Woolwine "Woody" Strode was one of the most impressive actor-athletes in American film history. A
native Angelino, this remarkable man became a world class decathlete specializing in the shot put
and the high jump. He became a center of controversy
when a picture of him became part of a controversial exhibition at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.
Because the Nazis objected to the depiction of black and Jewish athletes, it was removed.
Strode, along with two other elite athletes, Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson, became the first
completely African-American starting backfield in the NCAA when they played for UCLA in 1939, an era
when there were only a handful of black college footballers.
While Robinson went on to break the color line in
baseball in 1946, Strode (after serving in the Air Corps in Guam during the War) and Washington did
the same in breaking the color line in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams.
In 1947 Woody played for the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL, and when the team won the Grey Cup
championship for the first time in its history, he celebrated by riding a horse through the lobby of
the Royal York Hotel.
Strode initially entered professional wrestling in 1941 and returned to the sport when shoulder
injuries forced him out of football in 1949. He toured with three other wrestlers: Baron Leone,
Chief Little Wolf, and Woody's very good friend, the legendary Gorgeous George. When wrestling,
Woody played the part of a clean-cut, good guy. He continued to compete until 1962 when he became
both the Pacific Coast Heavyweight Wresting Champion and the Pacific Coast Negro Heavyweight
Strode entered acting in 1941, making his screen debut in SUNDOWN and continued to work well
into the 1990s. (Some sources list him as an extra in STAGECOACH in 1939 although that seems
unlikely). Most of his parts he was given in his early apprenticeship were one-dimensional natives
in Bomba, Tarzan, Ramar, and Jungle Jim type programmers. However, he eventually gained experience
and graduated into more complex parts, gaining kudos as the cowardly soldier in Lewis Milestone's
PORK CHOP HILL and a Golden Globe nomination for Kubrick's SPARTACUS.
Strode struck up a friendship with legendary director John Ford, who gave him his first starring
role as cavalryman SERGEANT RUTLEDGE, who is falsely accused of rape and murder. Ford had
previously befriended two USC footballers, John Wayne and Ward Bond, and helped facilitate their
careers. The director was convinced that Strode possessed the potential to become the first
African-American to win a Best Actor award and worked with him to perfect his dramatic courtroom
scene. Although Strode wasn't even nominated, in just three years Sidney Poitier would make the
Strode appeared in three more Ford films, TWO RODE TOGETHER, SEVEN WOMEN, and the
critically acclaimed THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE.
Strode was forever grateful for the director's help and friendship. During Ford's last months, Woody
slept on his mentor's bedroom floor, serving as his primary caregiver and was present at Ford's
deathbed when the director passed on.
Many films benefited from the actor's iconic presence including Richard Brooks' THE PROFESSIONALS
(1966) and Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968) among other spaghetti westerns.
His last film was THE QUICK AND THE DEAD (1995).
Woody passed away on New Year's Eve 1994 from lung cancer at age 80. Strode's children Woodrow Jr.
and Pamela have produced a short documentary honoring their father, STRODE ROAD. It ends with
this poem, which hopefully captures the spirit of what this series has tried to accomplish:
For all of those who
paved the road,
Their stories sadly left untold,
Here is a life that will unfold,
Whose dignity could not be sold.
He paved the way,
He shared the load,
He was an athlete and an actor,
With a heart of gold.
Never meek - always bold.
This is the story of Woody Strode,
His unsung journey. STRODE ROAD."