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Sylvia Sidney

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Sylvia Sidney
Sidney pictured in an Argentinean Magazine in 1932
Sophia Kosow

(1910-08-08)August 8, 1910
New York City, U.S.
DiedJuly 1, 1999(1999-07-01) (aged 88)
New York City, U.S.
Years active1925–1998
(m. 1935; div. 1936)
(m. 1938; div. 1946)
Carlton Alsop
(m. 1947; div. 1951)

Sylvia Sidney (born Sophia Kosow;[1] August 8, 1910 – July 1, 1999) was an American stage, screen, and film actress whose career spanned 70 years. She rose to prominence in dozens of leading roles in the 1930s. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams in 1973. She later gained attention for her role as Juno, a case worker in the afterlife, in Tim Burton's 1988 film Beetlejuice, for which she won a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Early life


Sidney was born Sophia Kosow in the Bronx, New York, the daughter of Rebecca (née Saperstein), a Romanian Jew, and Victor Kosow, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who worked as a clothing salesman.[2] 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.[3] Now using the surname Sidney, Sylvia 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, she was praised by theater critics for her performances. In 1926, she made her first film appearance as an extra in D.W. Griffith's The Sorrows of Satan.[4]


Sidney in 1932

During the Depression, Sidney appeared in a string of films, often playing working-class heroines,[5] or the girlfriend or 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 and Dead End (both 1937), and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, an early three-strip Technicolor film. During this period, she developed a reputation for being difficult to work with.[6] At the time of making Sabotage with Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney was one of the highest-paid actresses in the industry, earning $10,000 per week—earning a total of $80,000 for Sabotage.[7]

Sidney in The Wagons Roll at Night (1941)

Her career diminished somewhat during the 1940s. In 1949, exhibitors voted her "box-office poison".[8] In 1952, she played the role of Fantine in Les Misérables, and although the film itself did not meet the studio's expectations, Sidney received critical praise for her performance.[9]

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 rejoined her former co-star Bergen on the premiere of the short-lived The Polly Bergen Show.[10] 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 records by Slim Whitman help stop an alien invasion from Mars.

On television, she appeared in the pilot episode of WKRP in Cincinnati as the imperious owner of the radio station, and she appeared in a memorable episode of Thirtysomething as Melissa's tough grandmother, who wanted to leave her granddaughter the family dress business, though Melissa wanted a career as a photographer. Sidney also appeared 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 & Hutch; The Love Boat; Magnum, P.I.; Diagnosis Murder; 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.[11] 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, first to publisher Bennett Cerf on October 1, 1935; they divorced on April 9, 1936. She 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 while his mother was still alive. Adler and Sidney divorced in 1946.[1] On March 5, 1947, she married radio producer and announcer Carlton Alsop; they divorced on March 22, 1951.

A Democrat, Sidney supported Adlai Stevenson's campaign during the 1952 presidential election.[12]

She published two books on the art of needlepoint, and raised and showed pug dogs.[13]



Sidney died on July 1, 1999 from esophageal cancer at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan at age 88.[14] Her remains were cremated.[1]




Year Title Role Notes
1927 Broadway Nights Herself Lost film
1929 Thru Different Eyes Valerie Briand
1930 Five Minutes from the Station Carrie Adams Short film
1931 City Streets Nan Cooley
Confessions of a Co-Ed Patricia Harper
An American Tragedy Roberta "Bert" Alden
Street Scene Rose Maurrant
Ladies of the Big House Kathleen Storm McNeill
1932 The Miracle Man Helen Smith
Merrily We Go to Hell Joan Prentice
Make Me a Star Unknown Uncredited
Madame Butterfly Cho-Cho San
1933 Pick-Up Mary Richards
Jennie Gerhardt Jennie Gerhardt
1934 Good Dame Lillie Taylor
Thirty-Day Princess Nancy Lane / Princess Catterina
Behold My Wife Tonita Storm Cloud
1935 Accent on Youth Linda Brown
Mary Burns, Fugitive Mary Burns
1936 The Trail of the Lonesome Pine June Tolliver
Fury Katherine Grant
Sabotage Mrs. Verloc
1937 You Only Live Once Joan Graham
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
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 TV 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 TV movie
Winner Take All Anne Barclay TV movie
1976 God Told Me To Elizabeth Mullin
Raid on Entebbe Dora Bloch TV movie
Death at Love House Clara Josephs TV movie
1976 I Never Promised You a Rose Garden Miss Coral
Snowbeast Mrs. Carrie Rill TV movie
1978 Damien - Omen II Aunt Marion
Siege Lillian Gordon TV movie
1980 The Gossip Columnist Alma Lewellyn TV movie
F.D.R.: The Last Year Cousin Polly TV movie
The Shadow Box Felicity TV movie
1981 A Small Killing Sadie Ross TV movie
1982 Hammett Donaldina Cameron
1983 Copkiller Margaret Smith
The Brass Ring Grandmother TV movie
1985 Finnegan Begin Again Margaret Finnegan TV movie
An Early Frost Beatrice McKenna TV 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 TV movie
1987 The Witching of Ben Wagner Grammy TV movie
1988 Beetlejuice Juno Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress
1990 Andre's Mother Mrs. Downs – Andre's Grandmother TV movie
1992 Used People Becky
1996 Mars Attacks! Grandma Florence Norris Final film role


Year Title Role Notes
1952 Cameo Theatre 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 Theatre Joyce Episode: "Night Be Quiet"
1952 Lux Video Theatre Laura Barrie Episode: "Pattern for Glory"
1953–1955 The Ford Television Theatre Unknown 2 episodes
1954 The Philco Television Playhouse Unknown Episode: "Catch My Boy on Sunday"
1955 Star Stage "famous stage actress" title unknown[15]
1955–1956 Celebrity Playhouse Meg Fraser 2 episodes
1955–1957 Climax! Louella Wheedron 2 episodes
1957 Kraft Television Theatre 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 & Hutch Olga Grossman Episode: "Gillian"
1977 Westside Medical Unknown Episode: "Tears for Two Dollar Wine"
1977 Eight Is Enough Evelin (Abby’s Aunt) 2 episodes
1978 WKRP in Cincinnati Mother Carlson Episode: "Pilot – Part 1"
1978 Kaz Molly 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"
1982 American Playhouse Mrs. Flanner Episode: "Come Along with Me"
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, (final appearance)

Radio appearances

Year Program Episode/source
1941 Philip Morris Playhouse Angels with Dirty Faces[16]
1941 Philip Morris Playhouse Wuthering Heights[17]


  1. ^ a b c "Sylvia Sidney, 30's Film Heroine, Dies at 88". The New York Times. July 2, 1999. Archived from the original on June 26, 2008. Retrieved February 13, 2017.
  2. ^ Bergan, Ronald (July 6, 1999). "Obituary: Sylvia Sidney". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on March 3, 2024. Retrieved December 16, 2016.
  3. ^ "Sylvia Sidney Sued By Father". The New York Times. November 19, 1933. p. 20. Archived from the original on May 1, 2014. Retrieved February 13, 2017.
  4. ^ O'Brien, Scott (2016). Sylvia Sidney: Paid by the Tear. BearManor Media. p. 16; ISBN 978-1593939434
  5. ^ "Actress Sylvia Sidney born". Archived from the original on September 29, 2023. Retrieved September 17, 2023.
  6. ^ Vallance, Tom (July 21, 1999). "Obituary: Sylvia Sidney". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on May 26, 2022.
  7. ^ "Sylvia Sidney Interview". YouTube. October 30, 2015. Archived from the original on December 22, 2021. Retrieved October 11, 2019.
  8. ^ "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.
  9. ^ O'Brien, Scott (2016). Sylvia Sidney: Paid by the Tear. BearManor Media. pp. 266–267; ISBN 978-1593939434
  10. ^ "The Polly Bergen Show". Classic Television Archives. Archived from the original on October 8, 2011. Retrieved January 9, 2011.
  11. ^ "Prunella Charming in Guild Youths' Hands". The New York Times. June 16, 1926. p. 23.
  12. ^ Motion Picture and Television Magazine, November 1952, page 33, Ideal Publishers
  13. ^ Frankel, Haskel (March 18, 1979). "Theater". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on February 7, 2019. Retrieved February 5, 2019.
  14. ^ "Actress Sylvia Sydney Talks with Designer Mel Odom 1999". YouTube. March 22, 2009. Archived from the original on December 22, 2021. Retrieved March 24, 2018.
  15. ^ "Debut". Long Beach Independent. September 9, 1955. p. 30. Archived from the original on April 2, 2015. Retrieved March 27, 2015 – via Newspapers.com.
  16. ^ "Johnny Presents". Harrisburg Telegraph. September 19, 1941. p. 17. Archived from the original on August 3, 2017. Retrieved July 21, 2015 – via Newspapers.com.
  17. ^ "Raymond Massey and Sylvia Sidney in 'Wuthering Heights'". Harrisburg Telegraph. October 11, 1941. p. 26. Archived from the original on November 12, 2018. Retrieved July 21, 2015 – via Newspapers.com. Open access icon