October is “What a Character,” blog series month, and we are taking a look at some of our favorite character actors. This blog features the wonderful Isabel Randolph.
Randolph was born in Chicago in 1889. After high school, Isabel began performing in regional theater throughout the Midwest until the mid-1930s. She married J.C. Ryan, a Chicago newspaperman, in 1917. Unfortunately, he passed away at a young age and she raised their two girls. She was the leading lady at the Princess Theater in Des Moines, Iowa. In a 2012 article, Ryan Ellett quoted Conrad Nagel as saying the Princess Theater “was recognized as one of the outstanding stock companies of the entire country, and is still referred to by some of the old timers as the best of them all.” Ralph Bellamy also spent time with the theater.
In the thirties, Randolph decided to try out radio. She was on the air on Fibber McGee and Molly from 1935-1943. She played a variety of roles but was best known for Mrs. Abigail Uppington, a society matron. During this time, she also was in several other soap opera-type shows. When the McGees moved their show to Hollywood, Isabel went to California with them where she took a chance at motion pictures.
Isabel specialized in the “grand dame” roles which continued into her film career. Of her 110 acting credits, 69 of them were for movies on the big screen, her first being in 1939 in The Women.
In 1953, she made the foray into television. Her first role was on The Dick Tracy Show in 1951, based on the popular comic strip.
In 1952, she got her second role, and her first recurring role in a sitcom, when she was offered the part of neighbor Mrs. Boone in Meet Millie. Meet Millie was about Millie Bronson (Elena Verdugo), a secretary who lives with her mother (Florence Halop) in Queens. Her boss is JR Boone (Roland Winters) and she sometimes dates his son Johnnie (Ross Ford). Family friend and poet Alfred Prinzmetal (Marvin Kaplan) often drops by. We don’t hear about this show very often but it was on for four years and produced 124 episodes.
Randolph did a variety of work in television throughout the rest of the fifties. She did a lot of theater programs, westerns, and also comedies including Burns and Allen, The Ann Sothern Show, December Bride, and The Bob Cummings Show.
She had another recurring role during the last season of Our Miss Brooks when she played Ruth Nestor who ran a private boarding school. John Rich was the director on the show. He loved the cast and said especially Eve Arden was a joy to work with, very nice and very funny. He described the entire cast as “adorable.”
Although she didn’t have a recurring role on Ozzie and Harriet, she was on the show five times between 1956-61. My favorite of her roles on that show was “Busy Christmas” when she played Mrs. Brewster and was heading the Christmas caroling group.
During the sixties, Isabel kept busy. She appeared on Perry Mason three times, twice on The Andy Griffith Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Ben Jarrod, Arrest and Trial, and Many Happy Returns.
Her last recurring role was that of Mrs. Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. In last week’s blog, we looked at one of the best Dick Van Dyke episodes, “Pink Pills and Purple Parents.” When Sally considers taking one of Buddy’s pain pills for her headache, Rob relates a time when Millie gave Laura some of her relaxation pills. Laura takes her first one when Rob’s parents arrive and as she becomes more nervous, she continues to take pills. Eventually, she is a bit loopy making strange comments, forgetting to put ice cream in the sundaes, and dancing to music before passing out. Rob’s parents are sure she has a drinking problem but later find out what happened. Randolph is a gem in this episode.
Randolph passed away in 1973 of undisclosed reasons.
Sadly, like so many of our great character actors, there is not as much information about Isabel’s life. Character actors deserve to have more websites or books of their own. Isabel played the snobby rich woman in many of her roles, but I always think of her as an elegant, gracious mother type. Thank you, Isabel, for so many decades of entertainment and memorable characters. She was a character, indeed.