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Sylvia Sidney

An actress of stage, screen and film, with a career spanning over 70 years, who first rose to prominence in dozens of leading roles in the 1930s. Sidney later came to be known for her role as Juno, a case worker in the afterlife, in Tim Burton’s film Beetlejuice.

Filmography

1929      

Thru Different Eyes

 

1930      

Five Minutes from the Station

 

1931      

City Streets

Confessions of a Co-Ed

An American Tragedy

Street Scene

Ladies of the Big House

 

1932      

The Miracle Man

Merrily We Go to Hell

Make Me a Star

Madame Butterfly

 

1933      

Pick-Up

Jennie Gerhardt

 

1934      

Good Dame

Thirty-Day Princess

Behold My Wife

 

1935      

Accent on Youth

Mary Burns, Fugitive

 

1936      

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine

Fury

Sabotage

 

1937      

You Only Live Once

Dead End

 

1938      

You and Me

 

1939      

…One Third of a Nation…

 

1941      

The Wagons Roll at Night

 

1945      

Blood on the Sun

 

1946      

The Searching Wind

Mr. Ace

 

1947      

Love from a Stranger

 

1952      

Les Misérables

 

1955      

Violent Saturday

 

1956

Behind the High Wall

 

1973      

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams

 

1976      

God Told Me To

 

1977      

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

 

1978      

Damien: Omen II

 

1982      

Hammett

 

1983      

Copkiller

 

1988      

Beetlejuice

 

1992

Used People

 

1996      

Mars Attacks!

Awards

Sylvia Sidney was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973).

I’d be the girl of the gangster… then the sister who was bringing up the gangster… then the mother of the gangster… and they always had me ironing somebody’s shirt. ~Sylvia Sidney

Sylvia Sidney was born Sophia Kosow on August 8, 1910 in The Bronx, the daughter of Rebecca (née Saperstein), a Romanian Jew, and Victor Kosow, a Russian Jewish immigrant who worked as a clothing salesman. Her parents divorced by 1915, and she was adopted by her stepfather Sigmund Sidney, a dentist. Her mother became a dressmaker and renamed herself Beatrice Sidney. Now using the surname Sidney, she became an actress at the age of 15 as a way of overcoming shyness. As a student of the Theater Guild’s School for Acting, Sidney appeared in several of its productions during the 1920s and earned praise from theater critics. In 1926, she was seen by a Hollywood talent scout and made her first film appearance later that year.

During the Depression, Sidney appeared in a string of films, often playing the girlfriend or the sister of a gangster. She appeared with Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea, Fredric March, George Raft and Cary Grant. Among her films from this period were: An American Tragedy, City Streets and Street Scene (all 1931), Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage and Fritz Lang’s Fury (both 1936), You Only Live Once, Dead End (both 1937) and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, an early three-strip Technicolor film. It was during this period that she developed a reputation for being difficult to work with.

Sylvia Sidney With George Raft in You and Me

Sylvia Sidney With George Raft in You and Me

Her career diminished somewhat during the 1940s. In 1949, exhibitors voted her “box office poison”. In 1952, she played the role of Fantine in Les Misérables, and her performance was praised and allowed her opportunities to develop as a character actress.

She appeared three times on Playhouse 90. On May 16, 1957, she appeared as Lulu Morgan, mother of singer Helen Morgan in “The Helen Morgan Story”. Four months later, Sidney joined her former co-star Bergen again on the premiere of the short-lived The Polly Bergen Show. She also worked in television during the 1960s on such programs as Route 66, The Defenders, and My Three Sons.

In 1973, Sidney received an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. As an elderly woman, Sidney continued to play supporting screen roles, and was identifiable by her husky voice, the result of cigarette smoking. She was the formidable Miss Coral in the film version of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and later was cast as Aidan Quinn’s grandmother in the television production of An Early Frost for which she won a Golden Globe Award. She played Aunt Marion in Damien: Omen II and had key roles in Beetlejuice (directed by longtime Sidney fan Tim Burton), for which she won a Saturn Award, and Used People. Her final role was in Mars Attacks!, another film by Burton, in which she played an elderly woman whose beloved Slim Whitman records help stop an alien invasion from Mars.

Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, and Sylvia Sidney in Beetlejuice (1988)

Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, and Sylvia Sidney in Beetlejuice (1988)

On television, she appeared in the pilot episode of WKRP in Cincinnati as the imperious owner of the radio station, on Thirtysomething as Melissa’s tough grandmother, and at the beginning of each episode as the crotchety travel clerk on the short-lived late 1990s revival of Fantasy Island. She also was featured on Starsky and Hutch, The Love Boat, Magnum, P.I., and Trapper John, M.D..

Her Broadway career spanned five decades, from her debut performance as a graduate of the Theatre Guild School in June 1926 at age 15, in the three-act fantasy Prunella to the Tennessee Williams play Vieux Carré in 1977. Other stage credits included The Fourposter, Enter Laughing, and Barefoot in the Park. In 1982, Sidney was awarded The George Eastman Award by George Eastman House for distinguished contribution to the art of film.

Sidney was married three times. She first married publisher Bennett Cerf on October 1, 1935, but the couple divorced six months later on April 9, 1936. She later married actor and acting teacher Luther Adler in 1938, by whom she had her only child, a son Jacob (“Jody”; 1939–1987), who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Adler and Sidney divorced in 1947.[1] On March 5, 1947, she married radio producer and announcer Carlton Alsop; they divorced on March 22, 1951.

Sidney died on July 1, 1999, from esophageal cancer at the Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. She died a month before her 89th birthday. Before her death, she underwent chemotherapy, which proved unsuccessful. Her remains were cremated.

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