Oscar Actors: Sidney, Sylvia–Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams

Sylvia Sidney was born as Sophia Kosow on August 8, 1910 in Bronx, New York; she died on July 1, 1999.

Sylvia Sidney in Lang’s “Fury.”

Sidney’s stage, film, and TV career spanned over 70 years, from 1925 to 1998.

Sidney became known for her role as Juno, a case worker in the afterlife, in Tim Burton’s comedy Beetlejuice.

At age 63, she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the domestic melodrama, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, playing Joanne Woodward’s hard-bitten mother.

Jewish Background

She 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.

Sidney 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 appeared in several productions during the 1920s.


In 1926, she was seen by a Hollywood talent scout and made her first film appearance later that year.

During the Depression, Sidney 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), 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.

Sidney was one of the industry’s highest-paid actresses, earning $10,000 per week—she made a total of $80,000 for Sabotage.

Her career diminished during the 1940s, and in 1949, exhibitors voted her “box office poison”.

In 1952, she excelled in the role of Fantine in Les Misérables, and began being cast as a character actress.

She appeared on Playhouse 90: On May 16, 1957, she appeared as Lulu Morgan, mother of singer Helen Morgan in “The Helen Morgan Story.” Sidney joined her former co-star Bergen again on the premiere of the short-lived 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, opposite Joanne Woodward.

As an elderly woman, Sidney continued to play supporting screen roles, and was identifiable by her husky voice (heavy-smoker). 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 TV production of An Early Frost for which she won a Golden Globe.

She played Aunt Marion in Damien: Omen II and had key roles in Beetlejuice (directed by her longtime fan Tim Burton), for which she won a Saturn Award, and Used People.

Her final screen role was in Mars Attacks! directed by Burton, in which she played an elderly woman whose beloved Slim Whitman records help stop alien invasion from Mars.

On TV, 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 even 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 and Hutch, The Love Boat, Magnum, P.I., and Trapper John, M.D..

Her Broadway career spanned five decades, from debut performance as  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 for distinguished contribution to the art of film.