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Lillian Randolph: A Prolific Black Actress of the Classic Film and TV Era

This article is a part of my Melanin Arts series, which is dedicated to the achievements and contributions of artistic people of color.

Black Actors Harold Peary and Lillian Randolph

Black Actors Harold Peary and Lillian Randolph

Lillian Randolph

Lillian Randolph was born Castello Randolph in Knoxville, Tennessee on December 14, 1898. She and her sister Amanda Randolph, who also became a famous actress, were the products of a preacher and a school teacher. Her family hailed from Ohio, and she began her career on the radio circuits in Cleveland and Detroit.

Her talent was immediately visible to show business insiders, so in a bid to make her more employable in the entertainment business of the day, she was given a course in "racial dialect."

The Birth of an Acting Career

Randolph's acting career really began to take off rather late in her life. She didn't make the move to Hollywood until 1936, when she was nearly 40 years old. She moved to Los Angeles to sing at Club Alabam and to work on several radio shows, including one radio show starring celebrated black actor/singer, Al Jolson.

During the late 1930s, Randolph constantly struggled to find enough work to keep her bills paid. However, even during her struggles, she was gracious enough to open her home to Hollywood's up-and-coming black actors like Lena Horne, and she volunteered weekly dinners and entertainment to WWII servicemembers in the Los Angeles area.

It was during the 1940s that her acting career really began to take off when Randolph starred in The Great Gildersleeve radio show and films, and on the Amos 'n' Andy radio and classic TV show.

Due to her praised performance of the gospel song "Were You There," Randolph was offered the chance to cut a gospel album, during which she simultaneously scored roles on The Baby Snooks Show and The Billie Burke Show.

Backlash and Criticism Over Perceived Harmful African-American Stereotypical Roles

Randolph received backlash for completing voice-over work as a maid in several Hanna-Barbera cartoon shorts. Both she and Hanna-Barbera were criticized by the NAACP for the negative stereotyping of black people that were prominently displayed in the cartoons. The studio responded by writing the character out of the films.

Earlier in her career, Randolph received the same type of criticism from Ebony magazine for her role on The Great Gildersleeve radio show. For her part, Randolph didn't believe the roles were damaging to African-Americans, as she felt the roles would continue to present opportunities for other black actors, but the ethnicity of the actors placed in those roles would change.

Lillian Randolph in "The Great Gildersleeve"

Lillian Randolph in "The Great Gildersleeve"

A Bona Fide Star Is Born!

Her most well-known roles were as Annie in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Bessie in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), and the titular role on the eponymous classic radio show Beulah. Randolph inherited the role in 1952 from fellow black actress Hattie McDaniel when McDaniel became sick. Randolph carried the role for one year before she handed the job off to her sister, Amanda Randolph.

A year later, in 1954, Lillian Randolph had her own radio show, and she became the first African-American on the Board of Directors for the Hollywood chapter of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). During that same year, she won the role of Bill Cosby's mother in his 1969 classic TV series, The Bill Cosby Show.

Randolph found the time to marry four times in between her acting and singing gigs. During her third marriage to Edward Sanders, she adopted a daughter whom she named Barbara.

Barbara Ann Sanders, aka Barbara Randolph, followed in her mother's acting footsteps for a short while. She made an appearance in Bright Road (1953) alongside Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge, and in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) alongside classic Hollywood legends Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn. and then up-and-coming black actress Isabel Sanford of The Jefferson's fame. Barbara Ann preferred singing to acting, and she would eventually go on to make a name for herself with Motown and RCA records.

In her later years, Lillian Randolph returned to singing the blues, she appeared in roles on classic TV shows like Sanford and Son and The Jefferson's, and she had a part in the television miniseries event Roots (1977). She also gave acting instruction to young actors hoping to break onto the Hollywood scene. In March of 1980, Randolph was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

On September 12, 1980, Lillian Randolph died of cancer at the age of 81. She is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills, alongside her sister Amanda.


NorCalGal48 on August 16, 2019:

I'm glad to see more information about the Randolph sisters. I noticed in this bio for Lillian, she sung with Al Jolson. Al Jolson was a famous white singer/actor who painted his face black.

back when books on February 28, 2019:

Rachelle, I'm working on a book about the old time radio program The Great Gildersleeve and I'm thrilled to read your piece about Lillian Randolph, who played the lovable maid, Birdie. Do you have reprint rights to the photos n your article? If so, I'd like very much to receive copies with permission to include them in my book.

Hopefully, Dan McGuire

Author of "Old Time Radio's Comedy Couples"

Rachelle Williams (author) from Tempe, AZ on October 05, 2018:

Thank you, so much Eman!

Eman Abdallah Kamel from Egypt on October 05, 2018:

I like classic movies and serials. The actors had a high talent in acting as well as most of the works were serious. An interesting article about talented actress Lillian Randolph.

Rachelle Williams (author) from Tempe, AZ on September 28, 2018:

You're welcome Mary! An introduction to the actress and her achievements was my intention when I wrote the article. Thanks so much for sharing!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on September 28, 2018:

When I watch movies, I often remember roles but not the names of the actors or actresses. I have seen Lillian Randolph many times and enjoyed the roles she played but not really know her as a person so thank you for this introduction.