Acting on principle: John Randolphs life and legacy

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – John Randolph, a great light of stage and screen, was laid to rest here Feb. 24 at age 88. Actor and activist, Randolph shined his light through the anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthyite 1950s. He was systematically banned from film and TV for over a decade by the Hollywood blacklisting of those named as Communist, but made a triumphant 30-year comeback with his principles intact.

Young Randolph, of middle-class Jewish immigrant stock grew up in the Bronx in the 1930s. This was a hard time for anyone to find work, as the Great Depression still gripped the country in massive unemployment.

Randolph’s first stage work came via the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), which created work projects for the unemployed in their field of skill.

“I was in the theater project part of the WPA and we did original works,” said Randolph. The Federal Theater Project (FTP), formed in August 1935, performed across the country. Its mission was to bring affordable theater productions to working class communities. Two-thirds of the FTP productions were free and the rest were cheap. Their Negro Theater Unit’s “Macbeth,” which electrified Harlem, for example, had a price scale from 15 to 40 cents, compared to a ticket price of $1 to $3 for a Broadway show then.

One of the FTP’s children’s plays was called “Revolt of the Beavers.” Randolph describes the 1937 production. “There were beavers stripping the bark. They made the food, but they were always hungry. And I was on the other side. I played a reactionary beaver. There was ‘Rough,’ ‘Tough’ and ‘Gruff.’ I was ‘Tough,’” said the smiling Randolph.

His first brush with stardom was also his first brush with anti-communism. We were “hounded by Boy Scout Troop 237 in the Bronx who said “Revolt of the Beavers” was a Communist play,” said Randolph. And the FTP would soon be engulfed in the gathering tempest of right-wing attack.

In 1938 Rep. Martin Dies of Texas established a committee in the House to investigate “un-American” activities, especially of the FTP that Dies claimed was “nothing but straight Communist propaganda.”

With corporate monopolies of 1938 facing a rising tide of union victories and progressive social changes, the right wing could not afford public arts programs that spread pro-worker politics. Dies’ hostile “red-baiting” attack on the FTP from his House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) led to the 1939 WPA appropriations bill to specify none of its funds “shall be available … for the operation of any Theatre Project.”

However, three other WPA arts projects – music, art and writing – held on to their embattled funding until 1941. It was in this context that Randolph gained political and union experience.

“I met all these wonderful people. Then I became the editor of the newspaper in the union that was formed in the City Projects Council. Unheard of. A union? The government giving you money and you formed a union?”

While HUAC continued to operate through World War II, Randolph served in the Army Air Force as a control tower operator and firefighter, never sent overseas due to health reasons – the same that had kept him from joining the Abraham Lincoln Brigades (ALB) fighting in Spain against Franco Fascism. In later years, he was made an honorary ALB veteran for his fundraising dedication.

Randolph was active in the early civil rights struggles and participated in efforts to open up the stage and screen to actors of all races. He said, “I’ve been with African American actors all my life. I was in ‘Native Son’ and we went all over the country.” In fact, he married his wife, actress Sarah Cunningham, in the break between two performances of “Native Son” in Chicago in 1945.

Soon after the Cold War was declared, the venomous Republican Joe McCarthy chaired the new Senate version of HUAC. McCarthy’s HUAC, formed in 1951, lived off hunting “reds” in high places of government power and Hollywood glamour.

“Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” was the battering ram of the red scare. Hollywood studio bosses actively ran their part by sharing a list of accused Communists (the “blacklist”) with each other and the FBI.

Blacklisted actors, writers and directors could not work and could only “clear their name” by naming others for HUAC. Hollywood was poisoned by an atmosphere of fear and paranoia where thousands lost their work and some, their lives. In so doing, the studios gained power over the unions and their workers by muzzling the most outspoken and setting worker against worker.

As a known progressive unionist and activist and rising actor of the screen, Randolph was betrayed to the blacklist by another actor who was “under suspicion.” He and Cunningham were subpoenaed by HUAC in 1955. They both refused to answer any questions, pleading the 5th Amendment – the only way not to incriminate others nor get thrown in jail.

Randolph was a proud member of the Communist Party. His defiance of HUAC was based not on fear, but on principles plainly written by Randolph to the Committee prior to the hearing, “I may think what I want, and associate with whom I please, either in the union, on the stage, or in politics.”

Like before the blacklist, Randolph was a steady activist as he worked to overcome it. “I’ve been in every struggle in my day. I go back to the early days of the civil rights movement. … I picketed against war. I marched for peace. I was elected to union office. I loved what I was doing. I didn’t try to dodge it. So, I say, ‘Speak up, say how you feel. Don’t just sit in the back and let somebody else take it.’”

Randolph said he survived because “I grabbed any job I could and I fought the whole time against blacklisting and so did my wife.” By the 60s, TV commercials opened up to him when the TV union (AFTRA) stood against blacklisting.

Dozens of TV roles would follow, including in recent years as Roseanne’s father on the long-running sitcom “Roseanne.” In the 70s and on, after the Screen Actors Guild finally dropped its anti-Communist clause, he was back in film: King Kong (1976), Heaven Can Wait (1978), Prizzi’s Honor (1985), You’ve Got Mail (1998) and many others.

His long comeback was capped by a Tony Award in 1986 for his work in Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound.”

Accepting the Tony, Randolph joked, “I didn’t get into acting to win awards; it’s just that I couldn’t do anything else.”

On March 21, 1999, the Academy Award for lifetime achievement was given to director Elia Kazan, who cooperated with HUAC in 1952 and destroyed the careers of friends and fellow workers by naming them.

That tense night at the Academy Awards set the stage for a vindicating encore by Randolph. With millions watching news of the Kazan controversy on TV, Randolph spoke at a press conference of protesting actors.

He said that by Kazan’s “choice and by his words, people’s careers were virtually eliminated and lives shattered. No amount of filmmaking can change the unpleasant uncomfortable truth. This was also part of his lifetime achievement.”

Kazan, without apology, saying few thanks, took the award and exited stage right. The deafening orchestra couldn’t mask the loud jeers and the cameras couldn’t avoid the many who stayed in their seats in protest. Randolph remembered that night, “To see so many people not applauding … was an example of the world not accepting rotten and stinking and hurtful people … When nobody’s afraid, that’s a good feeling.”

Looking back on his own career and life, Randolph said, “You know you can’t act if you’re afraid. So I became a better actor because of my politics. It was a tough fight, but there’s no answer to anything except you fight together. I have not given up my political convictions to this day and I didn’t give in to anybody, and neither did my wife.”

Looking forward to the tough road ahead, Randolph reminded us that German Communist playwright Berthold Brecht said, “When you see them rising up, the ones who hate the Jews, hate the Blacks, they are bringing back the lie and the lie will support them to a certain extent. And we have to fight against that lie. If you just talk and you don’t fight back, what good are you?”

If measured by fightback, Randolph was damned good. Throughout his life, he lent his name, energy, resources and love to the cause of workers, equality and socialism. In today’s atmosphere of fear and suspicion, of secret military tribunals, and corporate, right-wing media control and film censorship, we can help see our way through with light from Randolph’s smile and his example.

The author can be reached at noelnoel@cpusa.org.

*(more on this story below)



Voices from the LA memorial

Martha Randolph, daughter “Are you now, or have you ever been?... My parents refused in 1955 to answer HUAC, using the 5th Amendment, so as not to implicate others. It is my great privilege to answer tonight ...Yes, they were members of the Communist Party.”

Hal Randolph, son “Dad, thanks for your politics, the civil rights marches, the Vietnam War protests. You marched for or against just about everything. You took me with you, even if it was raining to remind me rain is only water and the causes and our voices are more important.”

Mike Farrell, actor, Screen Actors Guild VP “I think of myself as a craftsperson, but there are some artists among us, like John Randolph. He ‘filled the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run.’ He would holler at me if I referred to him as a saint, but wherever he went, John shed the light.”

Lee Grant, producer, director, actress “You never saw John fight without a smile, a smile which said, ‘Watch out, I’m gonna getcha.’ ... In this period of corruption, confusion, and danger, I hope John Randolph converts will continue to honor him, fighting for justice and a decent world.”

Actor Brock Peters reads condolence from Sydney Poitier. “You will be remembered for kindness and courage ... like the day you stood on the floor of our Actors Equity and fought for the rights of African American actors to job opportunities.”

– from Sydney Poitier

Jerry Stiller (“King of Queens”) and Anne Meara “John’s unwillingness to squeal to the Committee still sticks with me. He never was down. The smile was always there, and he was always steadfast.”

Roscoe Lee Brown, actor, reading poem for Randolph by Ruby Dee “Sarah and John. We think of them together. As it was, in the past so be it now. Sarah and John together. Struggle in human form, the living beating heart, the conscienmce of the cause ... Strength to fight and fall and rise to fight again. Against race hate and anti-Semitism and McCarthyism, and lynchings, and children hurt, and not enough bread on some working body’s table, and people with no names and no jobs ... Sarah and Sarah’s John. We think of them together. We always will. So, don’t break rank. Join hands. And keep the line moving.”

– from poem by Ruby Dee



The following is from an interview with daughter Martha Randolph.

Q: What did being in the Party mean to your parents?

They read a wide range of opinions and views, including the Daily World, on many subjects and shared their honest opinions without forcing it down anyone’s throat.

The CP is where they got their political education. The knowledge of how to cause political change was part of the instruction manual, if you will … and the concept of linking small steps to larger ones.

All of this is what the government called a conspiracy to overthrow the government. It certainly was a discussion for revolution, but not a violent one. It was a revolution of thinking. They did call for the uprising of the workers, but it wasn’t “rise up and make war.” It was “rise and demand your rights, go march and protest and strike.” All that definitely came from the Party.

Q: Is McCarthyism repeating itself?

McCarthyism was an all-out attack on one way of thinking. It’s more subtle today as right-wing thinking is respun to appear far more reasonable. I don’t know if we’ve been in such a dangerous time, in part because the majority of the media so actively supports the right-wing view.

- Noel Rabinowitz