Sylvia Sidney


Actor
Sylvia Sidney

About

Also Known As
Sylvia Sydney, Sophia Kosow
Birth Place
Bronx, New York, USA
Born
August 08, 1910
Died
July 01, 1999
Cause of Death
Throat Cancer

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 the market playing little ladies with big problems in "City Streets" (1930) and "An American Tragedy" (1930). (The actress once joked that Paramount paid her by the tear.) In ti...

Photos & Videos

You and Me - Movie Posters
You and Me - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
You and Me - Lobby Cards

Family & Companions

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

Bibliography

"The Sylvia Sidney Question and Answer Book on Needlepoint"
Sylvia Sidney with Alfred Allen Lewis, Galahad Books (1975)
"Sylvia Sidney's Needlepoint Book"
Sylvia Sidney with Alfred Allen Lewis, Reinhold (1968)

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

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 the market playing little ladies with big problems in "City Streets" (1930) and "An American Tragedy" (1930). (The actress once joked that Paramount 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). Sidney also found sanctuary on the stage, performing with the Group Theatre on Broadway and touring as Jane Eyre and Eliza Doolittle. Sidney was later 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 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 bright.

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

Filmography

 

Cast (Feature Film)

Mars Attacks! (1996)
Used People (1992)
Beetlejuice (1988)
Going Hollywood: The War Years (1988)
Herself
Pals (1987)
An Early Frost (1985)
Finnegan Begin Again (1985)
Copkiller (1983)
Hammett (1982)
Having It All (1982)
A Small Killing (1981)
F.D.R. -- The Last Year (1980)
Cousin Polly
Shadow Box (1980)
Felicity Thomas
Siege (1978)
Lillian Gordon
Damien - Omen II (1978)
Snowbeast (1977)
Raid On Entebbe (1977)
I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (1977)
God Told Me To (1976)
Death at Love House (1976)
The Secret Night Caller (1975)
Kitty
Winner Take All (1975)
Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973)
Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate (1971)
Behind the High Wall (1956)
Hilda Carmichael
Violent Saturday (1955)
Elsie Braden
Les Miserables (1952)
Fantine
Love from a Stranger (1947)
Cecily Harrington
Mr. Ace (1946)
Margaret Wyndham Chase
The Searching Wind (1946)
Cassie Bowman
Blood on the Sun (1945)
Iris Hilliard
The Wagons Roll at Night (1941)
Flo Lorraine
...one third of a nation... (1939)
Mary Rogers
You and Me (1938)
Helen
You Only Live Once (1937)
Joan Graham
Dead End (1937)
Drina [Gordon]
Sabotage (1936)
Mrs. Verloc
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936)
June Tolliver
Fury (1936)
Katherine Grant
Mary Burns, Fugitive (1935)
Mary Burns [alias Alice Brown]
Accent on Youth (1935)
Linda Brown
Behold My Wife! (1934)
Tonita Storm Cloud
Thirty Day Princess (1934)
Nancy Lane/Princess "Zizzi" Catterina
Good Dame (1934)
Lillie Taylor
Pick-Up (1933)
["Baby Face"] Mary Richards [later known as Molly]
Jennie Gerhardt (1933)
Jennie Gerhardt
The Miracle Man (1932)
Helen Smith [alias Helen Vail]
Madame Butterfly (1932)
Cho-cho San
Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)
Joan [Prentice]
Make Me a Star (1932)
Confessions of a Co-ed (1931)
Patricia Harper
City Streets (1931)
Nan
An American Tragedy (1931)
Roberta [Bert] Alden
Street Scene (1931)
Rose Maurrant
Ladies of the Big House (1931)
Kathleen Storm
Thru Different Eyes (1929)
Valerie Briand

Misc. Crew (Feature Film)

Going Hollywood: The War Years (1988)
Other

Cast (Special)

Andre's Mother (1990)
Night of 100 Stars III (1990)
Broadway Dreamers: The Legacy of the Group Theatre (1989)
Come Along With Me (1982)
Maureen (1976)

Cast (Short)

Five Minutes from the Station (1930)

Cast (TV Mini-Series)

The Witching of Ben Wagner (1990)
The Gossip Columnist (1980)

Life Events

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"

1931

Loaned to United Artists to appear in King Vidor's "Street Scene"

1931

Starred in film version of "An American Tragedy"

1931

First of six films with director Marion Gering, "Jennie Gerhardt" and "Pick Up"

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

Hospitalized with a near-fatal bronchial infection

1990

Co-starred in the PBS drama "Andre's Mother"

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"

Photo Collections

You and Me - Movie Posters
You and Me - Movie Posters
You and Me - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
You and Me - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
You and Me - Lobby Cards
You and Me - Lobby Cards
Fury - Scene Stills
Here are several scene stills from Fury (1936), starring Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney and directed by Fritz Lang.
Sylvia Sidney - State Express Cigarette Card
This is a small cigarette card of actress Sylvia Sydney. These cards were included in Cigarette packs in the 1930s and were collectible items. Customers could even purchase books to organize and collect these cards. State Express was an active Cigarette Card producer, creating a wide range of cards featuring famous people of which film stars were an often popular draw.

Videos

Movie Clip

Merrily We Go To Hell (1932) — (Movie Clip) Less Ventilation And More Smoke! Joan (Sylvia Sidney) has just told her drunken playwright faithless husband Jerry (Fredric March) that she’s willing to try a modern, open marriage so she’s met his dashing actor friend Charlie (Cary Grant!) for lunch, then they join a theater-scene party (pals Skeets Gallagher and Adrianne Allen attending), with humor masking bitterness, Dorothy Arzner directing, in Merrily We Go To Hell, 1932.
Mary Burns, Fugitive (1935) — (Movie Clip) A Nice Gal Like You Dramatic prison intake sequence, accomplished shots and montage directed by William K. Howard, as title character Sylvia Sidney enters and meets cellmate Goldie (Pert Kelton), in Mary Burns, Fugitive, 1935, from Paramount and producer Walter Wanger, also starring Alan Baxter and Melvyn Douglas.
Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973) - Fairy Dust Walking uptown on 5th Avenue, Rita (Joanne Woodward) reminiscing with her mother (Sylvia Sidney), who has a health scare, en route to a Bergman film, in the Bergman-esque Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, 1973.
Dead End (1937) - I Can Do My Own Fighting Tommy (Billy Halop) leads future “Bowery Boys” (Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, Gabriel Dell) recruiting Milton (Bernard Punsly), until his sister Drina (Sylvia Sidney) intervenes, gangster Baby Face (Humphrey Bogart) and her under-employed architect pal Dave (Joel McCrea) observing, early in Dead End, 1937.
Fury (1936) - Forgive Us Our Trespasses The angry mob breaks through, girlfriend Katherine (Sylvia Sidney) arrives in town, suspect Joe (Spencer Tracy) worries inside, as the courthouse is set ablaze, in Fritz Lang's Fury, 1936.
City Streets (1931) - Circus In Town? Now a prosperous beer-runner and dressed as befits, "The Kid" (Gary Cooper) visits his framed girlfriend Nan (Sylvia Sidney) in prison, in City Streets, 1931, directed by Rouben Mamoulian.
City Streets (1931) - Pretty Tall And Smart Nifty introduction by director Rouben Mamoulian of both Nan (Sylvia Sidney) and "The Kid" (Gary Cooper), courting at the carnival, early in City Streets, 1931, from a Dashiell Hammett script treatment.

Trailer

Family

Victor Kosow
Father
Clothing salesman. Divorced Sidney's mother c. 1920.
Rebecca Kosow
Mother
Divorced from Sidney's father c. 1920; remarried to a dentist who adopted Sidney.
Sigmund Sidney
Step-Father
Dental surgeon. Adopted Sidney.
Albert Sabin
Cousin
Doctor. Developer of oral polio vaccine.
Jacob Adler
Son
Born in October 1945; died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 1985.

Companions

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

Bibliography

"The Sylvia Sidney Question and Answer Book on Needlepoint"
Sylvia Sidney with Alfred Allen Lewis, Galahad Books (1975)
"Sylvia Sidney's Needlepoint Book"
Sylvia Sidney with Alfred Allen Lewis, Reinhold (1968)

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