Posted by keelsetter on August 1, 2010
August marks TCM‘s annual Summer Under the Stars festival, and the Morlock’s have been given their marching orders: pick one overlooked star deserving of a week-long tribute. In 2008 it was Fred MacMurray. In 2009 it was Gloria Grahame. This year it’s Woody Strode (1914 – 1994). Strode was an athlete who turned to acting. He also broke several color barriers. First as one of four blacks who, in 1946, integrated major league pro football and, later, as a prolific actor whose first big break was in the title role of Sergeant Rutledge (1960) – which was released the same year as another memorable role for him in Spartacus. Another barrier he broke had nothing to do with the color of his skin as he was, according to Todd von Hoffman (co-author of The von Hoffman Bros.’ Big Damn Book of Sheer Manliness), “Simply one of the most ridiculously perfect human specimens to ever walk the Earth.”
His job in front of the camera started with John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), where he was an uncredited man at the saloon. (He went on to became one of Ford’s best friends.) His last acting stint was on Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995), for a small part as Charles Moonlight, an undertaker. His name is sandwiched during opening credits between Raynor Scheine and Jerry Swindall. It would have been nice if Strode’s name had had the screen to itself – especially as he died two months before the films release on the last day of December in 1994. The filmmakers had the good sense to give him a dedication in the end credits, but that’s common practice. It would have been much classier to have given his name some elbow room there at the start; especially since he’d spent so much time in the trenches fighting his way up from uncredited roles and onward – not to mention his significant contributions to the western genre.
Strode married Princess Luukialuana Kalaeloa (from Hawaii, and later known as Luana Strode) in Las Vegas in 1940. Strode’s interracial marriage is considered by many as being the reason why he was let go from the Rams while he was still in his prime and in his early 30′s. The racial prejudice of that time was such that “Luana, who had not encountered racial prejudice in Hawaii, was so angry at the racial slurs shouted at her husband during a game that she punched a heckler in the face.” (Lorriane LoBianco, TCM post: http://www.tcm.com/thismonth/article/?cid=333896) I’m a pacifist and hate violence, but that little tidbit still makes me want to let out a cheer of some sort.
Almost 20 years after Stage Coach, Ford gave Strode a big break on Sergeant Rutledge, but it came with a passage of ritual used through the movie-making ages, one that involves genuinely stressing the actor. It’s not method acting, because in that case the actors know what they are doing and try to fully inhabit the character. No… this is a case of the actors being oblivious to the director’s intention and, instead, simply getting genuinely stressed for the sake of authenticity. Think Shelley Duvall in The Shining, or just about anyone in a William Friedkin film. In Sergeant Rutledge it involved Ford pulling an elaborate scheme that involved convincing Strode that a climactic scene was not going to be filmed the next day as originally planned. So, instead, Strode was given a big party, with lots of booze, and then that next ugly morning informed that, SORRY, the big scene is – in fact – going to happen AS planned, and RIGHT NOW. Thus Strode was left to face the glaring lights of the big scene while hung-over. “Strode’s anguish was genuine.” (LoBianco)
Strode put in his dues – and then some. He had to fight harder than others for less, but he enjoyed huge triumphs along the way. From blink-and-you-miss it uncredited roles to the hero of Black Jesus (1968) and beyond, Strode managed to work his way from the margins of cinema, to the center, and everywhere inbetween. My fellow Morlocks are ready to delve into any and every aspects of Strode’s career because, to paraphrase the dedication at the end of The Quick and the Dead; This week is dedicated to the memory of WOODY STRODE.
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