August 8, 1910
The Bronx, New York, U.S.
|Died||July 1, 1999
New York City, U.S.
|Cause of death||Esophageal cancer|
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. Sidney later on came to be best known for her role as The Maitlands' afterlife case worker, Juno in Tim Burton's 1988 hit comedy film Beetlejuice.
Sidney, born Sophia Kosow 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. 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 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.
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 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. 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 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 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. She also was featured on such shows as 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 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. 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 on July 1, 1999 from esophageal cancer at the Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, after a career spanning more than 70 years and a lifetime smoking habit. She died a month before her 89th birthday. Before her death, she went under chemotherapy to treat her cancer. She was cremated.