Sylvia Sidney

Sylvia Sidney

c. 1940s
Born Sophia Kosow
(1910-08-08)August 8, 1910
The Bronx, New York, U.S.
Died July 1, 1999(1999-07-01) (aged 88)
New York City, U.S.
Cause of death Esophageal cancer
Occupation Actress
Years active 1926–1998
Religion Jewish
Spouse(s) Bennett Cerf
(1935–1936; divorced)
Luther Adler
(1938–1946; divorced)
Carlton Alsop
(1947–1951; divorced)
Children Jacob (1939–1987)

Sylvia Sidney (born Sophia Kosow; August 8, 1910 – July 1, 1999) was an American 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.

Early life

Sidney, born Sophia Kosow[1] in The Bronx, was the daughter of Rebecca (née Saperstein), a Romanian Jew, and Victor Kosow, a Russian Jewish immigrant who worked as a clothing salesman.[2][3] 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.[4] Now using the surname Sidney, she became an actress at the age of fifteen as a way of overcoming shyness. As a student of the Theater Guild's School for Acting, Sidney appeared in several of their 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 opposite such heavyweight screen idols as 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.[5]

Her career diminished somewhat during the 1940s. In 1949 exhibitors voted her "box office poison".[6] In 1952, she played the role of Fantine in Les Misérables, and her performance was widely praised and allowed her opportunities to develop as a character actress.

She appeared three times on CBS's Playhouse 90 anthology series. 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 NBC variety show, The Polly Bergen Show.[7]

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 a lifetime cigarette smoking habit. 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), as Juno, for which she won a Saturn Award, and Used People (which co-starred Jessica Tandy, Marcello Mastroianni, Marcia Gay Harden, Kathy Bates and Shirley MacLaine). Her final role was in another film by Burton, Mars Attacks!, in which she played an elderly woman whose beloved Slim Whitman records help stop an alien invasion from Mars: when played over a loudspeaker, they cause the Martians' heads to explode.

On television, she appeared in episodes of My Three Sons, Dear John, the pilot episode of WKRP in Cincinnati as the imperious owner of the radio station; on Thirtysomething as Melissa's tough grandmother, Rose, and at the beginning of each episode as the crotchety travel clerk on the short-lived late-1990s revival of Fantasy Island.

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[8] 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.

Personal life

Sidney was married three times. She first married publisher Bennett Cerf on October 1, 1935, but the couple were 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] During her marriage to Luther Adler she was a sister-in-law to acclaimed stage actress and drama teacher Stella Adler. On March 5, 1947, she married radio producer and announcer Carlton Alsop; they were divorced on March 22, 1951.


Sidney died from esophageal cancer at the age of 88 in New York City, after a career spanning more than 70 years. She was cremated.



Year Title Role Notes
1929 Thru Different Eyes Valerie Briand
1930 Five Minutes from the Station Carrie Adams Short film
1931 City Streets Nan Cooley
1931 Confessions of a Co-Ed Patricia Harper
1931 An American Tragedy Roberta "Bert" Alden
1931 Street Scene Rose Maurrant
1931 Ladies of the Big House Kathleen Storm McNeill
1932 The Miracle Man Helen Smith
1932 Merrily We Go to Hell Joan Prentice
1932 Make Me a Star Unknown
1932 Madame Butterfly Cho-Cho San
1933 Pick-Up Mary Richards
1933 Jennie Gerhardt Jennie Gerhardt
1934 Good Dame Lillie Taylor
1934 Thirty-Day Princess Nancy Lane/Princess Catterina
1934 Behold My Wife Tonita Storm Cloud
1935 Accent on Youth Linda Brown
1935 Mary Burns, Fugitive Mary Burns
1936 The Trail of the Lonesome Pine June Tolliver
1936 Fury Katherine Grant
1936 Sabotage Mrs. Verloc
1937 You Only Live Once Joan Graham
1937 Dead End Drina Gordon
1938 You and Me Helen Dennis
1939 ...One Third of a Nation... Mary Rogers
1941 The Wagons Roll at Night Flo Lorraine
1945 Blood on the Sun Iris Hilliard
1946 The Searching Wind Cassie Bowwman
1946 Mr. Ace Margaret Wyndham Chase
1947 Love from a Stranger Cecily Harrington
1952 Les Misérables Fantine
1955 Violent Saturday Elsie Braden
1956 Behind the High Wall Hilda Carmichael
1971 Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate Elizabeth Gibson Television movie
1973 Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams Mrs. Pritchett Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress
National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Nominated—BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture
1975 The Secret Night Caller Kitty Television movie
1975 Winner Take All Anne Barclay Television movie
1976 God Told Me To Elizabeth Mullin
1976 Death at Love House Clara Josephs Television movie
1977 Raid on Entebbe Dora Bloch Television movie
1977 I Never Promised You a Rose Garden Miss Coral
1977 Snowbeast Mrs. Carrie Rill Television movie
1978 Damien: Omen II Aunt Marion
1978 Siege Lillian Gordon Television movie
1980 The Gossip Columnist Alma Lewellyn Television movie
1980 F.D.R.: The Last Year Cousin Polly Television movie
1980 The Shadow Box Felicity Television movie
1981 A Small Killing Sadie Ross Television movie
1982 Hammett Donaldina Cameron
1983 Copkiller Margaret Smith
1983 The Brass Ring Grandmother Television movie
1985 Finnegan Begin Again Margaret Finnegan Television movie
1985 An Early Frost Beatrice McKenna Television movie
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television Film
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie
1987 Pals Ferb Stobbs Television movie
1988 Beetlejuice Juno Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress
1990 The Witching of Ben Wagner Grammy Television movie
1992 Used People Becky
1996 Mars Attacks! Grandma Florence Norris


Year Title Role Notes
1952 Cameo Theater Unknown Episode: "The Gathering Twilight"
1952 Schlitz Playhouse of Stars Unknown Episode: "Experiment"
1952 Tales of Tomorrow Natalie Episode: "Time to Go"
1952 Lux Video Theater Joyce Episode: "Night Be Quiet"
1952 Lux Video Theater Laura Barrie Episode: "Pattern for Glory"
1953–1955 The Ford Television Theatre Unknown 2 episodes
1954 Philco Television Playhouse Unknown Episode: "Catch My Boy on Sunday"
1955 Star Stage "famous stage actress" title unknown[9]
1955–1956 Celebrity Playhouse Meg Fraser 2 episodes
1955–1957 Climax! Louella Wheedron 2 episodes
1957 Kraft Television Theater Unknown Episode: "Circle of Fear"
1960 The DuPont Show with June Allyson Beulah Episode: "Escape"
1961 Naked City Florence Episode: "A Hole in the City"
1961 Route 66 Hannah Ellis Episode: "Like a Motherless Child"
1962 The Defenders Adela Collins 2 episodes
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series
1963 The Eleventh Hour Mrs. Arnold Episode: "Five Moments Out of Time"
1964 Route 66 Lonnie Taylor Episode: "Child of a Night"
1964 The Nurses Mrs. Sands Episode: "To All My Friends on Shore"
1969 My Three Sons Miss Houk Episode: "Teacher's Pet"
1975–1976 Ryan's Hope Sister Mary Joel 3 episodes
1976 Starsky and Hutch Olga Grossman Episode: "Gillian"
1977 Westside Medical Unknown Episode: "Tears for Two Dollar Wine"
1977 Eight Is Enough Unknown 2 episodes
1978 WKRP in Cincinnati Mama Carlson Episode: "Pilot – Part 1"
1978 Kaz Unknown Episode: "A Fine Romance"
1979 Supertrain Agatha Episode: "Superstar"
1979 California Fever Mother Episode: "Movin' Out"
1981 The Love Boat Natalie Episode: "I Love You Too, Smith"
1983 Magnum, P.I. Elizabeth Barrett Episode: "Birdman of Budapest"
1984 Domestic Life Mrs. Moscewicz Episode: "Small Cranes Court"
1984 Whiz Kids Dolly Episode: "The Lollipop Gang Strikes Back"
1984 Trapper John, M.D. Mildred Prosser Episode: "Aunt Mildred Is Watching"
1986 Morningstar/Eveningstar Binnie Taylor 7 episodes
1988 Dear John Mrs. Lumenski Episode: "Dancing in the Dark"
1989 The Equalizer Judge Episode: "Trial by Ordeal"
1989 Thirtysomething Rose Waldman Episode: "Be a Good Girl"
1993 Diagnosis: Murder Alice Episode: "Miracle Cure"
1998 Fantasy Island Clia 7 episodes

Radio appearances

Year Program Episode/source
1941 Philip Morris Playhouse Angels with Dirty Faces[10]
1941 Philip Morris Playhouse Wuthering Heights[11]


  1. 1 2 "Sylvia Sidney, 30's Film Heroine, Dies at 88". New York Times. July 2, 1999.
  2. "Sylvia Sidney profile at". Film Reference. Retrieved 2010-05-27.
  3. Bergan, Ronald (July 6, 1999). "Obituary: Sylvia Sidney". The Guardian. London, UK.
  4. "Sylvia Sidney Sued By Father". New York Times. November 19, 1933. p. 20.
  5. Vallance, Tom (July 21, 1999). "Obituary: Sylvia Sidney". The Independent. London, UK.
  6. "Mary Armitage's FILM CLOSE-UPS". The Mail. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. January 29, 1949. p. 3 Supplement: Sunday Magazine. Retrieved July 11, 2012.
  7. "The Polly Bergen Show". Classic Television Archives. Retrieved January 9, 2011.
  8. "Prunella Charming In Guild Youths' Hands". New York Times. June 16, 1926. p. 23.
  9. "Debut". Long Beach Independent. September 9, 1955. p. 30. Retrieved March 27, 2015 via
  10. "Johnny Presents". Harrisburg Telegraph. September 19, 1941. p. 17. Retrieved July 21, 2015 via
  11. "Raymond Massey and Sylvia Sidney in 'Wuthering Heights'". Harrisburg Telegraph. October 11, 1941. p. 26. Retrieved July 21, 2015 via
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