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

Updated on October 3, 2018
Rachelle Williams profile image

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

Lillian Randolph was born Castello Randolph in Knoxville, Tennessee on December 14, 1898. She and her sister Amanda Randolph, another famous black 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."

Black Actors, Harold Peary and Lillian Randolph
Black Actors, Harold Peary and Lillian Randolph

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 appear 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," Lillian 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 & 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, Lillian 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, 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 of Beulah 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 foot steps 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.

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    • profile image

      NorCalGal48 

      2 months ago

      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.

    • profile image

      back when books 

      7 months ago

      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 profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachelle Williams 

      12 months ago from Tempe, AZ

      Thank you, so much Eman!

    • Emmy ali profile image

      Eman Abdallah Kamel 

      12 months ago from Egypt

      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 profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachelle Williams 

      12 months ago from Tempe, AZ

      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!

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      12 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      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.

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