Richard Hyatt: Woody Strode is worth remembering

May 6, 2014 

Tollie Strode Jr. remembers him as Uncle Woody. I remember him as the man who knew who shot Liberty Valance. Now a state legislator wants Woody Strode to be remembered as a member of the California Hall of Fame.

Everyone should know Woody Strode. His resume as an athlete, a civil rights pioneer, an enlisted man in World War II and an actor in 90 Hollywood films is worth remembering -- and so was the man.

"It was the way he carried himself," says Tollie, who called his older cousin Uncle Woody. "If you saw him somewhere, he had on a cowboy hat, and if he was wearing a tuxedo, he had on a pair of moccasins. He paid respect to both his African-American and Indian heritages."

As a child, Tollie saw the movies. But as a teenager, his understanding of Woody Strode's character expanded.

"He could have gone the way of Super Fly. He could have played pimps, hustlers and shoot 'em up roles. He chose the path of honorable roles."

I've heard Tollie's stories about his Uncle Woody, how humble he was and how his house on the side of a hill in Los Angeles was decorated like a Wild West show.

Not long ago I uncovered an online photo that I shared with Tollie, a senior project manager at Fort Benning. It was taken on the set of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," a 1962 Western directed by the legendary John Ford.

Woody was sharing a meal with John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin and Vera Miles along with character actors like John Carradine, Edmond O'Brien, Andy Devine, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef.

The film is a classic on many levels, delivering significant messages that go beyond the Old West. Among them is the friendship between rancher Tom Doniphon (Wayne) and Pomphey (Strode).

Strode was a UCLA teammate of Jackie Robinson. One broke the color barrier in baseball. The other took down walls in professional football. He played for the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL and the 1948 Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders in the CFL.

He appeared in films for 53 years, and he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in "Spartacus" opposite Kirk Douglas in 1960.

He died in 1994.

His achievements have inspired California Assembly Member Cheryl Brown to campaign for him to be included in the State Hall of Fame. Backers include Clint Eastwood and Douglas.

Tollie Strode's family is also sending letters of support. Tollie owes it to him for the push Uncle Woody gave him when he was thinking about dropping out of the U.S. Military Academy.

"He told me it was worth it. Who was I to be crying? He never let things stop him, did he?"

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@knology.net.

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