In Two-Lane Blacktop Monte Hellman cast Warren Oates as a man who ran his mouth as much as he ran his muscle car. In Cockfighter Hellman takes Oates in the exact opposite direction, playing a man who doesn’t speak at all. He’s Frank Mansfield, one of the best cockfighters working the few states where it’s still legal, and he’s taken a vow of silence after losing his prime chicken after talking too much. Frank will stay silent until he’s been named the Cockfighter of the Year, a prestigious award that isn’t even given out every year - just in the years when someone deserves it.
The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) are the characters at the center of Monte Hellman’s classic road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, but the character who has always won my heart is Warren Oates’ GTO. Named for the canary yellow muscle car he drives, GTO wanders into the path of two professional street racers who drift their way from city to city, making their living tearing down back roads. They end up in a cross country race, headed east to Washington DC, with the pink slips of the cars in the balance. But that’s not what Two-Lane Blacktop is about.
If there were to be a patron saint of badasses, it would be Warren Oates. Not because he was particularly tough, although he could - at times - hold his own. Not because he was all that handsome, although he had a certain roguish charm to his smile. What made Warren Oates so badass was the way that he simply didn’t give a shit what people thought. Oates lived his own way - hard and rough, leading to his untimely early death - and worked his own way, staying out of the spotlight. There was a period in the early 70s when Oates - almost always relegated to supporting roles from which he handily stole entire films - was the best actor working in Hollywood.