Strode, Woodrow Wilson Woolwine (“Woody”)
Strode, Woodrow Wilson Woolwine (“Woody”)
(b. 28 July 1914 in Los Angeles, California; d. 31 December 1994 in Glendora, California), athlete who broke the color barrier in professional football in 1946 (a year before Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball) and is regarded as having the first dignified role for a black actor in a feature motion picture.
Strode was one of two sons of Baylous Strode, Sr., a brick mason, and Rose Norris Strode, a homemaker; Baylous Jr. was the couple’s only other child. Strode was tall and thin as a youngster, and his athletic ability did not materialize until he reached junior high school. After a growth spurt, he developed into a fine all-around athlete, earning all-city honors in football and all-state recognition in track and field at Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles. His athletic ability interested several major colleges on the West Coast. He chose the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), at the time a relatively young institution that had recently moved to a new campus in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. In going to college, Strode fulfilled his father’s wish that he “get an education.”
During the late 1930s Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington, also black athletes, were the bright stars on the UCLA gridiron, but Strode was also outstanding. It was at this time that Strode prepared for the decathlon (a ten-event track and field sport) in the 1936 Olympic trials.
Because of his muscular physique, Strode was asked to pose for an art class. He also caught the attention of the acclaimed German cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl, who took several still photographs of Strode and had him pose for a sculptor. The Nazi leader Adolf Hitler saw the photographs and sent Riefenstahl to America to film Strode. A painting of Strode was used, ironically—given Hitler’s thoughts on Aryan supremacy—as part of the Berlin Olympic Festival in 1936.
When Strode finished his schooling at UCLA, the National Football League (NFL) was still an all-white organization. Blacks had no opportunity to play in the nation’s only major professional football league. However, Strode and Washington did play with the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast League, a minor league, and they actually earned more money than many NFL players.
During the late 1930s Strode and his UCLA teammate Washington began working in the service department at Warner Brothers Studio. After he left UCLA, Strode’s contacts at Warner Brothers allowed him to secure small roles in motion pictures, including Sundown (1941), Star-Spangled Rhythm (1942), and No Time for Lave (1943). But Strode was mainly an athlete during this time. When not playing football, he trained as a wrestler and won several professional matches. In 1941 he married Luana Kalaeloa, a Hawaiian princess. They later had two children: a son, Kalaeloa (known as Kalai), and a daughter, June.
When World War II broke out, Strode joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was stationed at March Field in Riverside, California, where he was a member of one of the top service football teams, the Fourth Air Corps Flyers. Commenting on Strode, Paul Stenn (“Stenko”), a ten-year NFL player, recalled, “I played along side of him—and he was good. I had played pro football and I can tell you Woody Strode was as good as the NFL players. He just needed a chance to prove it.”
Strode got that chance after the war. When the Cleveland Rams moved their franchise to Los Angeles in 1946, they became the first major league team to play on the West Coast. The Rams wanted to play in Memorial Coliseum, a 100,000-seat stadium. Leaders of the black community reasoned that if the team was going to play in a public facility, then all Americans should be entitled to play on the team. Pressure was brought to bear, and in the spring of 1946 Strode and Washington signed on with the Rams, becoming the first blacks to play in the NFL since the league’s pioneering days in the 1920s. Unfortunately, both Strode, then age thirty-two, and Washington, then twenty-nine, were past their athletic prime. Underutilized by the Rams, Strode caught only four passes for thirty-seven yards and was waived at the end of the 1946 season.
The next season, Strode signed with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. Age and football injuries caught up with him by 1950, and Strode returned to the United States to pursue a professional wrestling career in Los Angeles. The “movie crowd” often attended the wrestling matches, and this led to Strode’s full-time acting career. A talent agent signed him, and he appeared in several movies that today would be known as “action” films. Strode often played the role of a gladiator or jungle warrior. He gained notoriety as a gladiator in the 1960 epic film Spartacus. That same year Strode starred in the title role of Sergeant Rutledge, a part that many consider to be the first dignified black character in American cinema. Strode continued to land meaningful roles throughout the 1960s and made films in Italy in the 1970s. He also made regular television appearances, ranging from a starring role in Ramar of the Jungle to a part in The Quest.
One of Strode’s last major roles was in the 1984 film The Cotton Club. After he did several other feature films and a television movie (A Gathering of Old Men, 1987), Strode retired to a ranch in Glendora, California, with his second wife, Tina (Strode remarried on 10 May 1982 after Luana’s death in 1980 from Parkinson’s disease). Strode died on New Year’s Eve, 1994, in Glendora of natural causes about a year after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was buried with full military honors in Riverside National Cemetery in California.
Strode was a versatile athlete who made his mark in the world of sports, but he is best remembered as one of the first blacks to integrate the modern NFL. He also left an important legacy of more than fifty feature films. His many significant roles opened the door for other black actors to follow—much like his role as a black pioneer in professional football led the way for future black athletes.
For information about Strode’s athletic career see: Frank Cosentino, Canadian Football (1969); Myron Cope, The Game ThatWas (1970); Arthur R. Ashe, Jr., A Hard Road to Glory (1988); and Woody Strode, with Sam Young, Goal Dust (1990). An obituary is in the New York Times (4 Jan. 1995).