Strode was born in Los Angeles. He attended Thomas Jefferson High School in South East Los Angeles and college at UCLA, where he was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. His world-class decathlon capabilities were spearheaded by a 50 ft (15 m) plus shot put (when the world record was 57 ft (17 m)) and a 6 ft 4 in (1.93 m) high jump (the world record at time was 6 ft 10 in (2.08 m)). Strode posed for a nude portrait, part of Hubert Stowitts's acclaimed exhibition of athletic portraits shown at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (although the inclusion of black and Jewish athletes caused the Nazis to close the exhibit).
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. Along with Ray Bartlett, there were four African-Americans playing for the Bruins, when only a few dozen at all played on other college football teams. They played eventual conference and national champion USC to a 0–0 tie with the 1940 Rose Bowl on the line. It was the first UCLA–USC rivalry football game with national implications.
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 at March Field in Riverside, California. After the war, he worked at serving subpoenas and escorting prisoners for the LA County District Attorney's Office before being signed, briefly, to the Los Angeles Rams along with Kenny Washington. They were the first African-American players to play in the NFL for many years. When out on the road with the team, Strode had his first experience with racism, something he wasn't aware of growing up in Los Angeles. "We were unconscious of color. We used to sit in the best seats at the Cocoanut Grove listening to Donald Novis sing. If someone said, "there's a Negro over there,' I was just as apt as anyone to turn around and say 'Where?' I had a black principal in my grammar school when I was a kid. On the Pacific Coast there wasn't anything we couldn't do. As we got out of the L.A. area we found these racial tensions. Hell, we thought we were white."
Strode and fellow UCLA alumnus Kenny Washington were two of the first African-Americans to play in major college programs and later the modern National Football League, along with Marion Motley and Bill Willis, playing for the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. No black men had played in the NFL from 1933 to 1946. UCLA teammate Jackie Robinson would go on to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball (in fact, all three had played in the semi-professional Pacific Coast Professional Football League earlier in the decade). He played for two seasons with the Calgary Stampeders of the Western Interprovincial Football Union in Canada, where he was a member of Calgary's 1948 Grey Cup Championship team before retiring due to injury in 1949.
In 1941, Strode had dabbled for several months in professional wrestling. Following the end of his football career in 1949, he returned to wrestling part-time between acting jobs until 1962, wrestling the likes of Gorgeous George.
In 1952, Strode wrestled almost every week from August 12, 1952 to December 10, 1952 in different cities in California. He was billed as the Pacific Coast Heavyweight Wrestling Champion and the Pacific Coast Negro Heavyweight Wrestling Champion in 1962. He later teamed up with both Bobo Brazil and Bearcat Wright.
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 has to fight Kirk Douglas to the death, wins the contest, but instead of killing him attacks the Roman military commander who paid for the fight, and is killed.
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 conflicted, some would say cowardly, Private Franklin in Pork Chop Hill. He appeared once on Johnny Weissmuller'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, greatly admired by the other black soldiers in the unit, who is falsely accused of the rape and murder of a white woman. He appeared in smaller roles in Ford's later films Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and 7 Women (1966). Strode was very close to the director. During Ford's declining years Strode 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, to go with his roles in the studio westerns Shalako (1968), The Deserter (1971) and The Gatling Gun (1971). His 1968 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.
Strode was the son of a Creek–Blackfoot-black father and a black-Cherokee mother. His first wife was Princess Luukialuana Kalaeloa (a.k.a. Luana Strode), a distant relative of Liliuokalani, the last queen of Hawaii. With her he had a son, Kalai, in 1946, and a daughter, June. They were married until her death in 1980. In 1982, he wed Tina Tompson, and they remained married until his death. Strode was a dedicated martial artist under the direction of Frank Landers in the art of SeishinDo Kenpo.
Main character Sheriff Woody of the Toy Story animated movies by Pixar is named after Strode.
The recurring character of the Santa Barbara Coroner in the television series Psych was named after Strode.
His son Kalai (a.k.a. Kalaeloa) Strode was a candidate in the 2010 special election for the 1st congressional district of Hawaii. Kalai died of cancer on November 27, 2014 at the age of 67.
Strode died of lung cancer on December 31, 1994, in Glendora, California, aged 80. He is buried at Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, California.Strode wrote an autobiography titled Goal Dust (ISBN 0-8191-7680-X).