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Sylvia Sidney Biography


Home > Actresses > S > Sidney, Sylvia > Biography


Birth Name: Sylvia Sidney
Born: 08/08/1910
Birth Place: Bronx, New York, USA
Death Place: New York City, New York, USA
Died: 07/01/1999


Sylvia Sidney was born Sophia Kosow in the Bronx, NY on Aug. 8, 1910. The daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Romania, she was adopted by her stepfather, dentist Sigmund Sidney, after her parents' divorce. Suffering from shyness and developing a stammer, Sidney was enrolled in elocution lessons and, later, the Theatre Guild School of Acting. Sidney made her professional stage debut at age 16 in a 1926 production of the Ashley Miller-Hyman Adler drama "The Challenge of Youth" in the Polis Theater in Washington, D.C. She debuted on Broadway the following year as a replacement for Lionel Atwill's staging of the Jean Bart drama "The Squall." She returned to the Great White Way to play a virtuous city girl bedeviled by gangsters in Samuel Shipman and John B. Hymer's melodrama "Crime" and as the fiancée of a convicted anarchist in the Maxwell Anderson-Harold Hickerson polemic "Gods of the Lightning," based on the highly-publicized Sacco and Vanzetti trial. Spotted by Hollywood talent scouts, she was coaxed westward and made her film debut in the courtroom drama "Thru Different Eyes" (1928).

Sidney's heart-shaped face, luminous eyes, and bee-stung lips endeared her to Depression era audiences. She spent the next two years bouncing back and forth between East and West Coasts, returning to Broadway to play an unwed mother in the Marion Gering drama "Bad Girl," in which she caught the eye of Paramount Pictures' head of production B. P. Schulberg. Schulberg hired Sydney to replace Clara Bow as Gary Cooper's lover in Rouben Mamoulian's "City Streets" (1930) and to play a pregnant factory worker drowned by her ambitious lover in "An American Tragedy" (1930), Josef von Sternberg's adaptation of the Theodore Dreiser novel later remade as "A Place in the Sun" (1951). The role solidified Sidney's standing with moviegoers as a New Deal Madonna and her commitment to films would keep her off the stage for several years. She headlined the cast of King Vidor's "Street Scene" (1931), a socially-conscious drama set in New York's Hell's Kitchen, and played a gangster's moll sent to prison on a trumped up charge in "Ladies of the Big House" (1931), directed by Marion Gering. When one critic branded Sidney as having the saddest eyes in Hollywood, she joked that Paramount paid her by the tear.

Sidney grew tired of playing the good girl to bad men yet this was the prerogative of Schulberg, who abandoned his wife and children to become her live-in lover. Following Schulberg's demotion at Paramount, Sidney enjoyed change of pace roles as the tragic Cho-Cho San in of "Madame Butterfly" (1932) and as a Native American maiden who stands trial for the murder of a white man in "Behold My Wife" (1934). Yet all too soon it was back to the crime milieu and roles as an ex-con attempting to go straight in "Pick-Up" (1933) and as a waitress who falls for a thug in "Mary Burns, Fugitive" (1935). In German expatriate filmmaker Fritz Lang's English language debut, "Fury" (1936), Sidney was put to good use as the horrified fiancée of Spencer Tracy's innocent victim of mob violence. Despite their frequent onset battles, Lang and Sidney reunited for "You Only Live Once" (1937), in which she was paired with Henry Fonda for the downbeat tale of fugitive lovers on the run. For Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney traveled to England to play the unsuspecting wife of anarchist Oscar Homolka in "Saboteur" (1936), an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel The Secret Agent.

In 1935, Sidney married Random House founder Bennett Cerf, though divorce followed within six months. In 1937, she returned to Broadway for Ben Hecht's political play "To Quito and Back." At Warner Bros., she headlined William Wyler's "Dead End" (1937), as a winsome product of the Manhattan slums (and big sister to the Dead End Kids) whose virtue is presented in stark contrast to Claire Trevor's syphilis-ridden waterfront doxy. In 1938, Sidney married Group Theatre actor Luther Adler and gave birth to a son before their divorce in 1946. In 1939, Sydney joined the Group Theatre for Harold Clurman's production of the Irwin Shaw play "The Gentle People," alongside Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb and Elia Kazan. Back at Paramount, she led the cast of "One Third of a Nation" (1939), playing yet another slum angel pleading for social change, and paired with Humphrey Bogart for the circus drama "The Wagons Roll at Night" (1941). Sidney enjoyed playing a Eurasian spy in "Blood on the Sun" (1945), opposite James Cagney, but her habit of refusing assignments branded her as difficult and she withdrew to the stage for national tours of "Jane Eyre" and "Pygmalion."

Married for a third time in 1947, to producer Carlton Alsop (whom she divorced in 1951), Sidney began to appear in films less frequently. She returned to Broadway in 1952 as a replacement for Betty Field in José Ferrer's long-running production of the "The Fourposter" and appeared as another tragic factory worker, the doomed Fantine, in Lewis Milestone's remake of "Les Miserables" (1952). Sidney also gave the loan of her estimable talents to the burgeoning field of live television, appearing on a number of anthology drama series broadcast by CBS, among them "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars" (1951-59), "Lux Video Theatre" (1950-59), "Climax!" (1954-58) and "Playhouse 90" (1956-1961). Having long since traded ingénue roles for character parts, she toured the nation as "Auntie Mame" in 1958 and brought a long-deferred ethnicity to her turn as Alan Arkin's Jewish mother in "Enter Laughing" on Broadway in 1962. On television, she contributed guest spots to such weekly series as "Naked City" (ABC, 1958-1963), "Route 66" (CBS, 1960-64), and "The Defenders" (CBS, 1961-65), for which she received an Emmy nomination. On the sitcom "My Three Sons" (ABC/CBS, 1960-1972), she was a formidable high school English teacher.

Though she threatened retirement, Sidney returned to features to play Joanne Woodward's mother in "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams" (1973), for which she earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The film pushed Sidney into her dowager phase, in which she played feisty seniors in such films as "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" (1977), "Damien, Omen II" (1978), and "Used People" (1992). On the small screen, she was the autocratic Mama Carlson in the 1978 pilot episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati" (CBS, 1978-1982) and she received high critical marks for her work in the made-for-TV films "Finnegan Begin Again" (1985) and "An Early Frost" (1985). In 1987, her only child, Jacob Adler, died at age 47. The following year, she mocked mortality as the afterlife coach Juno in Tim Burton's "Beetlejuice" (1988) and cameoed as a senior citizen whose devotion to Slim Whitman saves the human race in Burton's "Mars Attacks" (1996). In between these appearances, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Battling throat cancer through her semi-regular run on ABC's "Fantasy Island" reboot (1998-99), Sidney died in New York on July 1, 1999.

By Richard Harland Smith