He was born Woodrow Wilson Woolbine Strode in 1914 Los Angeles. His father, a bricklayer, was of Creek and Blackfoot Indian and African-American heritage. His mother was Cherokee and African-American and the daughter of a slave. Thankfully that mouthful of a name was shortened to Woody and from an early age he was a jock.
He played football in high school and after his grades improved he secured a football scholarship with UCLA. Along with Kenny Washington, Jackie Robinson and Ray Bartlett, Strode became a star at the university. The four of them were especially noteworthy because most college teams of the days included no blacks. He also found acclaim as a decathlete. In 1939 he had his first movie role, a bit part in John Ford's famous Stagecoach.
He left UCLA in 1940, the same year he married a genuine Hawaiian princess, Luukia Kalaeloa (who became a stand-in for Dorothy Lamour in her sarong flicks), and they were married until she passed away in 1980. After a stint in the military, he briefly spent time as a gofer at Warner Bros. He also took up professional wrestling and dabbled in it, on and off, for a number of years. In 1946 he and Washington signed with the L.A. Rams and became the first two African-Americans to play in the NFL since 1934. He and his wife were often harassed because of their mixed marriage and he would later bitterly say integrating the NFL was a lowpoint in my life.
He would go on to play football for the Calgary Stampeders and then gave up football altogether while still pursuing wrestling. By 1951 he had turned his full attention to the movie business. Throughout the 1950s, his films mostly had titles which included words such as jungle, lion, gorilla, hunter and man-eater. At 6'4" he would usually be cast as someone fierce but his mellifluous voice and dignified manner often betrayed being the jungle terror. He did manage to play the King of Ethiopia in Cecil B. DeMille's all-star extravaganza, The Ten Commandments.
His films got better beginning in 1960, with three films, and it, in fact, was arguably his best year in films. He was kind and sympathetic in The Last Voyage when Robert Stack enlists the hunk to help extricate wife Dorothy Malone who is pinned underneath wreckage in a ship that is shortly going to sink.
Ford remembered him and cast him in his largest, most important role as the title star of Sergeant Rutledge, a cavalry oater about a man falsely accused of rape and murder. It was not one of Ford's better visions, but it was colorful, controversial and featured two handsome men, Strode and Jeffrey Hunter. Strode would say it was his favorite film.
His most famous film was undoubtedly Spartacus, the Stanley Kubrick-Kirk Douglas tribute to the Roman slave. Tucked away in another all-star cast as Draba, Strode was the kindly slave forced to fight Spartacus to the death. Never had his physique been displayed quite so splendidly nor his good nature so appealingly.
Ford would use him again in 1961 to play Stone Calf in Two Rode Together with Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark. Filled with villainy, one is reminded that his heritage makes him an ideal Indian and his size makes him damned scary. More successful was the following year's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, again from John Ford, and starring Stewart, John Wayne and Lee Marvin. You may recall it as one of my 50 favorite films and one of the best westerns ever made. Strode, as Wayne's sidekick, Pompey, had a showy part.
There was pleasure in seeing him in the all-star Genghis Khan (1965) because I've always enjoyed a good Mongol romp. Besides, it starred Stephen Boyd and James Mason, two of my favorites. You ain't seen a warrior until you've seen one played by Strode. Then Ford used him for the final time in the 1966 war film, 7 Women. He was again scary, this time playing a character called Lean Warrior.
|With director Brooks & his "Professionals" cast|
If his favorite film was Sergeant Rutledge, my favorite Strode film was The Professionals (1966). I have spoken of it countless times... when doing postings on its director, tough-guy Richard Brooks, and its cast, Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Jack Palance and most recently, Claudia Cardinale. One day it will be a posting on the film itself. It was a western of major consequence in that genre and Strode's contribution was as invaluable as the others.
Strode certainly spent a great deal of his movie life in westerns and in 1968 he joined Sean Connery, Brigitte Bardot and Stephen Boyd (how's that for inhabitants of the American west?) for Shalako (which I liked) and Claudia Cardinale and Henry Fonda for Once Upon a Time in the West (which I did not like). His scene was an early barroom scene, most notable because also in it was his wife, the Hawaiian princess moonlighting as a Mexican.
Woody Strode would continue working for the rest of his life, both in features and television although in the former it was entirely in supporting, character roles. His last movie, released posthumously, was the Sharon Stone western, The Quick and the Dead (1995). He would die of lung cancer at age 80 at his home in Glendora, Calif., in 1994.
I've spent a lot of time watching Woody Strode and have enjoyed every minute of it.