Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Strode (1914-1994) was one of the most prolific and reliable African American actors of a generation. Acting wasn’t his first passion, however, as football at Jefferson High School and UCLA brought him initial fame. Strode, Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson in 1939 comprised one of the nation’s most potent backfields and, along with Ray Bartlett, there were four African Americans playing for one team when only a few dozen Blacks competed nationally. In 1940, UCLA and USC battled in what is believed to be the first cross-town rivalry game with championship implications.
The 6-foot, 4-inch Strode was a world-class decathlete with a body so toned that he posed nude for an exhibition of athletic portraits shown at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. German director Leni Riefenstahl called Strode “the greatest physique of any athlete I have ever seen.”
While in college, Strode and Washington held summer jobs at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, mostly running errands on various sound stages; he noted that most days involved standing around and “waiting for someone to order something.” Strode would become an assistant to some of the studio’s biggest stars including Bette Davis, James Cagney, Ann Sheridan, Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland and Jane Wyman.
When World War II began, Strode was playing for the Hollywood Bears football team, but soon joined the Air Force and spent much of the war unloading bombs in Guam and the Marianas, as well as playing on the Army football team at March Field in Riverside. After the war, Strode played briefly with the Los Angeles Rams and along with Washington became the first African Americans to play in the National Football League. On a road game in Chicago, hotel management gave he and Washington $100 each to find another hotel in the Black section of town. Strode takes it up from there: “Bob Waterfield and some guys came looking for us because they’d made arrangements for us back at the hotel,” he explained. “But the hotel we found was integrated—and Count Basie was playing there—and we were fine. Waterfield laughs and says: ‘You sons of bitches, you’re living good.’”
Strode by then was in his early ‘30s and his football days were numbered. Being married with two children, he needed steady work. He once said his interracial marriage (to an Hawaiian princess)—and integrating the NFL—were the few times that racism caused him concern. “You’d have thought I was marrying Lana Turner, they way Whites in Hollywood acted,” he recalled. “Integrating the NFL was the low point of my life. There was nothing nice about it.”
It is believed that Strode made his film debut as early as 1939 as an unbilled extra in John Ford’s “Stagecoach,” but most work at the time saw him in blackface in “jungle” films. He was usually unbilled in films like “Sundown” (1941), “Star-Spangled Rhythm” (1942) and “No Time for Love” (1943). He portrayed an assortment of African chiefs and guards until Cecil B. DeMille cast him in “The Ten Commandments” (1956), as the King of Ethiopia. Then came Lewis Milestone’s war film “Pork Chop Hill” (1959) and steady work would follow. When Ford cast Strode in “Sergeant Rutledge” (1960), the actor remembers the legendary director telling him: “You know, Woody, it’s pretty rough to make a star out of you, but I’m going to make you a character actor and you’ll make some money.”
Strode’s best known role was the gladiator Draba in Stanley Kubrick’s “Sparticus” (1960). One day Sir Laurence Olivier remarked he was a big fan of his football days, with Strode replying: “I don’t know what I’m doing here in your business.” Olivier said, “Woody, what you’re about to do, I could never do” in reference to his upcoming fight scene with Kirk Douglas. Another well-known role was Pompey, John Wayne’s servant in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962).
By the mid 1960s Strode had become a respected craftsman and began to make his biggest imprint in “Spaghetti Westerns,” particularly in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968). “It was the only picture I did with Sergio Leone…the close ups were great,” Strode said. “I never got a close up in Hollywood, and Sergio framed me on the screen for five minutes. After that I said ‘that’s all I needed.’” The film made Strode a major star in European cinema, increasing his salary to a minimum $150,000 per movie.
Strode’s filmography lists 68 appearances. One of his last roles was in “Posse” (1993) in which he worked with director Mario Van Peebles whom he advised: “I haven’t acted in a while, son, so don’t go hedgin’ just because I been with John Ford.” Strode also said he didn’t believe he’d see the day that a young Black man would be given the type of money to “direct such a movie and have the opportunity say the kind of things he was saying.”