A professional football player and actor, Woody Strode was born on July 28 (some sources say July 25), 1914, in Los Angeles, California. Along with his friend and teammate Kenny Washington, Strode integrated the National Football League in 1946. In the 1950s, Strode's focus switched to acting; he went on to work with John Wayne, John Ford, Kirk Douglas and other Hollywood luminaries. Strode died on December 31, 1994.
Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode was born on July 28 (some sources say July 25), 1914, in Los Angeles, California. His father, a bricklayer, had Creek, Blackfoot and African-American heritage; his mother was part Cherokee, and also the daughter of a former slave.
Woody Strode attended Jefferson High School, where he was more focused on sports than on studying. In 1936—after improving his academic record—he landed a football scholarship for the University of California, Los Angeles. Strode became a star at UCLA, joining forces with Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson on the school's successful football team. He also developed into a noted decathlete.
In 1940, Strode left UCLA. That same year, he married Hawaiian princess Luukialuana "Luana" Kalaeloa. Strode began playing football for the Hollywood Bears, then put his career on hold to join the Army Air Corps during World War II. Part of his military service included playing football.
Professional Sports Career
Following the war's conclusion, Strode continued his football career. With Washington, his close friend and former college teammate, he signed on with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. Strode and Washington were the two first African Americans to play in the National Football League since 1934.
However, neither the league nor its fans were ready to fully accept integration, and many looked down upon Strode's "mixed" marriage. Strode repeatedly fended off verbal attacks; at one point, his wife punched a heckler. Later, Strode looked back at his pioneering days in the NFL with bitterness. "Integrating the NFL was the low point of my life," he told Sports Illustrated. "There was nothing nice about it."
After one season with the Rams, Strode moved north to play with the Canadian Football League's Calgary Stampeders. Following his retirement from football, Strode continued his sports career as a professional wrestler, facing opponents like Gorgeous George and Barone Leone.
Strode's first exposure to the movie business had been in college, when he had worked as a porter on the Warner Brothers lot, assisting stars like Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. Strode made his initial film appearance in 1941's Sundown, but it was not until the 1950s that he began to focus on acting. While still working as a wrestler, Strode appeared on television in Ramar of the Jungle. He then landed small parts in films such as The Ten Commandments (1956) and Tarzan's Fight for Life (1958).
A breakthrough came when Strode caught the attention of famed director John Ford, who cast him in the title role in Sergeant Rutledge (1960). The movie tells the tale of a cavalry officer who has been charged with rape and murder, crimes he did not commit. Ford and Strode became friends and worked together on several other films, including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), which starred John Wayne.
Strode's other notable roles included portraying a Roman gladiator in Spartacus (1960), directed by Stanley Kubrick. Strode also appeared in movies such as Tarzan's Three Challenges (1963), Genghis Khan (1965) and The Professionals (1966).
When his American job offers began to dry up, Strode found work in the European film industry, making movies like Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Black Jesus (1968). In 1980, Strode lost his first wife—with whom he had two children—to Parkinson's disease. He remarried two years later.
Strode continued to act even as he grew older. His last film was The Quick and the Dead (1995), starring Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman. At the age of 80, he passed away from lung cancer in Glendora, California, on December 31, 1994.
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