Beatty was a star American football player at Washington-Lee High School, in Arlington, Virginia. Encouraged to act by the success of his sister, who had recently established herself as a Hollywood star, he decided to work as a stagehand at the National Theater in Washington, D.C., during the summer prior to his senior year. This enabled him to establish contact with a few famous actors. Upon graduation from high school, he turned down 10 football scholarships to enroll in drama school.
He studied acting and directing at the Northwestern University school of drama. While at Northwestern, he appeared in the annual Dolphin show. He is a member of the Sigma Chi Fraternity. He dropped out after his freshman year to enroll in Stella Adler's Conservatory of Acting in New York City. By the age of twenty-two, Beatty had appeared in about forty Off Broadway productions. He garnered a best actor Tony Award nomination in 1960 for his performance in William Inge's drama A Loss of Roses. It was to be his only appearance on the Broadway stage.
Beatty started his career making appearances in television series such as Studio One (1957), Playhouse 90 (1959), and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959). He made his film debut under Elia Kazan's direction and opposite Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass (1961). The film was a box office success and Beatty was nominated for a Golden Globe Award in the category Best Motion Picture Actor - Drama. Subsequently he appeared in several films which went relatively unnoticed. Then, at age 30, he achieved critical acclaim and power as a producer and star of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which was nominated for 10 Academy Awards.
Because of his work on Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Beatty is generally regarded as the precursor of the New Hollywood generation, which included such filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese.
Afraid of being typecast as a milquetoast leading man, and still smarting over the What's New, Pussycat? debacle, where he was outmaneuvered by Woody Allen and eventually forced to leave the production, Beatty produced Bonnie and Clyde as a means of controlling the projects he was involved with. He hired the untested writers Robert Benton and David Newman, as well as director Arthur Penn, and controlled every facet of production, including cast, script and final cut of the film, as he would throughout the rest of his career, be it as producer/director or only as producer. (It should be noted that, in Bugsy, it was Beatty, the producer, who had final cut on the film, not Barry Levinson, the director.)
Bonnie and Clyde became a blockbuster and cultural touchstone for the youth culture of the era. The film, along with Easy Rider, marked the beginning of the so-called New Hollywood era, where studios gave unprecedented freedom to filmmakers to pursue their own idiosyncratic vision.
Subsequent Beatty films include McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Parallax View (1974), Shampoo (1975), and Heaven Can Wait (1978). The last two films gave him box-office power, making forty-nine and eighty-one million dollars, respectively. He used this to make his long in the works (he had started doing research and some filming as far back as 1970) Reds (1981), an historical epic about famed Communist journalist John Reed in the Russian October Revolution. Beatty is one of the few people ever to receive Oscar nominations in the Best Picture, Actor, Directing and Writing categories from a single film. This feat is all the more impressive since Beatty achieved it twice. He was nominated for all four awards for his film Heaven Can Wait (1978) but won none of them; he was nominated a second time for all four awards for his film Reds (1981), winning the Directing Award. Beatty received additional nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor in both Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Bugsy (1991). He was also nominated two other times for Best Original Screenplay: in 1975 for Shampoo and in 1998 for Bulworth.
After a six year hiatus, he returned in 1987 starring alongside Dustin Hoffman in the big-budget Ishtar, which was critically panned and is regarded as one of the biggest box office bombs in film history. In 1990, he bounced back when he produced, directed and starred in the title role as the comic strip character Dick Tracy in the film of the same name. The film was one of the highest grossers of the year and was also the highest-grossing film in Beatty's career to that point. He failed to repeat the box-office success of Dick Tracy in subsequent films.
In 1991 he starred as the real-life gangster Bugsy Siegel in the biopic Bugsy which was critically acclaimed and made almost fifty million dollars at the U.S. box-office. His following film Love Affair (1994) failed to do well. In 1998 he wrote, produced, directed and starred in the political satire Bulworth which was critically appreciated gaining him another nomination for Best Original Screenplay. In 2001, he appeared in his last film to date, Town and Country, which became the second-largest money loser of any movie ever made (after The Adventures of Pluto Nash) based on contemporary dollars lost: it was made on a budget of approximately USD$90 million, but earned only $6.7 million domestically. Since then, Beatty has not acted in any films but has expressed interest in returning to cinema.
After breaking up co-star Natalie Wood's first marriage to Robert Wagner during his 1961 film debut, Splendor in the Grass, Beatty has made a career of sweet-talking his leading ladies, right through Ishtar's Isabelle Adjani in 1987, with stops along the way for long-term liaisons with Julie Christie (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait) and Diane Keaton (Reds). Beatty also has been linked with Joan Collins (to whom he was engaged in 1961), Leslie Caron (in whose 1965 divorce from Peter Hall, then-director of The Royal Shakespeare Company, Beatty was named corespondent), Vivien Leigh, Susan Strasberg, Michelle Phillips, Cher, Madonna, Carly Simon (whose song You're So Vain is rumoured to be about him), Barbra Streisand, Britt Ekland and Joyce Hyser (briefly Jimmy Smits's love interest on L.A. Law), plus enough lesser-knowns for a supermarket tabloid to have offered women not yet heard from a $50 bounty for tales of their dalliances with him. After years of dating many famous women, he married Annette Bening on March 10, 1992. They co-starred together in the gangster film Bugsy. They have four children: Kathlyn Elizabeth Beatty (born January 8, 1992 in Los Angeles County, California), Benjamin MacLean Beatty (born August 23, 1994 in Los Angeles County, California), Isabel Ira Ashley Beatty (born January 11, 1997) and Ella Corinne Beatty (born April 8, 2000).
In May 2005, Beatty sued Tribune Co. for $30 million in damages, claiming he still maintains the rights to Dick Tracy. Beatty received the rights in 1985 and is now claiming that 17 years later Tribune moved to reclaim them in violation of various notification procedures. Dick Tracy grossed over $100 million upon its release in 1990, making it the highest grossing film of Beatty's career. There was talk of a sequel, and Beatty did express interest in reprising the part, but the sequel was sidelined by unexpected legal disputes.
In 2006, Beatty was named Honorary Chairman of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, succeeding Marlon Brando. In 2007, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association awarded Beatty the Cecil B. DeMille award, presented at the Golden Globe ceremony by Tom Hanks.
Beatty is also on the Board of Trustees at The Scripps Research Institute.
Four years later, Beatty joined the campaign of Senator George McGovern as an advisor. As part of the so-called "Malibu Mafia," a group of Hollywood celebrities who were part of the candidate's "inner circle," Beatty gave McGovern's campaign manager Gary Hart advice about the handling of public relations and was instrumental in organizing a series of rock concerts which raised over $1 million for the senator's campaign.
In 1984, and again in 1988, Beatty was to play a similar role in Hart's own presidential campaigns. Hart, who had, by that time, become a senator himself, had become friends with Beatty during the 1972 campaign and the relationship had grown closer during the intervening decade. After Hart's second campaign imploded over allegations that he had committed adultery with a former beauty queen named Donna Rice, a mutual friend of the two explained why they were so close: "Gary always wanted to have Warren's life and Warren always wanted to have Gary's. It was a match made in heaven."
Beatty himself was to become presidential timber during the summer of 1999 . After it became clear that the only two contenders for the Democratic Party's nomination were to be Vice President Al Gore and former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Beatty made it generally known that he was dissatisfied with the two choices and began to drop hints that he might be willing to seek the nomination himself. After meeting with several powerful liberal activists and influential Democratic operatives, including pollster Pat Caddell, who had worked previously for Hart, McGovern, California governor Jerry Brown and President Jimmy Carter, and adman Bill Hillsman, who had worked on the campaigns of Senator Paul Wellstone and Governor Jesse Ventura, Beatty announced in September 1999 that he would not seek the nomination. However, he continued to be courted by members of a different political party, the Reform Party, who were looking for an alternative to Pat Buchanan, a conservative who had switched parties after losing the Republican Party's presidential nomination for the third time in a row. Despite frequent entreaties by Governor Ventura, real-estate magnate Donald Trump, and syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington, Beatty refused to enter the race and Buchanan eventually won the Reform Party's nomination.
Despite his decision not to seek the presidency in 2000, Beatty intimated that he might still run at a later time, telling reporters that he would do so if he thought he "could make an impact on the debate". As California governor Gray Davis' popularity with California voters dropped, Beatty campaigned against the 2003 special election. He was the keynote speaker at the California Nurses Association's 2005 convention, and recorded radio ads urging voters to reject Governor Schwarzenegger's ballot proposals. The propositions were defeated at the ballot box, increasing speculation that Beatty may run against Schwarzenegger in the 2006 election. But, in early 2006, Beatty announced he would not seek the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Beatty's anticipated run for president in 2000 was lampooned by Gary Trudeau in his strip Doonesbury. In it, the character B.D. is shocked when his wife Boopsie gets a campaign contribution envelope - the joke being that Beatty could generate millions of dollars by having each of his former conquests send in a dollar to his campaign fund. When the crestfallen B.D. asks her why she dated him, she answered, "Well, it was the '70s. It was kind of like cocaine...you'd meet a girl in the bathroom who'd say, 'So, have you tried Warren Beatty?'
Beatty also made his political views known through his character, Senator Bulworth, in the movie of a similar name. Many of the character's views closely mirror Beatty's actual political beliefs.