Mrs. Gilford's parents were both active socialists. Born in the Bronx in 1923, she was a child actress beginning at the age of three. She performed on radio and shared the stage with Ethel Barrymore in the 1944 play Embezzled Heaven. She also assisted lyricist E.Y. (Yip) Harburg during many productions, including the Lena Horne vehicle Jamaica. Her sister, Thelma Lee, was also a stage actress.
Both Gilfords were blacklisted for much of the 1950s. Mrs. Gilford's name was one of the names mentioned by Jerome Robbins in his testimony before the HUAC. Thereafter, the couple had difficulty finding work. They relied on loans from friends and government checks for much of their income. "We raised three children on unemployment insurance," she once said.
"The F.B.I. followed me the first Tuesday of every month," she told the New York Times. "How did I know it? The superintendent had a son in jail for armed robbery and she hated the F.B.I. So she considered us in trouble the same way she was. She would tell us that they would come on the first Tuesday: 'They've been here. They wanted to look in your garbage. They wanted to look at the mail that has been thrown out.'"
One afternoon, she decided to string the FBI agents along. She had heard that Alger Hiss had recently moved to Washington Square Park. While being followed as she walked her daughter to school, she swung by Hiss' address and — not knowing him — knocked on his door.
"I went up to him — they couldn't hear what I was saying — and I said: 'Mr. Hiss, I'm Madeline Lee Gilford. I'm Jack Gilford's wife.' Oh, yes, he knew him. And he was tall and thin and handsome in the cold. And I wanted to chat with him long enough so that they would think that I had a date to meet him in the park away from phone taps. And I said, 'I want to welcome you back to the Village, and may I kiss you?' So I kissed Alger Hiss in Washington Square Park."
In the 1980s, she turned to producing. She co-produced the play The World of Sholom Aleichim, starring her husband, and the musical Rags. Neither were hits, though the latter, a musical, has developed a following over the years.
She co-authored a memoir with Kate Mostel, actor Zero Mostel's wife, called "170 Years in Show Business." It chronicled the lives of the two couples, who were friendly with one another; Jack and Zero appeared on stage several times.
Mrs. Gilford remained busy throughout her last decade, playing roles on "Law & Order" and taking small roles in films such as "The Old Feeling," "Cocoon: The Return," "The Savages" and the yet-to-be-released "Uncertainty" and "Sex and the City."
In 2007, she was presented with the first annual Madeline Gilford Award "for her dedication and tireless contributions to the theatre" by Musical Mondays Theatre Lab.