HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – John Randolph, actor and political activist, died here Feb. 24 at age 88. Randolph was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for refusing to cooperate with the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee.
“The hearing was like a three-ring circus. You were surrounded by this tremendous spotlight of publicity: newspapers, television cameras, radio broadcasters. And all the hate groups were there every day in the first three or four rows,” Randolph recalled in an interview.
“If you hadn’t been blacklisted by then, you knew you were going to be. I went in with this attitude: You have no right to ask me of my political opinions. And it’s none of your business who is a Communist or Socialist or a Republican or Democrat.”
He and his wife, actress Sarah Cunningham, both refused to testify and were denied work in the movies for 15 years afterward, although he did work on stage during this period and helped many of those who couldn’t find work at all. Among his many credits in the entertainment industry were a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award for the 1987 Broadway comedy, Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound,” in which he played a crotchety left-wing grandfather.
He performed in many movies throughout his career, including roles in “Serpico” with Al Pacino (1973), as Jack Nicholson’s father in “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985) and as Tom Hanks’ grandfather in “You’ve Got Mail” (1998). He also played Roseanne’s father in her television sitcom and Bob Newhart’s father-in-law in the comedian’s 1970s sitcom, “The Bob Newhart Show.” More recently, he guest-starred on “ER” and “Seinfeld.”
Randolph, son of Romanian and Russian immigrants, was born Emanuel Cohen in New York City in 1915, and attended City College and Columbia University.
He began his acting career in the 1930s in the Federal Theatre Project and was an original member of the Actors Studio, which produced works that dealt with important social issues. He had a role in the documentary “Medicine Show” (1940), which concerned the need for a national health care plan in the United States.
Randolph served in the Army Air Force during World War II and afterwards appeared in the Chicago play “Native Son” directed by Orson Welles, where he met his wife. They married in 1945. She died in 1986.
Randolph was already an activist during these times. “During the depression you would have to be an idiot not to be a radical,” he once said, “with 17 million unemployed.”
Actor Ossie Davis, a longtime friend, told The New York Times, “John was a damn good actor and he brought a sense of realism and ease to whatever it was that he was doing.”
Davis, who met Randolph about 1950, also remembered his friend’s activism for a variety of causes. “It was basically the Black and white struggle, the anti-Communist struggle – all of those things, John was in the thick of it, and I certainly wasn’t too far behind.”
Randolph fought against the death sentence of Willie McGee, a Black man convicted of raping a white woman. He also was active in the campaign to save Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who, in an atmosphere of anti-Communist hysteria, were executed as spies for the Soviet Union.
He campaigned for better housing for veterans and for coal miners in Harlan County, Ky. Randolph marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and was involved in the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s. He also opposed the war in Vietnam.
Randolph served on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Actors’ Equity. His causes in the 1980s included Amnesty International, medical aid to El Salvador, TransAfrica and Athletes and Artists Against Apartheid. He also headed the Council of American-Soviet Friendship, a cultural exchange organization.
He was a supporter of the People’s Weekly World and appeared at several PWW fundraisers. The cities of New York and Los Angeles, as well as the actors unions, have honored him for his activism and dedication to world peace and civil rights.