Lillian Randolph: From Old Time Radio to “The Onion Field”

Don’t ask me why I did a post on Amanda Randolph first and then waited six years to do a post on her younger sister Lillian Randolph (1898-1980), who was arguably the bigger, better remembered star. I think that rationale was that Amanda had more vaudeville and live theatre cred, our original bailiwick. But since then we’ve since branched off in many directions.

Lillian started out mostly on radio, singing on local stations before getting bookings on national shows like Al Jolson’s. She also sang in night clubs for years. She was so beloved as a regular on certain franchises that she stuck with the series through multiple media. For example, she played the maid Birdie on the radio, film series, and television versions of The Great Gildersleeve, and she was Madame Queenie on both the radio and tv versions of Amos ‘n’ Andy. She played similar characters on the Baby Snooks and Billie Burke radio shows, and as a voice over actor, in Tom and Jerry cartoons. She also took over as the title character on Beulah when Hattie McDaniel became ill.

Randolph had over 100 screen credits over a 40+ period (about a quarter of them were for voiceovers in animated cartoons). In addition to stuff listed above, you can see her in the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (1939, during the “Swingali” production number), Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost (1942), The Palm Beach Story (1942), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), The Great White Hope (1970), and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975), among much else. By her mature years she was something of an icon, and she was cast in many television roles for her prestige as a veteran African American character actress. As such, you saw her on The Bill Cosby Show (1969-70), Sanford and Son (1972 & 1975), That’s My Mama (1974), The Jeffersons (1976) and Roots (1977). Interestingly, her last two credits are two well-known, successful Hollywood thrillers, Magic (1978) and The Onion Field (1979).

To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.