Lillian Randolph played the role of Birdie Lee Coggins, Gildersleeve’s cook/housekeeper, for the entire run of the radio program, the four Gildersleeve movies, and the television program, and may be considered the one constant through the entire “Great Gildersleeve” experience.
The role of Birdie is complex. In many ways, Birdie played the stereotypical Black maid role– but even that stereotype is complex, being both an employee and a member of the household. The role’s tend to be even more enmeshed in a household like Gildersleeve’s, where Birdie is the not only the housekeeper, but also the only adult woman in the home, and plays a somewhat motherly role.
But beyond her relationship with the family, she is also presented as a competent and valuable employee is unquestioned. In episodes like Birdie Quits and Birdie’s Vacation, Birdie’s skills and economic value are discussed, and although in both cases she stays with the family, it’s clear that she’s a free agent and does have options. The changes of the postwar era are especially evident in the 1946 Birdie’s Vacation episode, where Birdie’s friend Lily Bee leaves the Bullard family and earns more money as an elevator operator.
On the other hand, Birdie is also a member of the household, if not the family, and she freely expresses her opinions when asked or provoked, especially in defense of “little Leroy.” . In the wartime episodes, her efforts at conservation of valued resources and manager of rationing are acknowledged, and she is a full participant in the purchase and sale of War Bonds. There are some conventionally stereotyped aspects to her character, including her lodge, “The Mysterious and Bewildering Order of the Daughters of Cleopatra,” but this organization is no more of a parody than Gildersleeve’s own Jolly Boys.
Lillian Randolph, a member of the Black Film Hall of Fame, had a long and distinguished career beyond her role as Birdie. She took over the title role in the radio comedy “Beulah” from Hattie McDaniel, and played Madame Queen in the television version of “Amos ‘n Andy.” Her movie credits include roles in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Onion Field” and her television credits include roles in “Roots” and “The Bill Cosby Show.”