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Obituaries Woody Strode

Woody Strode was tall of build, bald of pate, with a striking screen presence; had he been born white or later he might have became a star. Sidney Poitier became the first black actor to achieve screen stardom, while Strode was playing supporting roles. Poitier was comfortable, while there was a quality of menace about Strode - the legacy, perhaps, of his years as a professional wrestler.

Strode was educated at UCLA before the Second World War and was one of the first blacks to play in integrated college football; he was also a star of the Canadian Football League. In 1941 the producer Walter Wanger gave him a walk-on in one of Hollywood's then frequent tributes to the British Empire, Sundown, but he did not film again for another decade.

He took up wrestling after war service and was noticed by Walter Mirisch, then producing his Bomba the Jungle Boy series, cut-price adventure junkets starring Johnny Sheffield, who had played the son of Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller. Mirisch invited Strode to appear in The Lion Hunters (1951). Strode continued his wrestling career taking occasional small parts in movies, as in DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), in which he was a slave, and Tarzan's Fight for Life (1958), MGM's unenthusiastic attempt atreviving the old series, with Gordon Scott replacing Weissmuller.

By this time Strode was getting regular movie offers and became a full-time actor. John Ford chose him the title-role in Sergeant Rutledge (1960), about a court martial during for the Civil War. The charges - of the rape and murder of a white woman - were obviously trumped up, for no screen hero ever looked as noble, or behaved so selflessly or bravely. No one till late in the plot mentions the colour of his skin - all of which suggests that Ford was trying to appear liberal at a time when the civil rights of blacks needed less simplistic solutions. Ford said later that the good sergeant "was the first time we had ever shown the Negro as a hero", doing himself no credit by overlooking the fact that Poitier and Harry Belafonte had been doing so for several years.

But to his credit Ford used Strode again (if not in leading roles), in three more films, including his last, Seven Women (1966), rather strangely described by Ford as "a hell of a good picture" - a description more apt for either Spartacus (1960), directed by Stanley Kubrick, or Richard Brooks's The Professionals (1966). Besides Sergeant Rutledge they also gave Strode his best American screen roles; in the former as the Nubian gladiatorial opponent who saves the life of Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), and in

the second as a mercenary hired by a millionaire (Ralph Bellamy) to recover his kidnapped wife.

Strode co-starred with another Tarzan, Jock Mahoney, in Tarzan's Three Challenges (1963). But too often he was required merely to lend his formidable presence to potboilers. As good Hollywood offers grew fewer he began accepting some from Europe, for ex a mple the gunman killed before the credits in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). He also worked regularly in television. Unseen in Britain is Seduta alla sua Destra (1968), in which he had the star role as an African leader modelled on Pa trice Lumumba. He had recently completed filming in The Quick and the Dead, a western starring Sharon Stone.

David Shipman

Woodrow Strode, actor: born Los Angeles 25 July 1914; died Glendora, California 31 December 1994.