Madeline Lee Gilford, who died Tuesday at 84, was an actress on Broadway and radio, a social activist who organized fellow students and defied the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the wife of actor Jack Gilford for four decades.
An actress from the 1920s, when she is said to have appeared in silent "Our Gang" reels shot in Brooklyn (cast lists are hard to verify), Gilford went on to a successful career in radio serials, in which she would often appear on several stations in a single day. She made a specialty of imitating baby cries.
Her Polish-immigrant parents — she was Madeline Lederman at birth, Madeline Lee in her early career — were ardent socialists. Gilford got her start in activism by organizing the National Student Union at Walton High School in the Bronx, which expelled her for her politics, according to her son, Joseph Gilford. Later, her name came up at the HUAC hearing when she was named as a communist by choreographer Jerome Robbins.
Subpoenaed by the committee, she came to blows with her process server. According to a 1953 New York Times report of her testimony, she "cited four amendments — the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth — in resisting interrogation." When questions about the May Day parade of 1942 came up, Gilford shot back, "Look, I'm a comedian, not Joan of Arc. The words 'recant,' 'confess,' 'you're a heretic' are not exactly my dish." Jack Gilford, also named by Robbins, testified at the same hearings, and the two had trouble finding work for the next decade, although, as she told the Forward in 2003, "There was no Broadway blacklist." Madeline Gilford made offscreen television appearances as squalling babies, and the couple borrowed from friends. (They left their spouses for each other in the late 1940s.)
Jack Gilford made a comeback in the 1962 as Hysterium in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." The production also starred the Gilfords' close friend, Zero Mostel, but was choreographed and directed in part by their nemesis, Jerome Robbins. Several years later, with Jack Gilford having gone on to success on stage, film, and in a series of national commercials for Cracker Jacks, Madeline Gilford encountered Robbins at a New Year's Eve party. She toasted him: "1953 can kiss my ass," according to Stefan Kanfer's "A Journal of the Plague Years" (1973).
Madeline Gilford took a prominent role in civil rights demonstrations and was close to the dais for Martin Luther King's 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In 1999, she was arrested during a civil disobedience protest over the police shooting of Amadou Diallo.
In 1978, with her husband and Zero Mostel and his wife, Kate, she published "170 Years of Show Business," a group memoir which included stories of her encounters with show business luminaries from Lotte Lenya to Dorothy Parker. When Parker's dog threw up on Gilford's carpet, the host protested.
"Oh, that's all right," Parker said. "If he hadn't done it, I would have."
In the 1980s, Gilford turned to producing, including two short runs on Broadway, "The World of Sholom Aleichem" (1982), starring Jack Gilford, and the musical "Rags" (1986). She took small parts in episodes of "Law & Order" and "Mad About You." She can also be seen in the forthcoming "Sex and the City" movie.
Madeline Lee Gilford
Born May 30, 1923, in the Bronx; died April 15 at her Greenwich Village apartment; survived by her children, Lisa, Joe, and Sam, and three grandchildren.