After the Northridge Earthquake, Donna and I had to move to a new apartment. It wasn’t because of quake damage; it was because after the quake, several of our neighbors left California for good. Since the building was not getting any new tenants, except some bikers with phony section 8 vouchers, the building’s management decided not to repair things like lights or the security gate.
The building manager also had her life threatened by the phony section 8 bikers, causing her to never leave her apartment. This forced a lot of us to leave what used to be a very nice apartment complex. We moved about a mile east to a building built in the early 1960s. Several of the residents were older character actors; some were the buildings original tenants.
In the lobby I heard a familiar voice. This was the voice of Emily’s father on The Bob Newhart Show, Roseanne’s father on Roseanne, Brad’s father on Angie, Col. Potter’s friend on M*A*S*H, and the Mayor of Los Angeles in Earthquake. It all comes back to Earthquakes. This new building’s manager introduced us. He greeted us with, “Hi I’m John Randolph, I’m an actor.”
The week we moved in, we saw John as an evil white supremacist on Matlock, then as a man who lost his wife on E.R. The next time we saw him we went to compliment his work on the shows. He greeted us with “Hi I’m John Randolph, I’m an actor”. Obviously he’d forgotten we had already met, but that’s okay. We complimented his work on the shows and Donna mentioned that she hated him one day and he broke her heart the next. He really appreciated the kind words.
Our building used to hold a Christmas party. This was a great event because, for so many of the elderly residents, this was their Christmas. When John entered the party it was like Norm entering the Cheers bar. JOHN! John greeted everyone with “Hi I’m John Randolph, I’m an actor”.
There were times we crossed paths at the elevator and then forty-five minutes later were sitting on this black couch and he’s telling me about the time when he and Will Geer were blacklisted. I had been fascinated by that period in American history for a long time, so to hear what it was like from a man who saw it first hand was priceless.
I don’t remember exactly when, but I was told by another neighbor that John had Alzheimer’s. This explained why he kept introducing himself and why he would tell me the same Will Geer stories over and over again. He once asked if I knew who Will Geer was. Of course to me he was Grandpa Walton and he starred in one of my dad’s favorite movies, Intruder in the Dust (1949), also staring Puerto Rican actor Juano Hernandez. (We were both born in San Juan). I enjoyed hearing him talk about the good old days and he enjoyed talking to a younger man who knew of his contemporaries.
One time I ran in to him at the elevator and I was telling him about a scene I just did for my television production class. The more I talked about it the more excited I got. At one point he stopped me and said, “You hear that excitement in your voice? Don’t ever lose that.”
Another time we met at the elevator and he went on a very long rant over the fact that the Academy was giving a life time achievement award to Elia Kazan. In 2000, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists went on strike. Even though he was not in the best of health, John visited us on the picket line. His presence was a shot in the arm for everyone’s morale.
My only complaint about him as a neighbor was that he would flirt shamelessly with my wife. In his final years he had a caretaker help him walk the seventy-five or so feet from his apartment to the elevator. If he saw Donna, he’d have his caretaker wait, walk over to Donna on his own, and escort her to where ever she was going.
Even though John is no longer with us (he died Feb. 24, 2004) I still see him often when I channel surf. He was a CEO, the General, someone’s father, or a multitude of other characters – thus proving that old actors never die, they just change costumes. When I write my column I like to close with a quote. John had a lot to say, either through his characters or as himself, but the quote I want to use is the first thing he ever said to me, “Hi I’m John Randolph, I’m an actor” because that says it all.