Sidney James, born as Solomon Joel Cohen (May 8th 1913 — April 26 1976) is a South African-born English actor, mostly known for his roles in the Carry On film series playing many antiheroes and lady killers. He spent the early years of his life living in Johannesburg and began working as a hairdresser before joining the army during World War II, serving as a lieutenant in an entertainment sector of the army base, soon discovering he wanted to be an actor. When the war finished, he emigrated to Britain to pursue an acting career.
He began appearing in crime dramas and comedy films alongside in the late-1940s, such as The Lavender Hill Mob as a member of Alec Guinness's gang of robbers. He spent the early days trying to get any acting job he could, being spotted as bit characters or extras in films and TV series throughout the beginning of the 1950s. He also turned to radio, appearing in Hancock's Half Hour in '57, alongside future Carry On colleagues Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques. When that job ended, he appeared in other dramas on the BBC and ITV, this time as main and supporting characters.
In 1960, he was approached by the Carry On producers, originally to replace Ted Ray as one of the lead characters in Carry On Constable, and then became a series regular and appeared in 19 films in the series, gaining popularity with audiences, especially with his characters' Cockney accents, "dirty laugh" and occasional "Cor, blimey!" catchphrase. The production team were rather impressed with James' acting ability, as well as how easy it seemed for him to play any role in any accent (he was praised for his American attempt in Carry On Cowboy).
The popularity in the British media led him into other projects outside of the Carry Ons. James' habit of grabbing whatever role he could get still continued, even though he was getting pay rises and more screen-time, turning him into a workaholic. On top of that, he entered the flashy side of celebrity status, becoming obsessed with gambling, alcohol and smoking, leading to a heart attack in the late-1960s. He tried to cut down on his showbiz lifestyle, drinking alcohol less and smoking a different kind of tobacco.
Unfortunately, there were other problems in James' private life. He had a reputation for being a womanizer, despite marrying three times, and allegedly having several affairs with other women around him. Between his three wives, he had 4 children, but was rumored to have at least three more with several others he'd had one-night stands with. When he thought that he was over it, in his third marriage, he had an affair with a colleague on the Carry On set, which he admitted to immediately stating that he couldn't escape her because of his film roles; his wife forgave him for being honest and said that she would stand by him.
By the 1970s, he was in the Carry On films, on radio, doing stage tours with a comedy theatre group, and was in TV sitcoms, most notably six series of Bless This House. He took a hiatus in the film series with Carry On Dick being his last for the time being so that he could tour in a comedy theatre show that was sold out in theatres around the UK. When the company performed in Sunderland, Tyne-and-Wear; Sid James (in character) walked onto the stage to do his scene with a fellow actress, in which he collapsed in the chair his character was supposed to sit. The company thought he was doing ad-lib, until he didn't respond to the actress' dialogue, to which a stagehand called out to the already-laughing audience "Is There a Doctor in the House?", making them laugh even more.
James was later rushed to hospital, where he died an hour later over a suspected heart attack on stage. Through a busy lifestyle of alcoholism, smoking, womanizing, gambling, and being a workaholic, he managed to die as a well-loved, respected and entertaining actor with a legacy of critically-acclaimed classic British media.
Shows Examples Of
- Adam Westing: The Carry On films were known for basing some of the characters' characteristics on the actors playing them, so it can be argued that some of James' characters that were either womanizers, sex-crazy, caring parents or gambling addicts were probably based on him. Hell, some are even named Sid!
- Ambiguously Jewish: Being born to Jewish parents with a rather Jewish birth-name, he only plays a Jewish background character in a TV drama about a Jewish community. He never plays a Jewish character in the Carry Ons and never shows any signs of the stereotype.
- Dawson Casting: In the Carry Ons. Some of his roles were characters that could've been in the early twenties or mid-thirties, but James either played these roles in his late-thirties or his mid-fifties.
- Dead Artists Are Better: When alive, his roles in Carry On were criticized by critics for being tiresome and disgusting. After his death, many critics (and audiences) slated the Carry Ons that came after and praised Sid's acting and humour that made the films' charm point (whether they felt guilty for slating him when he was alive is debatable).
- Dirty Old Man: Although he tried to control it, he couldn't resist flirting with attractive young women and having affairs. However he was Genre Savvy enough to realise that the public would eventually rebel against a man in his sixties chasing women half his age around on screen and took the role in Bless This House as a way to transition into roles more in keeping with his actual age.
- Distinguished Gentleman's Pipe: After his first heart attack, he switched cigarettes for a pipe.
- The Gambling Addict: He was an inveterate and largely unsuccessful gambler, losing tens of thousands of pounds over his lifetime. His gambling addiction was such that he had an agreement with his agent, Michael Sullivan, under which his wife was not told how much he was being paid, so that a portion could be set aside for gambling.
- Great Way to Go: Dying on stage as a famous comic actor to the sound of laughter could be seen as this.
- Insistent Terminology: In interviews, James constantly told the interviewer and the audience that he was not a comedian just because he was in several Carry On films. (Many people thought he was being modest, though.)
- Is There a Doctor in the House?: Literally shouted out by a stagehand when Sid didn't seem like he was ad-libbing collapsing in a chair. The audience were crying with laughter.
- Lady Killer: His greatest weakness. Rumour has it that this was why his first two marriages failed over rumours of fathering at least three or four love-children. He was advised to emigrate in order to save his reputation as a respectable lieutenant.
- Leslie Nielsen Syndrome: After Hancock's, he slowly appeared in more comedy dramas than the serious films he'd originally appeared in.
- Lovable Rogue: His default Carry On persona.
- Nice Guy: Despite his adultery, his third wife has spoke fondly of him and said that he cared a lot about his children and always made sure they were safe and happy.
- Professional Gambler: When he began gambling, he always split up his earnings from his acting salaries to have enough to gamble with. The rest was given to his family.
- Signature Laugh: His "dirty laugh" in the Carry On film series.
- Star-Making Role:
- Your Cheating Heart: Cheated on at least more than one wife out of his three wives, but the number count is debatable. While married to his third wife, Valerie, he infamously had an affair with fellow Carry On colleague Barbara Windsor, who later admitted that he kept hounding her to have sex with him until she finally gave in.