Woody Strode Profile
* Titles in Bold Type Will Air on 8/5
Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode was born in Los Angeles on July 25, 1914. He was the son of a mixed-race Creek-Blackfoot and African-American bricklayer ("You can walk around the city today and still see a lot of places he built with his own hands") and an African-American-Cherokee seamstress who had traveled to California from New Orleans around 1900. By his own admission, he was a short, fat kid who grew into an all-around athlete. Moving to the Westwood section of Los Angeles in 1928, he attended Jefferson High School before earning a football scholarship to UCLA. "At UCLA I was getting $100 a month, plus $20 a week under the table. Today, I hear about guys getting $10,000 to $40,000 a season under the table." While there, he became an All-Coast Conference player, a decathlete, and a bone fide football star. This led to his introduction to Hollywood.
During the summer, he and his best friend, legendary player Kenny Washington, had jobs at Warner Bros. "Every morning the studio would assign us to a sound stage, and we'd stand around and wait for someone to order something. They dressed us up in brown coats with epaulets and gold-braided ropes hanging from the shoulder. We wore caps like a bellhop in a hotel. We took care of the stars. Bette Davis, Jimmy Cagney, Ann Sheridan, and Olivia De Havilland were some of the big Warner Bros. stars at that time. I remember walking up to Errol Flynn and him saying, 'Oh, you and Kenny, I just love watching you guys play!' All the movie stars were football fans. When I was told to bring a tray of food to Jane Wyman's dressing room [..] I saw her sitting there in that powder-blue silk robe, one leg half out, I was mesmerized by her beauty; she had a face like an angel. She watched me come in the door, and I got so flustered I tripped on the door jamb and fell all the way inside. The food and coffee went all over the carpet. But she smoothed it all over for me and helped me clean it up. She said, 'You know, I'm a big fan of yours, you and Kenny Washington. How are you boys going to do this year?'"
When World War II broke out, Strode was playing for the Hollywood Bears Football team but soon joined the Air Force and spent the war unloading bombs in Guam and the Marianas, as well as playing on the Army football team at March Field in Riverside, California. After the war, he worked at serving subpoenas and escorting prisoners for the LA County District Attorney's Office before being signed, briefly, to the Los Angeles Rams along with Kenny Washington. They were the first African-American players to play in the NFL for many years. When out on the road with the team, Strode had his first experience with racism, something he wasn't aware of growing up in Los Angeles. "We were unconscious of color. We used to sit in the best seats at the Cocoanut Grove listening to Donald Novis sing. If someone said, "there's a Negro over there,' I was just as apt as anyone to turn around and say 'Where?' I had a black principal in my grammar school when I was a kid. On the Pacific Coast there wasn't anything we couldn't do. As we got out of the L.A. area we found these racial tensions. Hell, we thought we were white."
The team landed in Chicago and the management of the hotel gave Washington and Strode $100 each to find another hotel. "In the black section of Chicago, we'd never seen so many black people in our whole lives. Bob Waterfield and about five players came down looking for us because they'd made arrangements for us to move back to their hotel. We're in a cellar [of the Persian Hotel] where Count Basie's playing, it's integrated and all the white people are having a ball. We're sipping Tom Collinses, and Waterfield said, 'You sons of bitches!' The team was too embarrassed to bed check us because we'd been shoved out of the family. And when the white players came to get us, we said, 'No way, we're gonna stay segregated.' That's why I say it was never [an issue among] the athletes. It was great. I rediscovered my own people. We went to hear Count Basie, the best in jazz. I never had so much fun in my life." The militant black press approached Strode about it. He replied, "Look, do me a favor and mind your own business. We get $200 a week, we don't have to stand curfew. I hear the white guys on the club are about to mutiny to get the kind of deal we got. Now you're going to louse it all up."
Strode didn't last very long with the Rams. In his early 30s, he was not at the top of his game, but still a formidable player. His interracial marriage was probably the reason for his being let go. He had married a Hawaiian princess, Princess Luukialuana Kalaeloa (known as Luana), a descendant of Liliuokalani, the last queen of Hawaii, in Las Vegas in 1940 and had two children. "When I married her, you'd have thought I was marrying Lana Turner, the way the Whites in Hollywood acted." Luana, who had not encountered racial prejudice in Hawaii, was so angry at the racial slurs shouted at her husband during a game that she punched a heckler in the face. The police suggested that she sit with the team on the bench after that. The racism encountered from other teams took its toll. "Integrating the NFL was the low point of my life. There was nothing nice about it. History doesn't know who we are. Kenny was one of the greatest backs in the history of the game, and kids today have no idea who he is. If I have to integrate heaven, I don't want to go." He later went to Canada to play for the Calgary Stampeders. "Never had so much fun as I did in Canada. When we won, we all got drunk. And when we lost, we cried like babies." After Canada, Strode, who had been wrestling in the off-season, turned professional in 1951 and would wrestle in-between films for the next ten years.
Wrestling helped Strode get back into the movies. He was approached at Hollywood Legion Stadium by a producer who asked him to play the role of an African chieftain. "They wanted me to shave my head. I told him he was crazy, that I wouldn't shave my hair. But the producer said he'd give me $500 a week for eight weeks. Again, I told him he was crazy, but then I also asked where the pluckers were."
The Internet Movie Database lists Strode appearing in films as early as 1939 as an unbilled extra in John Ford's Stagecoach and Strode himself said, "I had done some jungle films back in 1940 but I photographed too light. They tried painting me with everything, including shoe black, but it never looked right. It wasn't until recent years that they perfected filters that would make me look natural as a native." He is also credited (unbilled) in Sundown (1941), Star-Spangled Rhythm (1942) and No Time for Love (1943). In 1951, he appeared in several films such as The Lion Hunters, and the following year played "the lion" in Androcles and the Lion (1952).
For four years, Strode played an assortment of African chiefs and guards until Cecil B. DeMille cast him in The Ten Commandments (1956) as the King of Ethiopia. In fact, Strode played two roles in the film. DeMille had initially cast him as a litter-bearer (and he can be seen in this role throughout the film) and then later gave him the role of the King. Lewis Milestone's film Pork Chop Hill (1959) followed and in this film, he was finally able to display his talent. As Pvt. Franklin, his anti-war sentiments are eventually echoed by his commander, played by Gregory Peck. For an actor as physically imposing as Strode to act the coward was proof of his abilities.
Legendary director John Ford chose Strode to play the title role in Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and it would be the start of a very close friendship between the two. "Mr. Ford told me, '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.'" During the shooting of Sergeant Rutledge, he used a trick to get Strode to give the performance he wanted. As Ford's grandson, Dan, wrote in his biography of Ford, "The night before John shot [the climactic trial] scene he pulled an old trick on Strode. 'Woody,' he said, 'I've changed the schedule. You're not working tomorrow. Go out and relax tonight.' John had his daughter, Barbara, and [her husband, Gunsmoke actor] Ken Curtis give a party for the actor. The music played, the wine flowed, and Strode, relaxing from the awful tensions of making a movie, proceeded to get good and lubricated. At 6:00 the next morning, Wingate Smith was on the phone. 'Woody, Jack's changed the schedule. Be in make up in an hour. We're shooting your courtroom scene.' As [Victor] McLaglen had done in The Informer , Strode faced his on-screen accusers with a blinding hangover; like McLaglen's, Strode's anguish was genuine."
His next role is probably his best known: the gladiator Draba in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960). "I would have lost that role if I hadn't been in shape, and if I hadn't had a lot of experience as a wrestler. It took skill to do that fight scene without actually hurting myself or hurting Douglas." Just before shooting the famous gladiator scene (in which Draba defeats Spartacus and is told to kill him), Strode was approached by Laurence Olivier who told him he had been a big fan of his when he had been a football player. Strode confided to Olivier, "I don't know what I'm doing here in your business." To which Olivier replied, "What you're about to do, I could never do." Kubrick's friend Alexander Singer was on the set that day. "Woody Strode was a man of innate dignity. When you just turned the camera on him there was something rather special. Stanley needed a very curious performance out of him. It was the sense of a man turning inward and asking some profound questions of himself. 'Is this what I do in my days, kill my friend for the luncheon pleasures of the master?' It's turning over in his head. Well, there's not much point in telling Woody Strode to do that and I don't think Stanley had any intention of doing that. There's a limit to what Woody Strode would have been able to render, but what Stanley did was to play some music. I'll never forget the power of the music and what happened to Strode's face as the music proceeded. I was near the camera and I could watch his face while it was happening. The music was a Prokofiev concerto, a passage which is haunting not clashing. It was filled with infinite longing a kind of love story, and the effect on Strode was visible."
Strode worked for John Ford once again in Two Rode Together (1961), "Ford browbeats me, but it's great working for him. This is a great part for me, the first time I've played an Indian. If I can pull it off it might open a whole new field for me. If not, it's back to the jungle." In Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Strode played John Wayne's servant, Pompey, but the experience was not a happy one. John Wayne, who Ford had made a star in Stagecoach, had always been his whipping boy on the set. Whenever Ford needed to take out his frustrations on someone, it was always Wayne, who took the abuse out of respect for his mentor. On this film, Wayne would be taunted by Ford that Strode was the 'real' football player (Wayne had played at USC), as well as belittling Wayne for not serving in World War II as Strode had done. It created tensions between Strode and Wayne that nearly ended in a fist fight. In one scene, Wayne and Strode race back to Wayne's house when he discovers the woman he loves cares for another man. Wayne, who was driving the horses, lost control of the wagon. Strode remembered, "John was working the reins, but he couldn't get the horses to stop. I reached up to grab the reins to help him, and John swung and knocked me away. When the horses finally stopped, he fell out of the wagon. I jumped down and was ready to kick his ass." Ford, realizing that Strode was in much better shape than Wayne and could do serious damage that would delay the film, begged Strode, "Woody, don't hit him! We need him!" Ford then called a halt to shooting for a few hours to allow Strode and Wayne time to calm down. Ford and Strode would work together on a final film, 7 Women in 1966. Ford considered Strode a son and reportedly wanted to see him more than anyone else when he was on his deathbed.
For Strode, acting jobs in Hollywood would always be limited. By the end of the 60s, he, like many Hollywood actors, found jobs in Europe. Strode was hired by Sergio Leone for Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and a new career opened up for him. "[It] was the only picture I did for Sergio Leone, but he always gave me a good word of mouth, and that helped me a lot in Italy. And he was quite fond of Luana, too. He called her Mama. One night at dinner, he said, 'I need an Indian woman to be the scrub woman that runs out of the train station in the opening scene. Why don't you do it, Mama?' So if you ever see the picture, that woman was Luana. Sergio gave Luana a salary plus an extra thousand bucks when it was over. The first time I saw the film was in Italy, in Italian. When the lights went down, I said to Luana, "Here we go, Mama." The scene with the water was a complete surprise. And the close-ups, I couldn't believe. I never got a close-up in Hollywood. Even in The Professionals , I had only three close-ups in the entire picture. Sergio Leone framed me on the screen for five minutes. After it was over I said, 'That's all I needed.' When I got home and I saw Papa Ford, I told him, 'Papa, there's an Italian over there that just loves the West...Will you autograph a picture for him?' Unfortunately, Sergio is dead today, but if you checked with his office, you'd find he has an autographed picture from John Ford. On the picture Ford wrote, 'If there's anything I can do to help make Woody a star, I'll do it for free.' Those are the little things that make those guys immortal."
Strode moved to Italy in 1969 and became a star in Europe. "Race is not a factor in the world market. I once played a part written for an Irish prize fighter. I've done everything but play an Anglo-Saxon. I'd do that if I could. I'd play a Viking with blue contact lenses and a blond wig if I could. [..] I may be the only black Italian cowboy in the world. They love me over there. And I love the Italians. I'm sick of talking about race in this country. I don't want anybody calling me 'brother' either. I live my own life. I go my own way and nobody tries to stop me. I never get paid less than $1,000 a week and I'm freer in the acting business. I can work in London or Rome anytime I want. You know why? Because I do my own roping and riding in movies. I don't need doubles. [...] They admire me because I just stayed in such good shape. I got all my fans based on this look. I can still attract attention stepping off any plane in the world. I can still half-ass fight. I can do all that ballet stuff; the only thing I can't do is fall off the horses."
In the mid 70s, Strode was making around $150,000 a film in spaghetti Westerns. "I moved to Rome and really started making money for the first time." In those films, he played a myriad of roles and ethnicities. "A black picture would not sell overseas. I cannot get "Whitey" overseas, if you know what I mean. I can be the bad guy and I can come in and steal the mansion and rip off the gold, they understand that." He even played a mob boss. "I was the boss, color meant nothing; I was a bad guy and that was all. I don't think I could get that type of role in the United States. When I'm in Italy, I'm the bad guy. The Italians like to be good people. But what the hell, I'm there to earn a dollar and I'd rather be a villain on the world market anyway."
By the late 1980s, Strode was in his mid-70s and began to slow down. "I'm an old man, but life will never make an old man out of me. As long as you look like you can run on Santa Anita's race track, even if you take last, you've still made the field. People see that horse and wonder what it is doing out there. They don't know its 100 years old. Well, this is how nature has left me, so it is good." He had remarried after Luana's death (in 1980) and was living on a five acre hilltop property in Los Angeles, where he made his own wine and enjoyed life. In his penultimate film, Posse (1993), he was back making a Western for director Mario Van Peebles, who wanted him as an actor and narrator. He told Peebles, "I haven't acted in a while, son, so c'mon and direct me don't go hedgin' just because I been with John Ford and such. ' [...] I still can't believe I've lived to see the day when a young black man like Mario would be given money to direct this kind of movie and get to say the things he's saying. And I'm the one who gets to say it. Let me tell you, it's a real kick." Strode's final film was Sam Raimi's 1995 Western The Quick and the Dead which was released after his death.
Woody Strode, whose life took him from the gridiron to Canada to Hollywood and beyond, passed away on New Year's Eve, 1994 from lung cancer at the age of 80. As his son Kalai wrote, "He was sincere, honest, and optimistic. He was a good role model, not to me only, not to all African-Americans only either, but to all Americans. He overcame more obstacles then we could imagine, and did it with grace and integrity. He integrated the National Football League with Kenny Washington, and portrayed roles of dignity throughout his film career. I wish he could have lived long enough to see an African-American elected as President of the United States. I believe his legacy laid a foundation for that, and for all other minorities who have tried to crack the glass ceiling of racial discrimination. He was a very good man."
by Lorraine LoBianco
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