Carradine was married four times. He married his first wife, Ardanelle Abigail McCool (January 25, 1911 – January 26, 1989), in 1935. She was mother of Bruce and David. John adopted Bruce, Ardanelle's son from a previous marriage. John had planned a large family, but according to the autobiography of his son David, after Ardanelle had had a series of miscarriages, Carradine discovered that she had had repeated "coat hanger" abortions, without his knowledge, which rendered her unable to carry a baby to full term. After only three years of marriage, Ardanelle Carradine filed for divorce, but the couple remained married for another five years.
Carradine married Sonia Sorel (May 18, 1921 – September 24, 2004), who had appeared with him in Bluebeard (1944) immediately following his divorce from Ardanelle in 1945. Sonia, who had adopted the stage name of Sorel, was the daughter of San Francisco brewer, Henry Henius, granddaughter of biochemist Max Henius, and a great-niece of the Historian Johan Ludvig Heiberg. Together, Carradine and Sonia had three sons, Christopher, Keith, and Robert. Their divorce in 1957 was followed by an acrimonious custody battle, which resulted in their sons being placed in a home for abused children as wards of the court. Keith Carradine said of the experience, "It was like being in jail. There were bars on the windows, and we were only allowed to see our parents through glass doors. It was very sad. We would stand there on either side of the glass door crying".
David Carradine said, "My dad told me that he saw a production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice when he was 11 years old and decided right then what he wanted to do with his life". He made his stage debut in 1925 in New Orleans in a production of Camille and worked for a time in a New Orleans Shakespeare company. Carradine joined a tent repertory theater under the management of R. D. MaClean, who became his mentor. In 1927, he took a job escorting a shipment of bananas from Dallas, Texas, to Los Angeles, where he eventually picked up some theater work under the name of Peter Richmond, in homage to his uncle. He became friends with John Barrymore, and began working for Cecil B. DeMille as a set designer. Carradine, however, did not have the job long. "DeMille noticed the lack of Roman columns in my sketches," Carradine said. "I lasted two weeks." Once DeMille heard his baritone voice, however, he hired him to do voice-overs. Carradine said, "...the great Cecil B. DeMille saw an apparition – me – pass him by, reciting the gravedigger's lines from 'Hamlet', and he instructed me to report to him the following day." He became a member of DeMille's stock company and his voice was heard in several DeMille pictures, including The Sign of the Cross.
Carradine's first film credit was Tol'able David (1930), but he claimed to have done 70 pictures before getting billing. Carradine claimed to have tested, as an unknown – along with well-known leading men Conrad Veidt, william Courtenay, Paul Muni, and Ian Keith – for the title role in Dracula, but the historical record does not support the claim. The part eventually went to Bela Lugosi. Carradine would later play the Count in the 1940s Universal Studios Dracula sequels House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Carradine also claimed to have tested for the Monster role in Frankenstein (1931), though again, no account exists other than his own that he actually did so. By 1933, he was being credited as John Peter Richmond, perhaps in honor of his friend, John Barrymore. He adopted the stage name "John Carradine" in 1935, and legally took the name as his own two years later.
David's television series, Kung Fu, featured his Father John and half-brother Robert in the episode "Dark Angel". John would appear as the same character, the Reverend Serenity Johnson, in two more episodes: "The Nature of Evil" and "Ambush". David's brothers Bruce and Keith also appeared in the series, with Keith playing David's character as a teenager for a brief period. David, Keith, and Robert appeared together in a humorous cameo on The Fall Guy, on an episode called "October the 31st" in which their Father co-starred.
By 1936, Carradine had become a member of John Ford's stock company and appeared in The Prisoner of Shark Island. In total, he made 11 pictures with Ford, including his first important role, as Preacher Casy in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), which starred Henry Fonda. Other Ford films in which Carradine appeared include The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Stagecoach (1939), both with John Wayne.
He appeared in dozens of low-budget horror films from the 1940s onwards, to Finance a touring classical theatre company. He also played a small but important role in the very-high-budget comedy The Court Jester, which was at the time of its release the most expensive comedy film ever made. He sang the theme song to one film in which he appeared briefly, Red Zone Cuba. Carradine also made more than 100 acting appearances on television over a period of 39 years. His first performance on the "small screen" was on the DuMont Television Network in 1947, when he played Ebenezer Scrooge in a broadcast presentation of A Christmas Carol. His final role on television was in 1986 as Professor Alex Stottel on a revival of the classic series The Twilight Zone, in an episode segment titled "Still Life." Some examples of other television series on which he appeared include CBS's My Friend Flicka, Johnny Ringo (as The Rain Man), and Place the Face, NBC's Cimarron City as the foreboding Jared Tucker in the episode "Child of Fear" and on william Bendix's Overland Trail in the 1960 episode "The Reckoning" on ABC's Harrigan and Son, Sugarfoot, The Rebel, and The Legend of Jesse James, and on the syndicated adventure series Rescue 8 with actor Jim Davis.
They divorced in 1944, when David was seven years old. Carradine left California to avoid court action in the alimony settlement. After the couple engaged in a series of court battles involving child custody and alimony, which at one point landed Carradine in jail, David joined his Father in New York City. By this time, his Father had remarried. For the next few years, David was shuffled between boarding schools, foster homes, and reform school.
The following are only a few examples of the many roles John Carradine performed on television between 1947 and 1986:
He also portrayed the Biblical hero Aaron in DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), and he dominated Hitler's MadMan (1943) as Reinhard Heydrich.
When John Carradine married Doris (Erving Rich) Grimshaw in 1957, she already had a son from a previous marriage, Dale, and a son from a later relationship, Michael, both of whom, along with Sonia Sorel's son, Michael Bowen, are sometimes counted among John Carradine's eight sons. She was a one-time studio typist who typed the script to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and who went on to play a few roles in film and television. Doris died in 1971 in a fire in her apartment in Oxnard, California. The fire was caused by a burning cigarette. She had been rescued from a similar fire just two weeks earlier. At the time of her death, Carradine and she were separated. Carradine was married a fourth time, from 1975 to 1988, to Emily Cisneros, who survived him.
For his contributions to the film industry, Carradine was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 with a motion pictures star located at 6240 Hollywood Boulevard. In 2003, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
In 1982, he supplied the voice of the Great Owl in the animated feature The Secret of NIMH. Also, he played the voice of the Wizard in the Samuel Goldwyn Co. anime English-dubbed version of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. One of Carradine's final film appearances was Peggy Sue Got Married in 1986. Carradine's last released film credit was Bikini Drive-In, released years after his death.
Retired, Carradine suffered from painful and crippling rheumatoid arthritis, before he died from multiple organ failure at Fatebenefratelli Hospital in Milan, Italy, on November 27, 1988. Hours before he was stricken, he had climbed the 328 steep steps of Milan's Gothic cathedral, the Duomo. According to David Carradine, he had just finished a film in South Africa and was about to begin a European tour. David was with him, reading Shakespeare to him, when he succumbed to his condition. By the time David and Keith Carradine had arrived at their father's bedside, he was unable to speak. "I was told that his last words were 'Milan: What a beautiful place to die.'" David recalled, "but he never spoke to me or opened his eyes. When he died, I was holding him in my arms. I reached out and closed his eyes. It's not as easy as it is in the movies." There was a Requiem Mass for John Carradine at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church in Hollywood. Jane Fonda was among those in attendance. An Irish wake followed, and his body was later buried at sea between the California coast and Catalina Island.
Four of Carradine's five sons became actors: David, Robert, Keith, and Bruce. David had a prolific career, amassing 227 movie and television credits by the time of his death in 2009. He also had a brief Broadway career and produced and directed a number of independent projects. His success often led to work for other members of his family, including his Father. The two appeared together in a few films, including The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969) and Boxcar Bertha (1972), which was produced by Roger Corman and directed by Martin Scorsese.