Willy Strode was a “powerhouse athlete” during the mid-1930s. Not too many people know he was an athlete before his acting career. Strode stood 6’4 and was a very “big” man. He was born in Los Angeles, California to a half-Cherokee, half-black mother, and a father who was half-Blackfoot/Creek and African American. He attended the Thomas Jefferson High School in South East Los Angeles.
Strode was a phenomenal decathlete, football player, and wrestler. He was recognized early on for his athletic talent in football and received a scholarship to UCLA. Strode, Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson starred on the 1939 UCLA Bruins football team, in which they made up three of the four backfield players. Strode was also in training for the decathlete during this time to go to the 1936 Olympics, but he came up one course short. He trained up until the cut-off time and was expected to break the record set by Colorado’s “Great White Hope” Glen Morris.
When World War II broke out, Strode was playing for the Hollywood Bears Football team but soon joined the United States Army Air Corps and spent the war unloading bombs in Guam and the Marianas, as well as playing on the Army football team.
In 1940, Strode married his first wife, Princess Luukialuana Kalaeloa (known as Luana), a descendant of Liliuokalani, the last queen of Hawaii, and they had two children. He married his second wife, Tina Tompson in 1984, they remained married until his death.
Besides Strodes sporting career, he was also hired by Hollywood. He is probably best remembered for his brief Golden Globe-nominated role in Spartacus (1960) as the Ethiopian gladiator Draba. Strode died of lung cancer on December 31, 1994, in Glendora, California, aged 80.