One NFL Star Turned from the Gridiron to Westerns, Even Working with John Ford in 1960

by Clayton Edwards

 Woody Strode played in the NFL, then transitioned to a career in Hollywood. For athletes in today’s world, that’s an impressive resume. However, Strode played for the LA Rams in the 40s and took his first credited role in 1951. That role, in the film The Lion Hunters, was his fourth overall and just one of nearly one hundred film and TV appearances. The United States of that era was like a different world. For some, it was a much harsher world than the one we see today. The fact that Strode was of Black and Indigenous ancestry makes his transition to Hollywood and subsequent success that much more impressive.

Let’s take it back to the beginning of Strode’s career. In 1946, Woody Strode was one of the first four Black men to play in the NFL. He broke this barrier with his teammate Kenny Washington and Cleveland Browns players Bill Willis and Marion Motley. Strode played a single season with the NFL before moving to Canada to play, according to Britannica. However, he took his first uncredited acting role in the 1941 film Sundown in which he played a tribal policeman.

He would go on to appear in some of the most iconic films of American cinema. He was in The Ten Commandments, Spartacus, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to name a few. That happened largely due to his partnership with director John Ford. The pair met on the set of the Korean War film Pork Chop Hill, according to Hollywood Reporter. Strode made such an impression on the director that Ford gave him the lead role in his next film. Strode played the title role in the 1960 western Sergeant Rutledge.

Woody Strode’s Work with John Ford

Warner Bros. wanted Ford to cast Sidney Poitier in the lead role. However, Ford said he wasn’t “tough” enough to play that role. Instead, he wanted the tall muscular Woody Strode to handle to play the part. In that film, Strode played a U.S. Cavalry sergeant who is falsely accused of murdering a white man and raping his daughter. It was the beginning of a long partnership with Ford. Woody appeared in 7 Women, Two Rode Together, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, all of which were Ford-helmed pictures, according to IMDb.

However, Woody Strode and John Ford didn’t just work together. They were close friends. In fact, when Ford was in his final days, Strode was there. He was Ford’s caregiver and friend. He was present when Ford passed away in 1973.

Woody Strode’s final role was that of Charlie Moonlight in The Quick and the Dead. That film came out in 1995, a year after Strode passed away at the age of 80. He left behind an impressive body of work and a lifetime of shattered barriers.