Childhood & Early Years
Sylvia Sidney was born as Sophia Kosow on August 8, 1910 in The Bronx, New York City. Her father Victor Kosow, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, was a clothing salesman. Her mother Rebecca née Saperstein was a Romanian Jew.
Her parents divorced in 1915 when she was five years old. Later, her mother married Sigmund Sidney, a dentist, who adopted Sophia and gave her his last name.
As a child, Sylvia was very shy and suffered from stammering. To cure her maladies, she started taking elocution and dance lessons. She attended public schools to get formal education.
In 1921, she enrolled in Theatre Guild School of Acting, Manhattan, and graduated from there in 1926. During this period, she appeared in several of the school’s productions. For her performance in the class’s graduation play, she received a special mention in the New York Times.
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After graduating from Theatre Guild School of Acting, Sylvia Sidney made her professional stage debut at the age of 16. Very soon, she started attracting the attention of renowned critics.
In 1927, she got her first leading role when she performed in the Broadway revue, ‘Crime’. In the same year, she debuted in films, appearing as herself in ‘Broadway Nights’. It was followed by two more films, ‘Thru Different Eyes’ (1929) and ‘Five Minutes from the Station’ (1930). Concurrently, she continued to perform on stage.
Paramount boss BP Schulberg spotted her in the play ‘Bad Girl’ in 1930 and offered her a contract. Her first Paramount movie was ‘City Street’, in which she appeared in the leading role, replacing legendry Clara Bow.
‘City Street’ released in 1931 and became a huge hit. With her signature moist-eyed portrayal of the character Nan Cooley, she made a tremendous impact on the audience, and her screen career took off with a bang.
In 1931, Sylvia starred in four other movies apart from ‘City Street’, including ‘Confessions of a Co-Ed’, ‘An American Tragedy’, ‘Street Scene’ and ‘Ladies of the Big House’. In the following year, she starred in three more: ‘The Miracle Man’, 'Merrily We Go to Hell’ and ‘Madame Butterfly’.
In 1933, she played the title role of ‘Jeannie Gerhardt’, magnificently performing the character of a poverty-stricken girl. By then, she was typecast against her will as a teary-eyed, pensive victim who was very often wrongfully convicted of crimes.
She received great acclaim for her role in ‘Good Dame’ in 1934, which was otherwise a box office bomb. ‘Mary Burns, Fugitive’ (1935) was her another significant movie from that period that brought her refined acting skills to the forefront. In it, she played a coffee-shop owner who falls for a gangster and ends up in prison.
In 1936, Sylvia was chosen to play Mrs. Verloc in Hitchcock’s film ‘Sabotage’ and Katherine Grant in Friz Lang-directed movie ‘Fury’. It was during this period that she became one of the highest paid stars, earning $10,000 per week.
Towards the end of the 1930s, she developed a reputation for being difficult to work with, resulting in fewer roles coming her way. Her movies that released during this time were ‘One Third of a Nation’ in 1939, 'The Wagons Roll at Night' in 1941, and ‘Blood on the Sun’ in 1945.
Sylvia essayed the role of Fantine in Lewis Milestone’s film 'Les Misérables' in 1952. After that, she failed to get many film roles and started predominantly working in television productions.
In 1973, she reemerged as a successful character actress in the movie ‘Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams’. Since then, she appeared in 24 movies and most of them were made for TV.
Her last film was the 1996 release ‘Mars Attacks!’, in which she played Grandma Florence Norris; while her last TV show was ‘Fantasy Island’ (1998), in which she appeared as Clia in seven episodes.
Family & Personal Life
Sylvia Sydney married her first husband Bennett Cerf, a publisher, on October 1, 1935. However, the couple divorced a year later on April 9, 1936.
On August 3, 1938, she married actor and acting teacher Luther Adler and had a son with him. She divorced Adler on 27 February 1946. Jacob was her only child, and he died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 1987.
She married her third husband, radio producer and announcer Carlton Alsop, on March 5, 1947. They divorced on March 22, 1951.
On July 1, 1999, a month before her 89th birthday, Sylvia died from esophageal cancer in New York City. Her remains were cremated before being handed over to her family.