(Los Angeles, California)
By Ken Mate
May 6, 1982
He has been a gladiator, a litter bearer, a GI Joe, a Mafia hitman a Mongul warlord (at least twice), a witch doctor and a hired gun. In his latest film The Return of the Black Stallion, due this spring, he plays an Arab chieftain. His favorite character and the way he prefers to think of himself, is a cowboy.
Character actors aren’t unusual in Hollywood, but Woody is. For one thing he is 6’5”, blue-eyed, bald-headed and black. And for another, Hollywood hasn’t seen him in a major role since The Professionals in 1968.
With more than 60 screen credits under his belt, Strode should be the dean of black actors in Hollywood. Unfortunately, his years here were cut short by a strange twist of fate The black revolution of the ‘60s left him high and dry when, in playing so many diverse character roles (he is half-Indian), he was no longer black enough for a new militancy. Forced into the colorblind world market, Strode became a star.
Strode didn’t set out to be a star or an actor at all. His life has been a series of happenstances, or, as he prefers to tell it, “No pushing or shoving – purely accidental.”
Born in Los Angeles on July 25, 1914, the son of a stone mason, Strode grew up in Westwood and attended UCLA on an athletic scholarship where he starred on the football team with Jackie Robinson.
Robinson was withdrawn, shy, perhaps a bit unfriendly. He “had a scar on him” from growing up in the South says Strode. “I grew up so far west, I didn’t even know I was colored.” There was a different kind of white man out here. ‘Can he run and jump? Well, put him in the University.’ That’s how the white man thought out here.
“They were buying a racehorse, man; they didn’t care what his color was.”
After a stint in World War II, Strode integrated the National Football League in 1947, the same year as his former teammate Robinson integrated professional baseball. Soft spoken and easy-going, inclined to roll with the punches, Strode was a good choice for pro football’s first black when the Los Angeles Rams picked him up.
Racism didn’t come from the players, Strode remembers, but from the coaches and the league itself. Strode found himself banned from the same hotels he had stayed in with the UCLA football and track teams a few years earlier. When the Rams travelled to New York to play, he was banished to Harlem.
“I said to the general manager, ‘how much money you giving me - $400 a week? Well, that’s great. I’ve never seen Harlem.’ Count Basie was playing in the cellar of the hotel where I was living and the white people were all there anyway.”
Growing up in Los Angeles where the black population was 40,000 in a city of three million, Woody realized that in Harlem, “I was going to see my people for the first time.
“Joe Louis was fighting for the championship, and I stood out on a street corner and watched blacks walking down the street celebrating. I had never seen so many. I thought, “I’m standing here I was white, looking at my own people. In awe.”
The Rams cut Strode after a year and he went to Canada where he played football with the Calgary Stampeders and wrestled professionally between games. In the off-season, he hunted game with a bow and arrow and lived on an Indian reservation. But four years in the North Country was enough, and Strode abandoned the rough and ready life to return home in Los Angeles – and Hollywood.
He started as a bit player, and fell victim of typecasting with a vengeance. In The Lion Hunters (1951) he played Bomba, the jungle boy; in Androcles and the Lion (1952) he played the lion. The titles speak for themselves: Demetrius and the Gladiators, Ramar of the Jungle, Tarzan’s Fight for Life.
Was he offended when they asked him to carry a spear in Tarzan?
“Not at $500 a week. It was like stealing money. The generation that I came out of – some of the greatest tackles that ever-played football – $125 a week, that’s all they made.
So, when the movies said, ‘Commere but we’ll have to shave your head.’ I said ‘You’ve got to be crazy/’
“’We’ll give you $500 a week.’
“I said, ‘What? Shave away.’ That was a lot of dough. When they found out I could ride a horse, I made a living.”
Then Cecil B. DeMille picked up Strode for The Ten Commandments. “He looked at me and saw somebody that was 1000 years old. I feel like that. Even though I have a college education, I’m closer to a primitive.”
Strode’s face bears out his claim. Powerful and muscled, Woody has what he calls “the look.” And it was “the look” that caught DeMille’s attention.
In The Ten Commandments, Strode played two roles: the more important king of Ethiopia for one week at $500 and Moses mother’s litter bearer for five weeks at the same price. At that time, acting for him was still a well-paying job, not a career. And if he could get two jobs out of the same picture, why, all the better.
But four years later, John Ford changed all that when he ran into Strode on a Hollywood backlot where they were both completing pictures. The two men knew each other because Strode, who married a Hawaiian princess on a football trip to the islands in the ‘30s, had known Ford’s adopted Hawaiian children at UCLA.
Well, I hear you’re trying to be an actor, Woody,” Strode’s voice drops an octave, loses its soft twang and becomes gruff and mock-menacing as he imitates the man known as “Poppa” Ford. “Nothing in this one, but I’ve got one I’m thinking of having you star in for me.”
Ford gave Strode his only American starring role in Sergeant Rutledge, a 1960 film about a black cavalry officer who abandons his troops when he is falsely accused of murder and rape of a white woman.
On the set, Strode received impromptu acting lessons from the great director. “John Ford played Sergeant Rutledges” says Woody as he describes how Ford would walk through each scene for him and how he “would just hang in there and listen,” ear close to Ford’s mouth.
“Boom, he’d step on my feet and shout ‘why don’t you listen to me.’
Finally, Constance Towers, who also played in the film, pulled the bewildered Strode aside and told him, “That old man will kill you, Woody. He’s playing your scene. You have to look at him.”
“Oh my God, I’m listening but I’m not looking.”
After Sergeant Rutledge was released Strode was riding high. But Ford himself pricked his fledgling star’s bubble. Referring not to Strode’s acting ability, but to the availability of starring roles for blacks in American movies, he told him. “Woody, I can make a character actor out of you, but I can’t make you a star.” And Ford did just that casting him in three more pictures including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where Strode played John Wayne’s sidekick.
As their professional relationship progressed, the two me got closer personally. Ford like him. Strode remembers, because he was “crude and naïve” with the director, and Strode for his part simply says, “Oh that old man. He was like a father to me. We had a love affair, him and me.”
When a bad fall left Ford’s shoulder in knots, he asked Woody to move into his Bel Air house for a week or so, hoping the former athlete could put him in shape. Strode stay for four monthd.
“He had a big library in his bedroom. I would sit there and read books with him every night. He would read two to my one. I talked to him about wrestling and a lot of tuff he never hard of, and he opened up my head by making me read those history books.
“I had to move out of there, though. He was getting old now and twilight was coming. I told my wife, Poppa will die and I’ll have a heart attack.’ Got too close.”
Strode returned only when the end was imminent. Six hours before Ford died, he resumed his customary spot across the foot of the bed and stayed with his friend until the end. “I toasted him with his sister and his son. We put the American flag across him, drank brandy and broke the glasses. I sat there two hours until the undertaker came to haul his body out and that’s when I said sayonara.”
Strode heeded well Ford’s advice to become a character actor, perhaps a bit too well. Throughout the ‘60s, he played a wide variety of roles and felt, he says, aa if he were finally establishing himself on the screen.
But then one of history’s little ironies upended him. The black revolution of the era came to Hollywood, and Strode, because of the latitude of his recent acting stints, was no longer black enough for the times. In 1965, Sam Peckinpah, scrutinizing Strode for a black role in Major Dundee, told him, “Woody, you’re not a Negro you’re a Mongolian.”
Strode was shattered. “I got ready to quit. There were no roles for me. It shot me out into limboland.”
He didn’t remain there for very long, though. In Spain in 1968, Strode was discovered by Italian filmmakers, just then embarking on a cycle of spaghetti westerns. To them, a black character actor, specializing in cowboy roles, was money in the bank.
Sergio Leone first cast Strode in his epic Once Upon a Time in the West and killed him off in the first ten minutes. But it was enough. Soon Strode was offered $50,000 a picture and then $150,000 – a far cry from the $1000 a week he had been earning in the United States.
He remained in Italy for five years, making 12 pictures and establishing himself as a star on the world market. Since then, he has headquartered in Southern California, in a modest ranch style house, halfway up a mountain overlooking Pasadena. He ventures forth to locales as diverse as Thailand and Spain, wherever there is work.
Even though he has spent 13 years working abroad, Strode, true to his nature, is not to quick to criticize the system that sent him there in the first place. Still, it rankles. “It’s getting better, he says of Hollywood. “I don’t want to hear that it hasn’t changed. The cast, the crew everything is integrated except except how to make a person out of minorities. If they set us in a scene, we have to snap our fingers or do something jive. I thank God I spent five years in Italy where I was either the good guy or the bad guy, and the color meant nothing. They knew how to treat me like a person.
At this year’s Telluride Film Festival, Strode was honored as a character actor. As he stood on the stage to receive his award, along with Elisha Cook, Jr. (the short gunsel in in many Bogart films.), Margaret Hamilton (the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz) and John Carradine, another member of the John Ford stock company, Strode asked himself, “What am I doing here? This is pure accident. They started out knowing they were going to be actors. Me. I just flipped a coin.”
Although he hopes Return of the Black Stallion will mark the revival of his American movie career, he doesn’t bank on it. After so many ups and downs, he regards film as not as a career to be planned and pursued step by step, but as a job of work, dictated by the vagaries of fate. “I;m going to work anywhere I can,” he says, “I never had a choice. And I never think about retiring. I’ve been like an outlaw making money, grabbing it where I can.”