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Sylvia Sidney; Veteran Movie Character Actress

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sylvia Sidney, a durable character actress for seven decades who in her mid-80s appeared in the 1996 hit film “Mars Attacks!” died Thursday in New York.

Sidney died at Lennox Hill Hospital of throat cancer, said her Los Angeles agent, Ro Diamond. She was 88.

Over the last decade, Sidney continued to perform despite illness and injuries, including a broken hip, pneumonia and injuries from a car accident. She appeared in a new version of “Fantasy Island” that ran briefly on ABC TV last year.

“As long as I have got a brain and I can remember the lines and they pay me well, I will do it,” she told The Times in 1992.

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Asked if she had fun that year working in the feature “Used People” with Shirley MacLaine, she said: “What’s fun about it? That’s my job. I act. I work.”

She was very good at her work. Sidney garnered her only Academy Award nomination for her supporting role as Joanne Woodward’s mother in the 1973 film “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams.” The role was considered a comeback for Sidney, who had been absent from the movies since the mid-1950s.

Sidney was known by younger generations for her role as Juno, the grumpy social worker from the great beyond in the 1988 film “Beetlejuice.” She developed a deep affection for the film’s director, Tim Burton. Discussing Burton with The Times in 1992, she said: “I think he is one of the most extraordinary talents. I wish he would stop making crazy movies and really make something.”

A few years afterward, Burton specifically wrote the role of Grandma Norris for Sidney in “Mars Attacks!” When she was hospitalized after being hit by a car, he assured her that her role was secure even if he had to write in crutches or a wheelchair. She didn’t need either.

Born Sophia Kosow in the Bronx, N.Y., on Aug. 8, 1910, she obtained the surname Sidney when she was adopted by the dental surgeon her mother married after her parents divorced. She was shy as a child but was given elocution and dancing lessons from the age of 10 and began acting classes in high school.

She made a series of debuts at 16, first in “Prunella,” the graduation play of her theater guild high school, and quickly after that in “The Challenge of Youth” in Washington, and on Broadway in “The Squall,” all in 1926.

Sidney caught Hollywood’s attention in the Broadway drama “Bad Girl” in 1930 and was signed to a film contract by Paramount.

The young actress arrived in Los Angeles at the advent of the talkies and was cast in such early 1930s movies as “An American Tragedy,” “Street Scene,” “Ladies of the Big House,” “The Miracle Man,” “Pickup” and “Good Dame.”

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Despite a leading role in the 1932 film version of “Madame Butterfly,” Sidney became typecast as Hollywood’s favorite poor working girl.

“I’d be the girl of the gangster . . . then the sister who was bringing up the gangster, then later, the mother of the gangster. And they always had me ironing somebody’s shirt,” she once recalled ruefully. “They used to pay me by the teardrop.”

To escape the image, the sandpaper-voiced actress returned to the stage, triumphing in Broadway’s 1939 production of “The Gentle People” and the 1941 thriller “Angel Street.”

As television developed, Sidney varied her stage appearances by working steadily in 1950s drama anthologies, including “Kraft Theater,” “Philco Playhouse” and “Playhouse 90.”

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She was a popular guest on later television series such as “Route 66,” “My Three Sons,” “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Magnum, P.I.” and “Thirtysomething.”

She became a favorite of directors of television movies and specials, including “Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate,” with Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick in 1971; “Raid on Entebbe” in 1977; “The Shadow Box,” directed by Paul Newman in 1980; and as Robert Preston’s senile wife in “Finnegan Begin Again” in 1985. That same year, she earned a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy nomination as the understanding grandmother of an AIDS-stricken lawyer in “An Early Frost.”

After her return to motion pictures in the early 1970s, Sidney distinguished herself in the role of a mental patient in the landmark 1977 film about schizophrenia, “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.”

Sidney was also recognized for her needlepoint designs. She co-authored two books, “Sylvia Sidney’s Needlepoint Book” in 1968 and “The Sylvia Sidney Question and Answer Book on Needlepoint” in 1975.

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She was married and divorced three times, to publisher and writer Bennett Cerf, actor Luther Adler and advertising executive Carlton Alsop. Her only child, Jacob Adler, died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 1985 at the age of 40. Sidney served on the board of directors of the National Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Foundation.

She has no survivors. A memorial service is scheduled for Aug. 9 at the National Arts Club in New York.


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