unidentified actor, a rooster-clutching Warren Oates [“Frank Mansfield”], and Harry Dean Stanton [“Jack Burke”] are seen in director Monte Hellman’s controversial, still banned in the United Kingdom “Cockfighter,” produced by Roger “King of the B’s” Corman, filmed entirely in Georgia, and distributed on July 30, 1974. “Cockfighter” marked Oates’ third of ultimately four collaborations with Hellman. In a vintage interview included in Susan Compo’s “Warren Oates: A Wild Life,” the protagonist declared, “‘Cockfighter’ is about a guy who raises and trains cockfighters. It’s a big, brawling story with 25 characters in it, and he [Corman] gives Monte a four-week shooting schedule. He wouldn’t pay a second unit to pick up some traveling stuff and inserts. And the music was wrong; it should have been low-down guitar picking. I don’t care if they release it or not. It ain’t bitterness but just an insight. I’ve had the experience many times.” Although Stanton vehemently disputed it, Hellman surprisingly revealed to Compo that although they were close pals, Stanton harbored resentment towards Oates as they often vied for the same roles, explaining, “There was a lot of rivalry between Harry Dean and Warren. Harry Dean was always complaining, muttering under his breath about playing second fiddle to Warren Oates. He felt that he should have been playing Warren’s parts.” Image Credit: Everett Collection / Alamy

© Jeremy Roberts, 2017. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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