Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode
July 25, 1914
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Died||December 31, 1994 (aged 80)|
Glendora, California, U.S.
|Occupation||Actor, football player|
|Children||2, including Kalai|
|Height:||6 ft 3 in (1.91 m)|
|Weight:||205 lb (93 kg)|
|High school:||Thomas Jefferson (CA)|
* Los Angeles Rams (1946)* Calgary Stampeders (1948-1949)
|Career highlights and awards|
|CFL Western All-Star (1948, 1949)|
|Career NFL statistics|
|Player stats at NFL.com|
Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode (July 25, 1914 - December 31, 1994) was an American athlete and actor. He was a decathlete and football star who was one of the first Black American players in the National Football League in the postwar era. After football, he went on to become a film actor, where he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Spartacus in 1960. He served in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II.
He attended Thomas Jefferson High School in South East Los Angeles and college at UCLA, where he was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. His world-class decathlon capabilities were spearheaded by a 50 ft (15 m) plus shot put (when the world record was 57 ft (17 m)) and a 6 ft 5 in (1.96 m) high jump (the world record at time was 6 ft 10 in (2.08 m)).
"I got a cultural education--majored in history and education," he said in a 1971 interview. "Never used it, but I could walk into the White House with it now."
Strode posed for a nude portrait, part of Hubert Stowitts's acclaimed exhibition of athletic portraits shown at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (although the inclusion of black and Jewish athletes caused the Nazis to close the exhibit).
Strode, Kenny Washington, and Jackie Robinson starred on the 1939 UCLA Bruins football team, in which they made up three of the four backfield players. They became famous nationally as "the Gold Dust gang".
Along with Ray Bartlett, there were four Black Americans playing for the Bruins, when only a few dozen at all played on other college football teams. They played eventual conference and national champion USC to a 0-0 tie with the 1940 Rose Bowl on the line. It was the first UCLA-USC rivalry football game with national implications.
Strode made his first appearance in Sundown (1941) playing a native policeman. He had a small role in Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), as a chauffeur of Rochester (Edward Anderson) and could be glimpsed in No Time for Love (1943).
When World War II broke out, Strode was playing for the Hollywood Bears in the Pacific Coast Professional Football League. He was drafted at age 27 and soon joined the United States Army Air Corps 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 L.A. County District Attorney's Office before being signed, briefly, to the Los Angeles Rams along with Kenny Washington. They were the first Black-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 Coconut Grove (a nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel) 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?'"
He also said, "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."
Strode and fellow UCLA alumnus Kenny Washington were two of the first African-Americans to play in major college programs and later the modern National Football League (along with Marion Motley and Bill Willis, who signed with the contemporary rival All-America Football Conference), playing for the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. No black men had played in the NFL from 1933 to 1946. UCLA teammate Jackie Robinson would go on to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball (in fact, Robinson, Strode and Washington had all played in the semi-professional Pacific Coast Professional Football League earlier in the decade).
In 1948 he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the AAFC, but was released before the season started, whereupon he joined the Calgary Stampeders of the Western Interprovincial Football Union in Canada, where he was a member of Calgary's 1948 Grey Cup Championship team before retiring due to injury in 1949. He broke two ribs and a shoulder. "It was like I had fought Joe Louis," he recalled.
In 1941, Strode had dabbled for several months in professional wrestling. Following the end of his football career in 1949, he returned to wrestling part-time between acting jobs until 1962, wrestling the likes of Gorgeous George.
In 1952, Strode wrestled almost every week from August 12, 1952, to December 10, 1952, in different cities in California. He was billed as the Pacific Coast Heavyweight Wrestling Champion and the Pacific Coast Negro Heavyweight Wrestling Champion in 1962. He later teamed up with both Bobo Brazil and Bearcat Wright.
They wanted him to shave his head. He was reluctant until they offered him $500 a week. "I said, 'All right, where are the pluckers?'" Then Strode realised, "I was out in the world market with a bald head. Trapped for life. Finally, it became way of life."
He had roles in Bride of the Gorilla (1951), African Treasure (1951) (another Bomba film), an episode of Dangerous Assignment (1952), Caribbean (1952), and Androcles and the Lion (1952), playing the lion, "the toughest job I ever had" he said later.
Strode was in City Beneath the Sea (1953) directed by Budd Boetticher, and The Royal African Rifles. Also, he appeared in several episodes of the 1952-1954 television series Ramar of the Jungle, where he portrayed an African warrior.
Strode was a gladiator in Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) and was in Jungle Man-Eaters (1954), a Jungle Jim film. He could be seen in The Gambler from Natchez (1954), Jungle Gents (1954) a Bowery Boys movie set in Africa, and The Silver Chalice (1954).
He was in a TV adaptation of Mandrake the Magician (1954), a pilot for a series that was not picked up, and had small parts in Son of Sinbad (1955), Soldiers of Fortune (1955), and Buruuba (1956) a Japanese film set in Africa.
He had a support role in Tarzan's Fight for Life (1958) and a small part in The Buccaneer (1958). In 1959 he portrayed the conflicted, some would say cowardly, Private Franklin in Pork Chop Hill, which brought him critical acclaim. He called it "the first dramatic thing that I had done."
He guest starred on The Man from Blackhawk (1960).
Strode was next cast in Spartacus (1960) as the Ethiopian gladiator Draba, in which he has to fight Spartacus (played by Kirk Douglas) to the death. Draba wins the contest, but instead of killing Spartacus, he attacks the Roman military commander who paid for the fight. He is killed and his death sparks a gladiator rebellion.
Strode had an excellent support part in The Last Voyage (1960) playing a heroic stoker, though he was only billed fifth.
While making Pork Chop Hill he became a close friend of director John Ford. Ford gave Strode the title role in Sergeant Rutledge (1960) as a member of the Ninth Cavalry, greatly admired by the other black soldiers in the unit, who is falsely accused of the rape and murder of a white woman.
"The big studios wanted an actor like Sidney [Poitier] or [Harry] Belafonte," recalled Strode. "And this is not being facetious, but Mr. Ford defended me; and I don't know that this is going on. He said, "Well, they're not tough enough to do what I want Sergeant Rutledge to be."
"That was a classic," he later said. "It had dignity. John Ford put classic words in my mouth... You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before. I had the greatest Glory Hallelujah ride across the Pecos River that any black man ever had on the screen. And I did it myself. I carried the whole black race across that river."
Strode had difficulty maintaining the momentum of these roles. He was in The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961) and guest starred on Rawhide, playing an Australian aboriginal in the latter. Ford used him again in Two Rode Together (1962) but it was only a small part, as an Indian. He had a bigger role in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) for Ford, playing Pompey, John Wayne's hired hand. In the film, Strode's character recites the Declaration of Independence but apologizes for forgetting the phrase "all men are created equal," a poignant line for the 1962 audience. Pompey/Strode physically carries and thereby saves a drunken, suicidal John Wayne from his burning home.
In 1963, he was cast opposite Jock Mahoney's Tarzan as both the dying leader of an unnamed Asian country and that leader's unsavory brother, Khan, in Tarzan's Three Challenges. He guest starred on The Lieutenant, The Farmer's Daughter and Daniel Boone and had roles in the features Genghis Khan (1965) and 7 Women (1966), the latter the last film he made for Ford. Strode was very close to the director. "He treated me like a son," said Strode. "I had a certain amount of crudeness that went back a hundred years, and that's what he liked."
During Ford's declining years Strode spent four months sleeping on the director's floor as his caretaker, and he was later present at Ford's death.
In the late 1960s, he appeared in several episodes of the Ron Ely Tarzan television series. Strode's other television work included a role as the Grand Mogul in the Batman episodes "Marsha, Queen of Diamonds" and "Marsha's Scheme of Diamonds".
In 1966, he landed a major starring role as a soldier of fortune and expert archer in The Professionals, a major box-office success that established him as a recognizable star.
In 1967 he attempted to produce his own film, The Story of the Tenth Cavalry but it was not made.
He based himself in Europe from 1968 to 1971.
His 1968 starring role as a thinly-disguised Patrice Lumumba in Seduto alla sua destra (released in the U.S. as Black Jesus) garnered Strode a great deal of press at the time, but the film is largely forgotten now.
He was an Indian in Shalako (1968) and played a gunslinger in the opening sequence of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). He decided to stay in Europe. "I had five pairs of blue jeans, I was lonely, and I didn't speak the language," he said. "But the producers answered, 'Not necessary. You ride horses.' " 
Strode was in Che! (1969) and supported Terence Hill and Bud Spencer in Boot Hill (1969) shot in Italy. He stayed in Europe to make another Western The Unholy Four (1970) and went back to Hollywood to do a TV movie Breakout (1970) and two Westerns The Deserter (also known as "The Devil's Backbone") (1971), and The Gatling Gun (1971). The scripts for these were variable but Strode later said "Me, I didn't care. If the money was right, I'd play Mickey Mouse."
Strode went to Europe to make Scipio the African (1971) and did some more Westerns: The Last Rebel (1971), and The Revengers (1972) (a "regular knockdown, drag-out western" said Strode). He later said his salary in Italy went up to $10,000 a week.
He did The Italian Connection (1972), for which he was paid $150,000. "Race is not a factor in the world market," he said in 1981. "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. My dream is to play a Mexican bandit in the international market."
He was also in Key West (1973), Loaded Guns (1975), The Manhunter (1975), We Are No Angels (1975), Winterhawk (1975), Keoma (1976), episodes of The Quest (1976) and How the West Was Won (1977), Oil (1977), Martinelli, Outside Man (1977), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), Cowboy-San! (1978), Ravagers (1979), Jaguar Lives! (1979), and an episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979).
Strode's later appearances included Cuba Crossing (1980),The Dukes of Hazzard (1980), Scream (1981), Fantasy Island (1981), Vigilante (1982), Invaders of the Lost Gold (1982), Angkor: Cambodia Express (1983), The Black Stallion Returns (1983), The Violent Breed (1984), Jungle Warriors (1984), The Cotton Club (1984), The Final Executioner (1984), Lust in the Dust (1985), On Fire (1987), and A Gathering of Old Men (1987).
Strode was in Storyville (1992), and Posse (1992), working with director Mario Van Peebles. His last film was The Quick and the Dead (1995), which starred Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Russell Crowe. The closing credits dedicate the film to Strode.
His first wife was Princess Luukialuana Kalaeloa (a.k.a. Luana Strode), a distant relative of Liliuokalani, the last queen of Hawaii. "You'd have thought I was marrying Lana Turner, the way the whites in Hollywood acted," he later said.
With her he had a son, Kalai (a.k.a. Kalaeloa), in 1946, and a daughter, June. They were married until her death in 1980 due to Parkinson's disease. In 1982 at the age of 68, he wed 35-year-old Tina Tompson, and they remained married until his death of lung cancer on , 1994, in Glendora, California, aged 80. He is buried at Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, California.
Strode was a dedicated martial artist under the direction of Frank Landers in the art of Seishindo Kenpo.