Sylvia Sidney, whose career on stage and screen spanned seven decades, died Thursday of complications from throat cancer at Gotham’s Lenox Hill Hospital. She was 88.
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.
Being a star never attracted her, she often said, “being an actress did.”
Already an established stage name, she made her film debut playing herself in the 1927 “Broadway Nights.” She went on to star in such pics as “Street Scene,” “An American Tragedy” (both 1931), Alfred Hitchcock’s “Sabotage,” and two 1937 hits, Fritz Lang’s “You Only Live Once” and William Wyler’s “Dead End.”
In later years she shone in character roles in such films as the 1973 “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams,” where her performance as Joanne Woodward’s cantankerous mother earned Sidney her single Oscar nomination (and the National Board of Review award) as supporting actress.
More recently she co-starred with Shirley MacLaine and Jessica Tandy in “Used People” and did hilarious turns in two Tim Burton films, “Beetlejuice” (1988) and “Mars Attacks!” (1996).
On TV, she made numerous guest appearances and was nominated for Emmys for “The Defenders” (1962-63) and the AIDS telepic “An Early Frost” (1985). She had a recurring role in the 1998 revival of “Fantasy Island,” and, in recent months, she expressed sadness at having to turn down acting jobs, as her illness forced her to nix several pic and TV offers.
Sidney was born Sophia Kosow on Aug. 8, 1910, in the Bronx. She adopted the surname Sidney from her stepfather and changed her first name to Sylvia for her stage debut in “Prunella” at the age of 15.
She reached Broadway a year later in “The Squall” and after a brief film detour returned to the stage. Paramount’s B.P. Schulberg was so impressed by her performance in “Bad Girl” that he offered her the female lead in Sergei Eisenstein’s proposed film version of “An American Tragedy.”
When the pic was postponed, Sidney took a role originally meant for Clara Bow in Rouben Mamoulian’s crime drama “City Streets” opposite Gary Cooper. Josef von Sternberg eventually directed an otherwise disappointing adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s “American Tragedy,” and Sidney was considered the best thing about the pic.
As a contract player at Paramount, she became one of the studio’s top leading ladies in the 1930s, along with Miriam Hopkins, Claudette Colbert and Marlene Dietrich.
She starred in the occasional comedy such as the 1932 “Merrily We Go to Hell” directed by Dorothy Arzner, but mostly she was cast in social dramas such as King Vidor’s “Street Scene” (adapted from Elmer Rice’s play), as Cho-Cho San in a non-operatic rendition of “Madama Butterfly,” and in the title role of Dreiser’s “Jennie Gerhardt.”
But Sidney, known for her volatile on-set temper, was unhappy with most of what Hollywood offered her and constantly returned to the stage. “Those were the days when they used to pay me by the teardrop and since I needed the money, I compromised and played the tragic heroine in a few duds,” she later told the New York Times.
Sidney went to England to star in Alfred Hitchcock’s ’36 “Sabotage” and returned to the U.S. for two of Lang’s best American films, “Fury” (1936) and “You Only Live Once” the next year. Also in 1937, she got top billing in William Wyler’s “Dead End,” though she was outshone by Humphrey Bogart and the Dead End kids.
In 1938 she returned to Broadway in Ben Hecht’s short-lived “To Quito and Back” and in the Group Theater’s presentation of “The Gentle People,” by Irwin Shaw. She toured in “Pygmalion” and Noel Coward’s “Tonight at 8:30.” Her appearance in the thriller “Angel Street” was the sensation of the 1941-42 Broadway season.
But other than the occasional film such as 1945’s “Blood on the Sun” with James Cagney, Sidney spent the rest of the ’40s on stage. “I didn’t leave Hollywood because of anybody but myself. I just got disgusted with myself. I didn’t know who I was, as an actress or a person,” Sidney later recalled.
In the 1950s she frequently appeared on live dramatic shows, including “Playhouse 90” and “Broadway TV Theatre,” in such productions as “The Helen Morgan Story” and Paddy Chayefsky’s “Catch My Boy on Sunday.” Her screen roles were intermittent. Of note were the 1952 “Les Miserables” and 1955’s “Violent Saturday” with Lee Marvin.
On stage, Sidney created the role of Mrs. Kolowitz, the typical Jewish mother, in Carl Reiner’s “Enter Laughing” and appeared in Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park.”
Her sandpaper voice and strychnine personality were put to good use in a variety of film roles, such as “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” (1977), “Damien: Omen II” (1978) and “Hammett” (1983), TV series “Route 66,” “The Nurses,” “My Three Sons” and “Starsky and Hutch” and the soap “Ryan’s Hope.”
Needlepoint became her avocation and in 1968 she published “Sylvia Sidney’s Needlepoint Book” and later “Question and Answer Book on Needlepoint.”
Her first marriage to publisher Bennet Cerf was brief. A second marriage to actor Luther Adler produced a son Jacob (Jody), whose later battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease turned Sidney into a volunteer for the National ALS Foundation. A third marriage to publicist Carlton Alsop also ended in divorce.
Memorial services are skedded Aug. 9 at the National Arts Club in New York.
(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)