Friday, 25 July 2014

Why Woody Strode Mattered

It was 100 years ago today that actor and athlete Woody Strode was born in Los Angeles, California. Mr. Strode was a deacathlete and one of the first African American players in the National Football League. Today he may be best known for his acting carer, which spanned from the Forties to the Nineties. Many of the roles Woody Strode played during his career were small, and the screen time of some of his best known roles is surprisingly short. Regardless, Woody Strode's acting career would prove important in the history of film. Quite simply alongside Paul Robeson and Sir Sidney Poitier, Woody Strode was one of the first African American actors to play roles that were not outright stereotypes.

Woody Strode made his film debut in an uncredited bit part in Sundown in 1941. He appeared in similar bit parts in Star Spangled Rhythm (1943) and No Time for Love (1943). It was not until the Fifties that his acting career really began to take off. Even then the roles tended to be small parts that capitalised on Mr. Strode's imposing appearance. For example he appeared as the King of Ethiopia in The Ten Commandments (1956). He appeared in more substantial roles on television in such shows as Ramar of the Jungle and Jungle Jim.

Fortunately as the Fifties progressed Woody Strode started to receive more substantial roles. In 1959 he appeared as the apprehensive Private Franklin in Pork Chop Hill. It was in 1960 that he appeared in two of his  most significant roles. In fact, the role of Draba in Spartacus may be the most famous role Mr. Strode ever played. Draba was the noble Ethiopian gladiator who must fight Spartacus to the death at the gladiatorial school. In the few minutes Woody Strode was on the screen he gave a very impressive performance. In fact, he was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for the role.

Woody Strode's other famous role from 1960 was the title role in Sergeant Rutledge. It would be the closest Mr. Strode would ever come to a lead role in a Hollywood film.  In the film Mr. Strode played a first sergeant in the U.S. Calvary who is accused of raping and murdering a woman. As the title character Woody Strode delivered a subtle, yet powerful performance. In fact, it could well have been the best performance of his career. Unfortunately, it would not get Woody Strode any lead roles in Hollywood. While he would play some major supporting roles in the Sixties, in no Hollywood film did he ever play the lead character.

Woody Strode's most significant performance in the Sixties may well be that of tough as nails bounty hunter Jake Sharp in The Professionals (1966). Jake is one of the main characters in the film, and Mr. Strode is impressive in the role.  Mr. Strode also played Pompey in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). To some degree Pompey seems like a stereotype. He is essentially the sidekick of John Wayne's Tom Doniphon, and he does appear subservient to Tom much of the time. At the same time, however, there is evidence that Pompey and Tom's relationship is more that of equals than it might appear. After all, it is Pompey who rescues Tom from being burned to death. Regardless, it was a very different sort of role for Woody Strode, and he played it well.

It was in the late Sixties that Woody Strode began appearing in Italian films in which he would have bigger roles than those he played in Hollywood. He was the lead in the 1968 crime drama Seduto alla sua destra (known in English as Black Jesus) and second billed in the 1969 spaghetti Western La collina degli stival (known in English as Boot Hill).  Ultimately Woody Strode would appear in several Italian films.

Of course, Woody Strode did not simply appear in films, but he made several guest appearances on television as well. One of the best performances of his career was in the Rawhide episode  ”Incident of the Buffalo Soldier", in which he played bitter Buffalo Soldier. Mr. Strode would guest star in several other TV shows, including Daniel Boone, Batman, Tarzan, and The Farmer's Daughter.

With the Seventies Mr. Strode continued to appear in action films, although he increasingly played character parts. He went onto appear in such films as Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), The Black Stallion Returns (1983), The Cotton Club (1984), and Storyville (1992). His last film was Sam Raimi's Western The Quick and the Dead in 1995.

While Woody Strode spent much of his career playing bit parts and he never played a lead role in a Hollywood film, he was still a pioneer among African American actors. In the Fifties, when many African American actors were still playing somewhat stereotypical house servants, Woody Strode was playing the King of Ethiopia, a gladiator in the Roman Republic, and  private in the United States Army. Very few of the roles played by Woody Strode could be considered stereotypes. In fact, more often than not Mr. Strode played intelligent, strong willed, independent characters. And while many of his appearance in films could be measured only in minutes, he was obviously a talented actor. Even when his character was only on screen for a few minutes, Woody Strode could develop a strong performance. In playing roles that were not stereotypes and giving good performances while doing so, Woody Strode helped break down barriers in Hollywood. Quite simply, it was Woody Strode who paved the way for such African American action heroes as Wesley Snipes, Ving Rhames, and Samuel L. Jackson.

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