Posted by medusamorlock on August 7, 2010
I hope you’ve all gained as much respect and admiration for actor Woody Strode as I have after reading all the great posts this week, and after watching Strode in action. Jeff referred to himself as the “loose caboose” in our Woody Strode blogathon, but I may be an even looser one. Because I’m a particular devotee of TV, I wanted to take a look at what Woody had done in television, a medium that is often and usually less forward-thinking than the movies (possible less so today, believe it or not, I think, more because movies are so timid, not because TV is so bold). Back in the 1950s when Strode began his acting career in earnest, America was still uneasy with mainstream black performers, even ones who had risen from the most egalitarian and open of playing fields, which happened to be the actual playing fields of sports, where Strode had made a name as one of the best college football players around and was recruited for the world-famous Los Angeles Rams team. Clearly his impressive physicality, gridiron fame and extraordinary good looks made him an easy candidate for Hollywood talent scouts, but the color of his skin sometimes limited the kinds of roles offered to him.
Hollywood (and audiences) still loved jungle movies and felt no qualms about putting potentially amazing black actors into flamboyant feather headresses and loinclothes to play native citizens, and Woody Strode was no exception. After a couple of appearances in jungle movies for the big screen, Strode made his first reported TV appearance in a 1952 episode of the Brian Donlevy secret agent series Dangerous Assignment, as a character named Mongo in a story about rival African witch doctors. At least it was a credit, it was a job, it was experience. The next year he made three episodes of the jungle-set adventure melodrama Ramar of the Jungle, starring Jon Hall as a good-guy scientist/explorer whose African nickname was Ramar. Woody looked great in the costumes, no doubt about that, and he was given — within the range of stereotypical roles you’d expect from the time and in a show like that — some meaty parts. “Voice of the Past” is about an explorer who murders his wife by throwing her into the poisonous “Devil Bush” and thinks he’s gotten away with it, until the local tribespeople, who really liked his wife and the help she gave to their village, want the jungle to gets its revenge on him. Strode is dignified and very convincing as Na-Hoo, one of the tribal leaders who patiently explains the laws of jungle justice to Ramar and his party. You can watch the episode here. In “King of the Watus” Strode plays Chief Naruma, the deposed village leader pushed out of power by a drug-injecting fortune-seeking explorer who set himself up as the new ruler. Strode is again magnificent-looking and articulate (within the confines of a limited part) as Naruma. You can watch this episode here. (He did one more episode entitled “Thunder over Sangoland” — about oil businessmen trying to cheat the natives out of their resource — which I couldn’t track down.)
In 1954 Woody had a potentially very big break when he was cast as Lothar, the African prince who assisted the mysterious crime-fighting Mandrake the Magician in a television pilot for a possible series. Starring actor Coe Norton as Mandrake, with Lisa Howard (the actress who later became a pioneer female TV newsperson) as Princess Narda, Mandrake’s girlfriend and fellow crimefighter, the pilot never made it to series. Unfortunate, as it could have concievably turned into a successful TV franchise like Superman, but maybe okay in that it might also have closed off future acting legitimacy for Strode. He doesn’t have a lot to do in the pilot, but he again looks every bit a prince and is his own man here, actively helping to solve the crime and also getting an action scene where he chases a bad guy into the surf, wrestles with him, and then takes him down with an impressive running tackle. You can watch the Mandrake the Magician pilot here, just look for the title and click. Below is a wonderful article, used here with many thanks to Flickr user Vieilles Annonces, from a magazine of the time, with a great spread about Woody and his role in Mandrake the Magician.
By 1955 Woody had racked up several more big-screen appearances, if not always credits — he didn’t always get his name onscreen — in movies like Demetrius and the Gladiators and The Silver Chalice — and also guest-starred in an episode of the syndicated action-adventure series Soldiers of Fortune, starring John Russell and Chick Chandler as two-fisted mercenaries who went wherever money and brawls were to be found. Woody played “Gulio” in a segment called “Drums of Far Island” about an outbreak of voodoo in the Virgin Islands. He also appeared in Johnny Weismuller’s TV series version of his movie character Jungle Jim, in an episode called “The Leopard’s Paw” as Chief Zanguna, the father of a boy who must endure a manhood by trial contest versus a leopard.
The next few years brought more prestigious film assignments — The Ten Commandments, The Buccaneer, Pork Chop Hill — and early in 1960 a guest role on the Wild West-set private eye series The Man from Blackhawk, starring Robert Rockwell (Our Miss Brooks) as a sleuthing insurance investigator. The episode was called “The Savage” and Woody played a character named Tego. Woody then embarked on a string of incredible film roles, including Spartacus and Sergeant Rutledge, but also guest-starred in two third season episodes of the incredibly popular TV Western Rawhide, starring Clint Eastwood and Eric Fleming. In January of 1961 Strode played Sgt. Gabe Washington in ”Incident of the Buffalo Soldier,” a searing episode about a bitter and distrustful soldier in that unique all-black corps who runs into cowhand Rowdy Yates (Eastwood) and becomes entangled in a life-or-death situation with him. Woody gives a powerful and unsparing performance as Washington, with trenchant observations about society delivered sincerely and effectively. He also handles the many action scenes with vigor and obvious experience, and this episode is a stand-out for Strode. You can watch “Incident of the Buffalo Soldier” on YouTube in five parts beginning here, and it is well worth the time. Later that same season Woody was back, this time playing Binnaburra, a scout accompanying a rancher headed to Australia with 200 head of cattle who meets up with Yates and company in “Incident of the Boomerang,” his weapon of choice coming in mighty handy when they are set upon by Comanches. (Rawhide is out on DVD, at least these two episodes are, so if you are interested, please seek them out.)
While still continuing his film career, in 1964 Woody Strode appeared in an episode of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s military-set drama The Lieutenant, starring Gary Lockwood and Robert Vaughn. “To Set It Right” was the story of the troubles encountered by a black recruit, played by Don Marshall; Strode played military officer Holt, and also of interest is the appearance of future Lt. Uhura Nichelle Nichols as Marshall’s girlfriend. There’s a short segment of it on YouTube and Woody can be glimpsed towards the end of the clip. That same year he also appeared in the episode “My Son, The Athlete” of the sitcom The Farmer’s Daughter, starring William Windom and Inger Stevens, based on the 1947 movie.
In 1966 Woody made a charismatic appearance on NBC’s frontier hit Daniel Boone, in a partially light-hearted episode entitled “Goliath” guest-starring show biz veteran Jack Oakie as bumbler Otis Cobb who ends up buying Woody – as the title character, heroically-strong slave Goliath — and finds that he has really gained a friend. Strode’s character is solemn, thoughtful, good-natured and strong as hell, and is given the opportunity in the episode to make several statements about the nature of his slavery and to allow others, including series star Fess Parker himself, to also make some very serious and heartfelt declarations on the equality of all men. Goliath strikes up a wonderful friendship with Boone’s son Israel (Darby Hinton), and has a nice scene at the Boone’s dinner table where he makes a generous offer to help Cobb. Strode also gets to show off his muscles in an exciting and frankly rather brutal wrestling match with a strongman played by Cal Bolder, brawny former C.H.P. officer-turned-actor. The whole episode is available on YouTube beginning here, and I also recommend it if you like mid-60s television, and it’s very colorful, too. Not a bad showing for Woody Strode, and he comes across as very personable and he’s definitely the focus of the episode, except for Jack Oakie’s comic mugging.
In 1966 Woody found himself cast as Grand Mogul in a two-part Batman adventure starring the alluring Carolyn Jones as glittering villainess Marsha, Queen of Diamonds. Strode mainly carried out Marsha’s evil plans, was Best Man at Batman’s coerced marriage to Marsha — to save Robin The Boy Wonder’s life — and also got into some mano-a-mano action with the Caped Crusader. Not much dialogue for him at all, which was a shame. The two parts are available on YouTube starting here. Beginning the same year, TV’s Tarzan, starring statuesque Ron Ely in the title role, afforded Woody seven appearances over the series’ two seasons, including a pair of two-parters which were turned into theatrical features. “The Perils of Charity Jones” featured acclaimed actress Julie Harris as a missionary trying to get a church organ to a native village, and “The Deadly Silence” had Tarzan deafened by a hand grenade and battling baddies. We’ve got a trailer for “The Deadly Silence” movie version here:
During the 1970s Woody Strode appeared in a mixture of theatrical films and several TV movies and episodes, including the prison escape caper Breakout from 1970, co-starring James Drury and Red Buttons, the 1973 Stephen Boyd-starring crime drama Key West, as Boyd’s partner in a boat business, and in 1975 an episode of the Depression-era private eye drama Manhunter starring Ken Howard. Though Westerns were more-or-less out of style on TV, in 1976 Woody landed a two-parter on the Kurt Russell/Tim Matheson series The Quest, an attempt to get some younger viewers with hunky more youthful actors. He also played an Arapaho Chief on the James Arness headlined miniseries How The West Was Won in 1977. Woody also landed the role of Shaker Thompson in The Outside Man, a pilot starring Ron Liebman as federal undercover agent named Martinelli. Woody would have been the second lead in the series but it didn’t get picked up.
Of goofier note is Strode’s 1979 appearance in the “Return of the Fighting 69th” episode of the lightweight science fiction adventure series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, starring Gil Gerard. Strode played Sgt. “Big Red” MacMurthy, member of an aging squadron of outer space fighter jocks, headed by Peter Graves, who are called back into service for one last grand mission. Strode doesn’t get many lines, but he’s convincing, charming and looks terrific in his space duds. (Available on Instant View on Netflix, btw.) A year later he’d make a much sillier appearance in the Christmas 1980 episode of The Dukes of Hazzard, called “The Great Santa Claus Chase,” playing one of a trio of bank robbers who dress up like Santa, rob Boss Hogg, and get mixed up in purlioned Christmas tree shenanigans. Few lines, great red outfit, big long white beard for Woody in this one.
In 1981 Woody was a guest star on ABC’s Fantasy Island in an episode where he was an accomplice in a lonely doctor’s scheme to raise the dead, in 1987 he appeared in a TV Movie called On Fire, and in 1987 he made his final television appearance in an adaptation of the Ernest J. Gaines novel A Gathering of Old Men, co-starring Lou Gossett Jr., Richard Widmark, Holly Hunter, Will Patton, Joe Seneca, Tiger Haynes, Papa John Creach, Julius Harris and other wonderful actors and actresses. The story — in rural Louisianna of 1970 or so, a belligerent Cajun man is killed in the yard of a black man. A young woman puts the call out for all the old men to come, with their shotguns, and they make a stand in front of the bigoted lawman who is investigating. They all claim to have killed the man — it’s their “I’m Spartacus!” moment — and the so story unfolds. I won’t spoil it in case you haven’t seen it, and it definitely is worth watching. It’s available on Instant View on Netflix, if you want to seek it out. Woody plays Yank, who comes along in his hunting gear and has some great speeches and wonderful scenes that Strode performs with his customary skill and grace.
A Gathering of Old Men was Woody Strode’s last made-for-television appearance, and he died in 1994. What you get after watching Strode, even in minor roles, is an appreciation for how good he was, and how good he could be when given a chance. There are equal parts of fire and cool in his performances, a magnificent sense of self-confidence and righteousness, and we only wish that we had more of him to watch. Woody Strode grows on you, he certainly does.
I’ll leave you with an assortment of Woody Strode images from his TV work, ones I could find or make, anyway. I think you’ll enjoy them. I’d also like to recommend this recent newspaper article from The Honolulu Advertiser newspaper, which tells of the reunion between Woody’s son Kalaeloa and the son of one of Woody’s football UCLA teammates. It’s remarkable in many ways, first as a charming reunion story and also for lots of wonderful information about Woody’s time in Hollywood. You will enjoy reading it. Kalaeloa is running for political office in Hawaii, btw. You should also check out the YouTube channel started by Woody’s two other children, where they have posted a documentary and other material relating to their father. Highly recommended.
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