In conjunction with Black History Month, RETROactive profiles Woody Strode, a pioneering African American player with the Calgary Stampeders who went on to a remarkable career in Hollywood.
The arrival of Herb Trawick to the Montreal Alouettes in 1946 signalled the beginning of African Americans playing in the Canadian Football League (CFL), expanding the talent pool of athletes available for Canada’s professional teams. The first African Americans to play in Alberta were Charles Clay (Chuck) Anderson and Woody Strode who joined the Calgary Stampeders for the 1948 season. Although Strode only played with Calgary for two seasons, he made a lasting contribution to the lore of Grey Cup festivities that are now considered to be Canada’s premier sporting event.
Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode, whose ancestors had intermarried with Creek (Muscogee), Cherokee and Blackfoot Native Americans, was born 25 July 1914 in Los Angeles. He studied at the University of California, Los Angeles where he had a stellar record as a decathlete and football player. Part time jobs with Hollywood film studios led to several uncredited film appearances and foreshadowed his future career. During the Second World War, Strode served with the Fourth Air Force at March Field, California as well as in Guam. After the war, he played with the semi-professional Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast Professional Football League and was part of the initial cohort of African Americans who broke the colour barrier in the National Football League (NFL). During 1946, Kenny Washington and Strode signed with the Los Angeles Rams, while Marion Motley and Bill Willis signed with the Cleveland Browns.
In 1948, after just a single season with the Rams, Strode was lured by playing-coach Les Lear to the Calgary Stampeders, along with Charles Clay (Chuck) Anderson. Lear was a US born, Canadian raised NFL player who brought his experience and a number of American players in tow to Calgary where he led the Stampeders to a perfect 12-0 record, an undefeated two game western final, and the team’s first appearance in a Grey Cup final, where they defeated the Ottawa Roughriders by a score of 12 to 7. It is heralded as the best season in the team’s history and a feat which has never again been repeated in the CFL.
The 1948 Grey Cup was played in Toronto’s Varsity Stadium. During the fourth quarter, Strode recovered a Roughrider fumble and ran the ball back to Ottawa’s eleven yard line, setting up Pete Todos’ game winning touchdown. Calgary’s appearance in Toronto, with thousands of ardent supporters and a contingent of horses and chuck wagons, established the current day tradition of the Grey Cup game as Canada’s premier sporting event. The entry of a mounted Calgary reveller into the York Hotel’s lobby during post game festivities is legendary, although lacking in definitive documentation. Strode takes credit for the famous incident, describing the stunt in vivid detail in his memoirs:
“That night we partied in the Royal York Hotel, the best hotel in the city. I met an Indian friend out front, and he let me borrow his horse, a pure white multi-breed. I saddled up and walked that horse right up to the front entrance. The doorman watched me coming, frozen in his boots. My Indian friend held the door for me as I moved inside…I walked that horse right through the crowd. I was wearing a white linen cowboy-type suit, reddish lizard-skin boots, and a navy blue silk scarf around my neck. I held the reins and my rye whisky in my left hand, my white ten-gallon hat in my right. I walked to the center of the lobby and pulled back on the reins. I kicked that horse hard and he reared up and spun around. I leaned way back in the saddle, looked up towards the ceiling and let out a war cry. The place erupted in applause and shouting. And when the police showed up, I sliced through them like cutting a cake as I charged out of there.”
The following season saw the Stampeders return to the Grey Cup final after a 13-1 season, only to lose to the Montreal Alouettes by a score of 28-15, again at Varsity Stadium. Calgary would not win the Grey Cup again for another 23 years, in 1971. Strode suffered a career ending injury during the 1949 season, leading him to retire from football, but not before developing what he felt was a special and mutually respectful relationship with Alberta’s Blackfoot people, which carried on into his career as a professional wrestler.
Increasingly, Strode turned his attention to acting, becoming a journeyman character actor and one of the most recognized black actors of his generation in American and European cinema. During an acting career that spanned more than fifty years, Strode worked with such renowned directors as Richard Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, Cecile B. Demille, Edward Dmytryk, Richard Fleisher, John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone and many others. He appeared in more than 100 film and television productions. His depiction of Draba, the Ethiopian gladiator in Kubrick’s Spartacus earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Legendary director John Ford developed a strong relationship with Strode and cast him in five of his films. Although previously appearing most often as a general purpose character actor for exotic multicultural characters, Ford cast him as the central role in the 1960 film Sergeant Rutledge. Some contemporary critics have called the film Ford’s “apology,” in which he attempted to make amends for stereotypical depictions of people of colour in his previous works. Strode played the title character, First Sergeant Braxton Rutledge of the 9th U.S. Cavalry, a segregated army unit known popularly as Buffalo Soldiers. Rutledge, falsely accused of the rape and murder of a white woman, is charged before a court-marshal. Strode gave a powerful performance of an accused defending his innocence and his humanity in his most important role. It was the first Hollywood western that featured a black man appearing as a cowboy or US Army soldier, rather than in a secondary or incidental capacity. Strode’s final film was Sam Remi’s The Quick and the Dead, which was dedicated to his memory.
Terrence Towles Canote points out that while Strode received increasingly important, and even starring roles, in Italian productions, he was never cast to play the lead role in a Hollywood film. While much of his career involved playing character roles, he was nevertheless a pioneer among African American actors. His roles were “intelligent, strong willed, independent characters…that were not stereotypes” thus breaking down barriers and paving the way for the next generation of African American actors who would follow in his steps.
Woody Strode died in Glendora California on 31 December 1994 at the age of 80 and was buried at Riverside National Cemetery. He was predeceased by his first wife Luana, a distant relative of Lili’uokalani, the last queen of the Kingdom of Hawaii. He was survived by his two children and two step children from Luana and by second wife Tina.
The Calgary Stampeder team with which Strode entered into the lore of Canada’s sporting history was inducted into Alberta’s Sporting Hall of Fame in the year 2000. The induction noted that the 1948 team with their ardent fans, turned “the Grey Cup into the national festival that it is today.” Nearly forgotten during the war years, the Stampeders “made it into the biggest single day sporting event in Canada” and secured the Cup’s ongoing place in Canadian sporting tradition.
Written By: Peter Melnycky, Historian
Woody Strode with Sam Young, Goal Dust: The Warm and Candid Memoirs of a Pioneer Black Athlete and Actor, Lanham/New York / London: Madison Books, 1990.
Daryl Slade, “Calgary Horse in Royal York Hotel during 1948 Grey Cup: Fact or Fiction?” http://calgaryherald.com/sports/football/cfl/slade-calgary-horse-in-royal-york-hotel-during-1948-grey-cup-fact-or-fiction /
Terence Towles Canote, “Why Woody Strode Mattered,” http://mercurie.blogspot.ca/2014/07/why-woody-strode-mattered.html
Alberta Sports Hall of Fame: http://ashfm.ca/hall-of-fame-honoured-members/browse/teams/calgary-stampeders-1948
Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0834754/
Longley, Neil et al., “The Migration of African Americans to the Canadian Football League during the 1950s: An Escape from Discrimination?”, International Association of Sports Economists / North American Association of Sports Economists, Paper No. 07-13. 2007.
Greg Oliver, “Woody Strode: Pioneer of ring, field and screen”, http://slam.canoe.com/Slam/Wrestling/Movies/2006/03/04/1472850.html
Frank Manchel, “The Man Who Made The Stars Shine Brighter: An Interview with Woody Strode”, The Black Scholar, Spring 1995, Volume 25, No. 2, pp. 37-46.