The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance actor Jimmy Stewart landed a big impact with his performance in the movie. However, the John Ford production was an absolute mess behind the scenes. His co-star, Woody Strode, alleged that Stewart was “uncomfortable” around him while filming The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance because of his race.
‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ actor Woody Strode defined racism
Michael Munn explored the life of Stewart through his professional and private life in Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend. In 1976, Strode explained that white people didn’t truly understand what it meant to be racist. He would later refer to his encounters on the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance along with Stewart.
“Racism is inherent in most white people,” Strode said. “They may not feel they’re racist, but they can’t help it. They can’t help but notice the first thing about you is that you’re Black. That’s understandable. It’s when they continue to think of you as being ‘Black’ that it’s a problem.”
Strode continued: “People say, ‘I don’t hate Black people, so I’m not a racist.’ You don’t have to hate Black people. To be a racist you only have to be the kind of person who says, ‘I have no problem with coloureds–just so long as they don’t live next door to me.’ You don’t have to be violent either. There are coloured people who are racist against white people. It goes both ways.”
Strode concluded: “But Blacks didn’t enslave whites, and that’s the problem. The Black man was always inferior, and that’s the institutionalised kind of racism that is inherent in white people. That’s what you find in good sincere white Christian types like Jimmy Stewart. I felt that he tried hard not to be like that, but you have to be Black to recognise it.”
Woody Strode said Jimmy Stewart was ‘uncomfortable’ around him on ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ because he was Black
In Jimmy Stewart: the Truth Behind the Legend, Strode explained his interactions with the actor on the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He recalled that Ford would “goad actors” and would be “really cruel” in doing so. He’d find their weak spot to push their buttons. For example, he relentlessly put John Wayne down for not serving in World War II.
“Stewart was never rude to me–he was never rude to anyone,” Strode recalled. “But I could tell that he preferred to be around Lee Marvin or Wayne than me. It was a matter of feeling comfortable, and I knew I made him feel uncomfortable. That was just his background, and I didn’t resent it. I was used to it. I was used to people in the business being just so downright hateful to me because I’m Black. Stewart wasn’t hateful–just uncomfortable.”
Ford recognized how Stewart felt around Strode while filming The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, so he asked the actor what he thought about Strode’s costume. He was wearing some old overalls and a “really bad hat” because he was playing a stereotypical role.
Ford asked Stewart: “What do you think of Woody’s costume?” Stewart responded, “I think it makes him a bit too much like Uncle Remus.”
However, Strode agreed with Stewart regarding how he looked, but the director quickly jumped on it.
“And what’s wrong with Uncle Remus?” Stewart responded with an uncomfortable stammer. However, the director quickly called Wayne and the rest of the cast over and stated, “One of the actors here doesn’t like Uncle Remus.” Ford further stated that he didn’t think that the actor liked Black people, in general.
The whole encounter only made Stewart even more uncomfortable around Strode while filming The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The actor didn’t like John Ford’s way of getting under the actors’ skin
Strode explained to Munn that he didn’t like the way that Ford interacted with him, Stewart, or Wayne on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He stated that the whole experience initially made him angry with his co-star, which increased the amount of tension on the set. However, he later realized that it was all just a plan to get under Stewart’s skin.
Strode concluded: “I’m grateful to Ford for giving me a career, but I don’t feel I had to be grateful for the rest of my life–the way Wayne was, and Ford treated Wayne worse than he ever treated me.”