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Also Known As: Sylvia Sydney, Sophia Kosow Died: July 1, 1999
Born: August 8, 1910 Cause of Death: throat cancer
Birth Place: Bronx, New York, USA Profession: actor

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

During the Great Depression, actress Sylvia Sidney was said to possess the saddest eyes in Hollywood. The native New Yorker had only just debuted on Broadway when the movies lured her westward, where she cornered a devalued market playing little ladies with big problems in "City Streets" (1930) and "An American Tragedy" (1930). Her real life love affair with Paramount executive B. P. Schulberg kept Sidney working but typecast as victims, prompting the actress to crack that the studio paid her by the tear. In time, she enjoyed more varied roles, among them "Madame Butterfly" (1932), while Fritz Lang made expressionistic use of her in "Fury" (1936) and "You Only Live Once" (1937). Acquiring the reputation in Hollywood for being choosy and difficult, Sidney found sanctuary on the stage, performing with the Group Theatre on Broadway and touring as Jane Eyre and Eliza Doolittle. Having weathered three failed marriages and all but given up on film, Sidney was drawn out of retirement to play Joanne Woodward's elderly mother in "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams" (1973), for which she received an Oscar nomination. The attention propelled Sydney towards a comeback, in which the diminutive, weathered, yet wholly...

During the Great Depression, actress Sylvia Sidney was said to possess the saddest eyes in Hollywood. The native New Yorker had only just debuted on Broadway when the movies lured her westward, where she cornered a devalued market playing little ladies with big problems in "City Streets" (1930) and "An American Tragedy" (1930). Her real life love affair with Paramount executive B. P. Schulberg kept Sidney working but typecast as victims, prompting the actress to crack that the studio paid her by the tear. In time, she enjoyed more varied roles, among them "Madame Butterfly" (1932), while Fritz Lang made expressionistic use of her in "Fury" (1936) and "You Only Live Once" (1937). Acquiring the reputation in Hollywood for being choosy and difficult, Sidney found sanctuary on the stage, performing with the Group Theatre on Broadway and touring as Jane Eyre and Eliza Doolittle. Having weathered three failed marriages and all but given up on film, Sidney was drawn out of retirement to play Joanne Woodward's elderly mother in "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams" (1973), for which she received an Oscar nomination. The attention propelled Sydney towards a comeback, in which the diminutive, weathered, yet wholly indomitable actress was a bracing presence in such films as "Damien: Omen II" (1978), "Beetlejuice" (1988), "Used People" (1992), and "Mars Attacks!" (1998). A lifelong smoker, Sydney succumbed to throat cancer in 1999, her death capping the picaresque career of a leading lady whose star shone brightest the farther she got from the camera.

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

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Mars Attacks! (1996) Grandma Norris
2.
 Used People (1992) Becky
3.
 Beetlejuice (1988) Juno
4.
 Pals (1987) Fern Stobbs
5.
 Finnegan Begin Again (1985) Margaret Finnegan
6.
 Early Frost, An (1985) Beatrice Mckenna
7.
 Copkiller (1983) Margaret Smith
8.
9.
 Having It All (1982) Marney
10.
 Hammett (1982) Donaldina Cameron
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1926:
Stage acting debut in "The Challenge of Youth" in Washington, DC
1926:
Broadway debut, "The Squall"
1927:
Won acclaim as the ingenue in "Crime"
1929:
Film acting debut "Thru Different Eyes"
1930:
Breakthrough stage role "Bad Girl"
:
Put under contract at Paramount
1931:
Starred in film version of "An American Tragedy"
1931:
First of six films with director Marion Gering, "Jennie Gerhardt" and "Pick Up"
1931:
Loaned to United Artists to appear in King Vidor's "Street Scene"
1932:
Had title role in "Madame Butterfly"
1934:
Paired with Cary Grant in "Thirty Day Princess", co-written by Preston Sturges
1935:
Starred as "Mary Burns, Fugitive"
1936:
Appeared opposite Spencer Tracy in "Fury"; first of three films directed by Fritz Lang
1936:
Starred in Alfred Hitchcock's "Sabatoge"
1937:
Played major role in "Dead End", directed by William Wyler
1939:
Last Broadway appearance for 11 years, "The Gentle People"; performed with the Group Theatre
1942:
Toured in the stage play "Angel Street"
1945:
Appeared alongside James Cagney in the melodrama "Blood on the Sun"
1946:
Starred opposite Robert Young and Ann Richards in the Lillian Hellman-scripted "The Searching Wind"
1951:
Returned to Broadway in "The Fourposter"
1952:
Played Fantine in remake of "Les Miserables"
1955:
Was a regular performer on the omnibus NBC series "Star Stage"
1956:
Last film for 17 years, "Behind the High Wall"
1958:
Had title role in the touring company of "Aunti Mame"
1962:
Earned first Emmy Award nomination for guest appearance in "The Madman" episode of "The Defenders"
1963:
Had featured role in the Broadway production "Enter Laughing"
1966:
Assumed the role of Mrs. Banks in the Broadway play "Barefoot in the Park"; also toured in the part
1971:
TV-movie debut, "Don Not Fold Spindle or Mutilate" (ABC)
1973:
Received Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Joanne Woodward's critical mother in "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams"
1975:
Had recurring role on the ABC daytime drama "Ryan's Hope"
1976:
Returned to Broadway in the short-lived "Me Jack, You Jill"
1977:
Appeared in the docudrama "Raid on Entebbe" (NBC)
1980:
Portrayed a hospice resident in the TV-movie "The Shadow Box" (ABC), directed by Paul Newman
1985:
Garnered second Emmy nomination as Aidan Quinn's understanding grandmother in the ground-breaking NBC TV-movie "An Early Frost"
1986:
Was series regular on the short-lived CBS drama "Mornigstar/Eveningstar"
1988:
First collaboration with Tim Burton, played the gatekeeper of purgatory in "Beetlejuice"
1990:
Co-starred in the PBS drama "Andre's Mother"
1990:
Hospitalized with a near-fatal bronchial infection
1990:
Honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center
1992:
Appeared alongside Shirley MacLaine in "Used People"
1995:
Sustained injuries after being struck by a car
1996:
Returned to features in Burton's "Mars Attacks!"
1998:
Appeared as a regular in the remake of the ABC series "Fantasy Island"
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Washington Irving High School: New York , New York -
Theatre Guild Drama School: New York , New York - 1925

Notes

"I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I retired. I'm an actress, and I'll take any part they give me. I have to work." --Sylvia Sydney in a 1990 interview

"I just know Tim [Burton] and I were great lovers and great friends in another life 3,000 years ago." --Sydney quoted in BOXOFFICE, November 1996

In a 1977 interview, Sidney spoke of how producers came to typecast her as "the girl of the gangster, then the sister who was bringing up the gangster, then later the mother of the gangster, and they always had me ironing somebody's shirt." --From her obituary in THE NEW YORK TIMES, July 2, 1999

"The actress, with her saucer-shaped eyes and low voice, could play tough or vulnerable, and her work was always intelligent and never sentimental. She was rarely recognized with awards, perhaps because she made it look easy." --From the DAILY VARIETY obituary by Richard Natale, July 2, 1999

Companions close complete companion listing

companion:
B P Schulberg. Executive. Head of Paramount Pictures; had long-term romantic relationship in the 1930s.
husband:
Bennett A Cerf. Publisher. Married in October 1935; divorced in 1936.
husband:
Luther Adler. Actor. Married in 1938; divorced in 1946; father of Sidney's son Jacob/Jody.
husband:
Carlton Alsop. Publicist. Married in 1947; divorced in 1951.
VIEW COMPLETE COMPANION LISTING

Family close complete family listing

father:
Victor Kosow. Clothing salesman. Divorced Sidney's mother c. 1920.
mother:
Rebecca Kosow. Divorced from Sidney's father c. 1920; remarried to a dentist who adopted Sidney.
step-father:
Sigmund Sidney. Dental surgeon. Adopted Sidney.
cousin:
Albert Sabin. Doctor. Developer of oral polio vaccine.
son:
Jacob Adler. Born in October 1945; died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 1985.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"Sylvia Sidney's Needlepoint Book" Reinhold
"The Sylvia Sidney Question and Answer Book on Needlepoint" Galahad Books

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