|Photo by Kenneth James Bryson|
I last wrote about Woody Strode, athlete and actor, on March 1, 2013. In a blog post referring to Strode as “Django Overlooked,” I mused about his forty-year career in Hollywood, which included featured roles in such classic films as John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Richard Brooks’ The Professionals, and of course as Kirk Douglas’s worthy opponent in the climax of Spartacus. My mother, a proud UCLA alumna, thrilled to Strode’s heroics on the football field circa 1940. A few years later, while former UCLA classmate Jackie Robinson was integrating professional baseball, Strode helped break color barriers in the National Football League. Ultimately, though, he was better known as an brawny African-American actor, one whose ethnicity limited him to exotic and sidekick roles.
Much of what I know about Woody Strode I learned from his son and namesake, who was always proud of his father’s legacy. I met Woody Kalaeloa Strode (nicknamed Kalai) when both of us were chosen to represent our country.at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. To serve as guides at the U.S. Pavilion, under the auspices of the State Department, we had to demonstrate our ability to speak Japanese. Kalai, who became a UCLA Asian Studies major despite his father’s hope that he’d focus on science, was well qualified for the post. Once on the job, though, he ran afoul of the pavilion’s top honcho, who was terrified – in that turbulent era – of the rebellious youth culture that was then roiling America. Whenever Kalai’s conservative Afro started growing a little full, he was ordered to travel to Tokyo for a haircut. Because the haircut obligation had starting becoming onerous, Kalai had the bright idea of shaving his head. For his father, after all, a bald skull had been a dramatic trademark. Sans hair, Kalai looked remarkably like a Buddhist monk. His fellow guides loved it . . . but poor Kalai was quickly sent home.
Though this display of individuality cost him his job, it did encourage him to keep to his own path. Back in the U.S., Kalai followed his father into the film industry, though he mostly remained on the other side of the camera. Entering a Directors Guild training program, he emerged as a credentialed assistant director. An A.D.’s position on a movie or TV set is less glamorous than essential: he (or she) must keep track of actors and crew members, fill out essential paperwork, and see to everyone’s needs. Kalai served on films like The Lost Boys and on the long-running TV series Diagnosis Murder. Eventually he moved to Honolulu, birthplace of his full-blooded Hawaiian mother, a descendant of Hawaii’s royal family. During his years in Hawaii, Kalai worked as a teamster on many island-based productions, including Tropic Thunder and Lost. In 2011, he appeared on-camera in an episode of Hawaii Five-O (see below). revealing the easy-going charm that I remember from Expo days.
A philosopher and a gentle soul, Kalai had many friends in and out of showbiz. Sadly, he never quite fulfilled his dream of chronicling his father’s life. He died of cancer over Thanksgiving, just before his 68th birthday. Because his passing was sudden, he and his widow Pam were stranded in Texas, where they had gone to visit her ailing mother. Pam Larson Strode, an actress who first met Kalai on a TV shoot , has been devastated by his loss, financially as well as emotionally. That’s why pals have graciously created a burial fund to help return Kalai to the Hawaiian shores he loved so well.
A fond aloha to Woodrow Wilson Kalaeloa Strode, 1946-2014