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Woody Strode

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Strode (far right) with Ernest Borgnine and amigos in The

Robert Ryan went first, in 1973; Lee
Marvin followed some 14 years later. Now, within a month of Burt
Lancaster’s passing, the final member of the four-man team of Richard
Brooks’ classic 1967 western, The Professionals, has quietly
bid the silver screen farewell.

Most people, especially those under 30, will blink
and say “Who?” at the mention of the man’s name. Remind them of
the most famous gladiatorial combat ever filmed and, even if they
haven’t seen Spartacus, they know the scene. They will nod, impressed,
and say, “Oh, yeah. That guy.”

Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode was
born in Los Angeles in 1914. Though conscious of his Native American
heritage (one quarter Blackfoot, one eighth each Cherokee and Creek
-a “Negro-Indian breed”, to use his words), Strode knew that in
the eyes of white audiences he would always be “a colored boy.” Nevertheless,
his striking physiognomy, high-planed cheekbones and droop-lidded
eyes, worked to his advantage in Hollywood. As Strode put it, “because
of my nixed background I could play anyone from the third world,” and
he did (a Comanche in Two Rode Together, an Apache in Shalako,
a Chinese in 7 Women and a Mongol in Genghis Khan).

In viewing many of Strode’s films one feels a pang
of loss all too often. His was the part of the stalwart sidekick
or imposing secondary villain. He undoubtedly could have been,
at the very least, a lead character actor (picture him in any of
Boris Karloffs roles – Frankenstein’s monster!), if not a genuine
action hero. Watching him in his early roles, you get the feeling
a young Woody Strode could have unceremoniously knocked Wesley
Snipes, Patrick Swayze, Steven Seagal and company on their collective

Strode’s autobiography, “Gold Dust” (Madison, 1990),
is nearly 75% finished before its author gets around to discussing
his life in the film industry. No surprise. His highly distinguished
career began as a track-and-field and football star at UCLA, where
he competed against the likes of Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens.
Leni Riefenstahl called his “the greatest physique of any athlete
I have ever seen.” On the audio commentary on if the Criterion
laserdisc edition of Spartacus, Peter Ustinov describes
him as “frightfully athletic,” and notes that Strode was cast
as the gladiator in part because he could actually hurl the trident  in
the film’s climactic fight scene.

It was through his stint on the professional wrestling
circuit that Strode was first noticed and offered film parts. His
first real break came in 1956 as the King of Ethiopia in DeMille’s
remake of The Ten Commandments. Interestingly, Strode was
originally cast and has substantially more screen time as one of
Nina Foch’s palanquin-bearers, a part for which he receives no
on-screen credit.

In Lewis Milestone’s Korean war film, Pork Chop
(1959), Strode got his first chance to shine in a meaty
supporting role. The viewer’s initial impression of Strode’s
Private Franklin is that of a coward; this verges on unbelievability,
given Strode’s obvious virility and stature. But Strode was a
good enough actor to overcome the limitations of his outward

During the course of the battle, it becomes apparent
that Private Franklin is asking himself the timeless question asked
by all soldiers: is this foreign soil worth dying for? Private
Franklin’s commanding officer, played by Gregory Peck, shares these
doubts, as it turns out. However, the question acquires considerably
more weight coming from Strode’s character, who significantly points
out that he wouldn’t fight and die for what he has at home either.

Strode’s most significant actordirector collaboration
was with John Ford, with whom he made four films and whose close
friend he remained until the director’s death in 1973. The best
of these was their first picture together, Sergeant Rutledge (1960).
The film’s timeliness with regard to the Civil Rights movement
is striking: in the title role, Strode plays a black soldier on
trial for the murder of a white man and his daughter. Though he
only received fifth billing (?!), Strode was unquestionably the
lead. His performance is real, electric. (He would later refer
to this scene as “the most emotional moment in my acting career.”)

He would only play one other lead role in his life,
in Seated at His Right, Italy’s Cannes entry for 1968. In
the early seventies, during the height of the blaxploitation trend,
the film was finally released in this country under the evocative
title Black Jesus (it is currently unavailable on home video).

Strode was a star in Italy, where he lived between
1969 and 1973. Though well into middle-age in films like Once
Upon a Time in the West
(1968) and The Deserter (1971),
Strode still looks extraordinarily vital, fitter than most men
half his age. Even in his later films, like Vigilante (1982)
and Jungle Warriors (1984), the 70 year-old Strode looks
like he could believably and seriously kick your ass. Only toward
the end, in Storyville (1992) and Posse (1993), does
he appear sufficiently aged to play old men. His final film, Sam
Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead, opened in February.

Strode’s attitude toward his craft was characteristically
modest: “I was strictly a mechanic. They told me what to do; I
did it, took the money and got out of there.”

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