Bald, Bold & Bad Ass – Remembering Woody Strode (1914 – 1994)

Posted in Remember by - August 08, 2014
Bald, Bold & Bad Ass – Remembering Woody Strode (1914 – 1994)

6’4” athlete turned actor Woody Strode, brought his muscular, powerful presence to everything from big budget Hollywood productions to cheap, lesser-known exploitation fare. He was also notable as being the first African-American to play a heroic lead in a big-scale Hollywood western.

Born in California on July 25, 1914, Woody’s screen career began with minor parts in the Gene Tierney western ‘Sundown’ (’41) and the romantic comedy ‘No Time for Love’ (’43). After playing the lion in the Jean Simmons picture ‘Androcles and the Lion’ (’52), he was the king of Ethiopia in Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘The Ten Commandments’ (’56), and then a cowardly private in the Gregory Peck war drama ‘Pork Chop Hill’ (’59). Strode’s big break would come though, through his association with legendary director John Ford.

Strode had begun his association with Ford back in 1939, with an uncredited role in his classic western ‘Stagecoach’. They reunited 20 years later when he played the title role in Ford’s rather neglected 1960 western ‘Sergeant Rutledge’, as a black Cavalry officer unfairly tried for the rape and murder of a white women and her father. Giving a strong dignified performance, it remains one of Strode’s best loved roles. He was also memorable that year in the role of Draba, a towering gladiator defeating Kirk Douglas, in ‘Spartacus’. After playing an Indian in John Ford’s ‘Two Rode Together’ (’61), Woody was John Wayne’s servant in Ford’s ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (’62). There was tension on set between Strode and Wayne, and the two nearly came to blows, forcing Ford to keep them apart for a few days. It was said that Wayne was jealous of Woody’s football achievements and military career, as Wayne had not served in WWII, even though he wished to and would feel guilty about this the rest of his life. The final film Woody made with Ford was the 1966 missionary drama ‘7 Women’, starring Anne Bancroft and Sue Lyon.

I loved Woody’s strong turn as Jake the longbow expert, in Richard Brooks’ superb all-star adventure ‘The Professionals’ (’66), and it remains one of his best roles. He followed that up with a cameo in Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (’68), playing Stony, one of Henry Fonda’s heavies. Another western came in 1972 with ‘The Revengers’, a pretty dire effort with a great cast; William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and, in her final film, Susan Hayward. By now Woody was living in Rome, and had already begun appearing in Italian exploitation actioners, earning far more than he did in the US. He made a couple of pictures with Fernando Di Leo; ‘Manhunt in Milan’ (’72), as a hit man, and ‘Loaded Guns’ (’75), with an often naked Ursula Andress. After playing an alcoholic rancher in Enzo G. Castellari’s cult western ‘Keoma’ (’76), Strode supported William Shatner in the enjoyable sci-fi horror ‘Kingdom of the Spiders’ (’77), playing another rancher whose prize calf is killed by a mysterious spider venom. Now aged 65, and still in great shape, Strode had some decent fight scenes in ‘Jaguar Lives!’ (’79), a mediocre actioner with a cast of ex-Bond villains; Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance and Joseph Wiseman.

Back on the grimy exploitation scene, Woody appeared in William Lustig’s gritty revenge flick ‘Vigilante’ (’83), and then chewed the scenery as an ex-lawman and mentor, in ‘The Final Executioner’ (’84), one of the poorer Italian post-apocalyptic drama’s. After playing a sleaze-ball in the Sybil Danning kidnap drama ‘Jungle Warriors’ (’84), Woody was thankfully back in an A-list production, Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Cotton Club’ (’84), though it was only a small role as the club’s doorman. A good minor role came in 1987 when he played Yank, a WWII veteran, in Volker Schlöndorff’s wonderful television movie ‘A Gathering of Old Men’, starring Holly Hunter and Richard Widmark.

Back in western territory, Strode’s’ final two movies were ‘Posse’ (’93), as the narrator, and Sam Raimi’s ‘The Quick and the Dead’ (’95), starring Sharon Stone, although it was not released until after his death.

Twice married, Woody died from lung cancer on New Years Eve 1994, aged 80. A quiet- spoken and gentle giant, Woody Strode was an optimistic and honest man who certainly lived life to the full, refusing to give in to old age. Whether playing the quiet hero or murderous mob boss, he remains a role model and cult figure in not only the US but across the globe.

Favourite Film: The Professionals
Favourite Performance: The Professionals

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