Born July 28, 1914, in Los Angeles, California, Woody Strode (Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode) was first of the star football athletes to become a successful film actor. He and Kenny Washington integrated the National Football League (NFL), and Strode played for the Los Angeles Rams in 1946 before moving to the Canadian Football League in 1948. He also did professional wrestling and reportedly tussled with the renowned Gorgeous George.
Strode made a successful transition from sports hero to the movie screen, though Hollywood seemed more predisposed to his magnificent physique and gallant stride than his acting ability. Strode gave the Hollywood establishment what they demanded and appeared in some of the best and the worst of what they offered him. In director John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (1960), a western where he depicted a soldier on trial for two murders and the rape of a white woman, when Strode bared his chest to a white woman (actress Constance Towers), even the movie audiences gasped.
Strode is perhaps best remembered as the stoic slave gladiator in Spartacus (1960) who tells Kirk Douglas: “I don’t want to be your friend. I might have to kill you.” He appeared in any number of other films, among them The Ten Commandments (1956). He was the African antagonist in Tarzan Fights for Life (1958) and an Apache chief who took on Sean Connery in the western, Shalako (1968). Strode’s riveting presence among a trio of hired gunslingers waiting at the train station in the spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), is unforgettable.
Strode appeared in at least 90 films, from Sunrise in 1941 to his last, The Quick and the Dead, released in 1995. He was always magnificent with a no-nonsense style and quiet intellect that no athlete-turned actor has ever surpassed. Strode died of lung cancer in Los Angeles in 1994 at the age of 80.