As an actor, the 6 ft 4 in (1.93 m) Strode was noted for film roles that contrasted with the stereotypes of the time. He is probably best remembered for his brief Golden Globe-nominated role in Spartacus (1960) as the Ethiopian gladiator Draba, in which he fights Kirk Douglas to the death.
Strode made his first credited appearance in 1941 in Sundown, but became more active in the 1950s, eventually in roles of increasing depth. He played an African warrior in The Lion Hunters in Monogram‘s Bomba the Jungle Boy series in 1951. Also, he appeared in several episodes of the 1952–1954 television series “Ramar of the Jungle”, where he portrayed an African warrior. He played dual roles (billed as “Woodrow Strode”) in The Ten Commandments (1956) as an Ethiopian king as well as a slave, and in 1959 portrayed the cowardly Private Franklin in Pork Chop Hill. He appeared once on Johnny Weismuller‘s 1955–1956 syndicated television series Jungle Jim.
He became a close friend of director John Ford, who gave him the title role in Sergeant Rutledge (1960) as a member of the Ninth Cavalry falsely accused of rape and murder; he appeared in smaller roles in Ford’s later films Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Seven Women (1966). Strode was very close to the director. During Ford’s declining years, Strode once spent four months sleeping on the director’s floor as his caretaker, and he was later present at Ford’s death.
Strode played memorable villains opposite three screen Tarzans. In 1958, he appeared as Ramo opposite Gordon Scott in Tarzan’s Fight for Life. In 1963, he was cast opposite Jock Mahoney‘s Tarzan as both the dying leader of an unnamed Asian country and that leader’s unsavory brother, Khan, in Tarzan’s Three Challenges. In the late 1960s, he appeared in several episodes of the Ron Ely Tarzan television series. Strode played the part of Binnaburra in “Incident of the Boomerang” on Rawhide in 1961.
Strode’s other television work included a role as the Grand Mogul in the Batman episodes “Marsha, Queen of Diamonds” and “Marsha’s Scheme of Diamonds,” appearing also in the third season of the Daniel Boone television series as the slave/wrestler Goliath in the episode of the same name.
Strode played a heroic sailor on a sinking ship in the 1960 film The Last Voyage. In 1966, he landed a major starring role as a soldier of fortune and expert archer in The Professionals, a major box-office success that established him as a recognizable star. Another notable part was as a gunslinger in the opening sequence of Sergio Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968); after this, he appeared in several other spaghetti Westerns of lesser quality. His starring role as a thinly-disguised Patrice Lumumba in Seduto alla sua destra (released in the U.S. as Black Jesus) garnered Strode a great deal of press at the time, but the film is largely forgotten now.
He remained a visible character actor throughout the 1970s and 1980s in such films as Scream (1981), and has become widely regarded (along with Sidney Poitier and Brock Peters) as one of the most important black film actors of his time. His last film was The Quick and the Dead (1995), which starred Gene Hackman, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Russell Crowe. The closing credits dedicate the film to Strode.