On the Trail of Woody Strode

August marks TCM‘s annual Summer Under the Stars festival, and the Morlock’s have been given their marching orders: pick one overlooked star deserving of a week-long tribute. In 2008 it was Fred MacMurray. In 2009 it was Gloria Grahame. This year it’s Woody Strode (1914 – 1994). Strode was an athlete who turned to acting. He also broke several color barriers. First as one of four blacks who, in 1946, integrated major league pro football and, later, as a prolific actor whose first big break was in the title role of Sergeant Rutledge (1960) – which was released the same year as another memorable role for him in Spartacus. Another barrier he broke had nothing to do with the color of his skin as he was, according to Todd von Hoffman (co-author of The von Hoffman Bros.’ Big Damn Book of Sheer Manliness), “Simply one of the most ridiculously perfect human specimens to ever walk the Earth.”

His job in front of the camera started with John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), where he was an uncredited man at the saloon. (He went on to became one of Ford’s best friends.) His last acting stint was on Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995), for a small part as Charles Moonlight, an undertaker. His name is sandwiched during opening credits between Raynor Scheine and Jerry Swindall. It would have been nice if Strode’s name had had the screen to itself – especially as he died two months before the films release on the last day of December in 1994. The filmmakers had the good sense to give him a dedication in the end credits, but that’s common practice. It would have been much classier to have given his name some elbow room there at the start; especially since he’d spent so much time in the trenches fighting his way up from uncredited roles and onward – not to mention his significant contributions to the western genre.

Strode married Princess Luukialuana Kalaeloa (from Hawaii, and later known as Luana Strode) in Las Vegas in 1940. Strode’s interracial marriage is considered by many as being the reason why he was let go from the Rams while he was still in his prime and in his early 30′s. The racial prejudice of that time was such that “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.” (Lorriane LoBianco, TCM post: http://www.tcm.com/thismonth/article/?cid=333896) I’m a pacifist and hate violence, but that little tidbit still makes me want to let out a cheer of some sort.

Almost 20 years after Stage Coach, Ford gave Strode a big break on Sergeant Rutledge, but it came with a passage of ritual used through the movie-making ages, one that involves genuinely stressing the actor. It’s not method acting, because in that case the actors know what they are doing and try to fully inhabit the character. No… this is a case of the actors being oblivious to the director’s intention and, instead, simply getting genuinely stressed for the sake of authenticity. Think Shelley Duvall in The Shining, or just about anyone in a William Friedkin film. In Sergeant Rutledge it involved Ford pulling an elaborate scheme that involved convincing Strode that a climactic scene was not going to be filmed the next day as originally planned. So, instead, Strode was given a big party, with lots of booze, and then that next ugly morning informed that, SORRY, the big scene is – in fact – going to happen AS planned, and RIGHT NOW. Thus Strode was left to face the glaring lights of the big scene while hung-over. “Strode’s anguish was genuine.” (LoBianco)

Strode put in his dues – and then some. He had to fight harder than others for less, but he enjoyed huge triumphs along the way. From blink-and-you-miss it uncredited roles to the hero of Black Jesus (1968) and beyond, Strode managed to work his way from the margins of cinema, to the center, and everywhere inbetween. My fellow Morlocks are ready to delve into any and every aspects of Strode’s career because, to paraphrase the dedication at the end of The Quick and the Dead; This week is dedicated to the memory of WOODY STRODE.

23 Responses On the Trail of Woody Strode
Posted By Kirby Buckner : August 1, 2010 12:11 pm

Woody Strode was not a great actor, but a dynamic, compelling screen presence always worthy of attention. Wasn’t he the (dialogue-less) King of Abyssinia coming before Pharaoh (Cedric Hardwicke) and Prince Moses (Charlton Heston) in DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”? But he was best in those 60s westerns, like his role as the scout Jacob Sharp in 1966′s tough classic “The Professionals,” holding his own with a high-powered crew of Lancaster, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan.

Posted By Kirby Buckner : August 1, 2010 12:11 pm

Woody Strode was not a great actor, but a dynamic, compelling screen presence always worthy of attention. Wasn’t he the (dialogue-less) King of Abyssinia coming before Pharaoh (Cedric Hardwicke) and Prince Moses (Charlton Heston) in DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”? But he was best in those 60s westerns, like his role as the scout Jacob Sharp in 1966′s tough classic “The Professionals,” holding his own with a high-powered crew of Lancaster, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan.

Posted By Athur : August 1, 2010 12:34 pm

Thanks for that comprehensive look at Woody Strode. In the 10 Commandments he played both the King of Ethiopia and the charioteer for Moses’ Egyptian mother. And the role he played in Spartacus was historically accurate in all its specifics. I will go back and look for him in the bar scene in Stagecoach.

Posted By Athur : August 1, 2010 12:34 pm

Thanks for that comprehensive look at Woody Strode. In the 10 Commandments he played both the King of Ethiopia and the charioteer for Moses’ Egyptian mother. And the role he played in Spartacus was historically accurate in all its specifics. I will go back and look for him in the bar scene in Stagecoach.

Posted By douglassk : August 1, 2010 1:48 pm

One of Woody Strode’s best movies is the western “The Professionals,” with Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin, oft screened on TCM but not part of Strode Day. (Check out the beautiful Blu-ray.) The opening credits devised by writer-director Richard Brooks introduce Strode’s character ahead of Lancaster’s. Strode thought he’d really made it, to be billed above Burt Lancaster! He’s a supporting player, of course, but it’s interesting that his character’s race is mentioned once and only once in the movie. When rail tycoon J.W. Grant assembles the would-be mercenaries to rescue his kidnapped wife, he asks the other two (played by Marvin and Robert Ryan), “Any objection to working with a Negro?” Marvin gives a dismissive look (as if to say, “Jesus …”) and responds, “What’s the job?” It was a subtle way for Brooks, who supported the civil rights movement then raging in the U.S., to say race doesn’t matter, it’s whether you can do the work. Too bad Woody and many other actors of color in the movies back then didn’t get the chance to do the work more often. If he were making movies today, lean and mean Woody Strode would be a top action star.

Posted By douglassk : August 1, 2010 1:48 pm

One of Woody Strode’s best movies is the western “The Professionals,” with Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin, oft screened on TCM but not part of Strode Day. (Check out the beautiful Blu-ray.) The opening credits devised by writer-director Richard Brooks introduce Strode’s character ahead of Lancaster’s. Strode thought he’d really made it, to be billed above Burt Lancaster! He’s a supporting player, of course, but it’s interesting that his character’s race is mentioned once and only once in the movie. When rail tycoon J.W. Grant assembles the would-be mercenaries to rescue his kidnapped wife, he asks the other two (played by Marvin and Robert Ryan), “Any objection to working with a Negro?” Marvin gives a dismissive look (as if to say, “Jesus …”) and responds, “What’s the job?” It was a subtle way for Brooks, who supported the civil rights movement then raging in the U.S., to say race doesn’t matter, it’s whether you can do the work. Too bad Woody and many other actors of color in the movies back then didn’t get the chance to do the work more often. If he were making movies today, lean and mean Woody Strode would be a top action star.

Posted By susankay54 : August 2, 2010 2:17 pm

As a kid & a Native American, my parents always made us aware of the actors that were people of color, so we always knew who Woody Strode was, Dad would always pick him out in the movies we saw. He was great & his film presence was tangible, he was always a hero as were all the other unsung heroes of color in film pre-1970.

Posted By susankay54 : August 2, 2010 2:17 pm

As a kid & a Native American, my parents always made us aware of the actors that were people of color, so we always knew who Woody Strode was, Dad would always pick him out in the movies we saw. He was great & his film presence was tangible, he was always a hero as were all the other unsung heroes of color in film pre-1970.

Posted By Mack Lewis : August 3, 2010 11:54 am

THE PROFESSIONALS is one of my favorite movies in no small part to the awesomeness of Woody Strode. He’s a solid part of the team and a genuinely underrated actor. It makes me very happy to see him getting all this love from the Movie Morlocks.

Posted By Mack Lewis : August 3, 2010 11:54 am

THE PROFESSIONALS is one of my favorite movies in no small part to the awesomeness of Woody Strode. He’s a solid part of the team and a genuinely underrated actor. It makes me very happy to see him getting all this love from the Movie Morlocks.

Posted By Al Pearson : August 3, 2010 4:40 pm

Many thanks for the discussion of Woody Strode. It is true that he was not a great actor and even Ford could not make him a star. But the camera loves some actors more than others and Strode always commanded attention, even if he was not the primary focus of the scene. I first saw him in Pork Chop Hill and found his minor performance unforgettable. Sergeant Rutledge is a flawed film in some respects, but Strode’s courtroom performance is as powerful as anyone could hope for.

Posted By Al Pearson : August 3, 2010 4:40 pm

Many thanks for the discussion of Woody Strode. It is true that he was not a great actor and even Ford could not make him a star. But the camera loves some actors more than others and Strode always commanded attention, even if he was not the primary focus of the scene. I first saw him in Pork Chop Hill and found his minor performance unforgettable. Sergeant Rutledge is a flawed film in some respects, but Strode’s courtroom performance is as powerful as anyone could hope for.

Posted By Lloyd Atkinson : August 5, 2010 10:19 am

In addition to playing football with UCLA and the Los Angeles Rams, Woody Strode also played with the Calgary Stampeders of what is now the Canadian Football League in 1948 and 1949.He even took a fling a pro wrestling. He was a contemporary of baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson and lived through interesting times. If my memory is correct, I believe he was also knew and played with Robinson at UCLA.

Posted By Lloyd Atkinson : August 5, 2010 10:19 am

In addition to playing football with UCLA and the Los Angeles Rams, Woody Strode also played with the Calgary Stampeders of what is now the Canadian Football League in 1948 and 1949.He even took a fling a pro wrestling. He was a contemporary of baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson and lived through interesting times. If my memory is correct, I believe he was also knew and played with Robinson at UCLA.

Posted By Juana Maria : August 6, 2010 12:03 pm

The first movie I ever saw Woody Strode in was “Spartacus” and the next was “The Ten Commandments”. Later, I saw “Libert Valance” and “Once Upon a Time in the West”,”The Professionals”,”Two Rode Together”,”Posse”,”7 Women”,”Gengis Khan” and “Sgt. Rutledge”. A fine actor every film!

Posted By Juana Maria : August 6, 2010 12:03 pm

The first movie I ever saw Woody Strode in was “Spartacus” and the next was “The Ten Commandments”. Later, I saw “Libert Valance” and “Once Upon a Time in the West”,”The Professionals”,”Two Rode Together”,”Posse”,”7 Women”,”Gengis Khan” and “Sgt. Rutledge”. A fine actor every film!

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 9, 2010 1:52 pm

My vote as the all-time greatest score-(not to mention beginning) Ennio Morricoine’s “ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST” (l969) *OSCAR SHOULD BE ASHAMED, AGAIN!

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 9, 2010 1:52 pm

My vote as the all-time greatest score-(not to mention beginning) Ennio Morricoine’s “ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST” (l969) *OSCAR SHOULD BE ASHAMED, AGAIN!

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 9, 2010 1:54 pm

Longest beginning ever must go to “ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST” & grande finale “APOCALYPSE NOW”

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 9, 2010 1:54 pm

Longest beginning ever must go to “ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST” & grande finale “APOCALYPSE NOW”

Posted By A Shout Out to Movie Morlocks and SUTS! : August 10, 2010 2:04 am

[...] a week’s worth of blog posts to the life and work of often overlooked actors. This year it is Woody Strode’s [...]

Posted By A Shout Out to Movie Morlocks and SUTS! : August 10, 2010 2:04 am

[...] a week’s worth of blog posts to the life and work of often overlooked actors. This year it is Woody Strode’s [...]

Posted By Jim Beaver : September 27, 2018 1:07 pm

Nice piece, but that’s not a photo of Woody Strode in Stagecoach. Woody was only 24 when that was made. There’s a resemblance, but that’s not Strode.

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