Sid James (born Joel Solomon Cohen; 8 May 1913 – 26 April 1976) was a South African actor, who made his career in the British film and television industry. James, who was often credited as Sidney James, is best remembered for his roles in the Carry On films, Bless This House and Hancock's Half Hour.
It was at a hairdressing salon in Kroonstad, Orange Free State that he met his first wife. He married Berthe Sadie Delmont, known as Toots, on 12 August 1936 and her father Joseph Delmont, a wealthy Johannesburg businessman, bought a salon for James. Within a year, however, James announced that he wanted to become an actor and joined Johannesburg Repertory Players. Through this he got work with the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
He and Delmont divorced in 1940 mainly as a result of James's many relationships with other women; it was a pattern that continued throughout his life. In 1943, he married a dancer, Meg Sergei, née Williams (born 1913). They divorced on 17 August 1952. On 21 August that year he wed Valerie Elizabeth Patsy Assan (born 1928), an actress who used Ashton as her stage name. During the later part of their marriage they lived in a house partly designed by James himself called Delaford Park situated in Iver, Buckinghmshire., a location close enough to Pinewood Studios to allow him to return home for lunch whilst filming. During his marriage to Valerie he had a well publicised affair with his Carry On co-star, Barbara Windsor.
During the Second World War, he became a lieutenant in the South African Army in an entertainment unit, and subsequently took up acting as a career. He came to Britain in 1946 on the back of his service gratuity. Initially he worked in repertory before being spotted by the nascent British post-war film industry.
His first major comedy role was in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951): with Alfie Bass he made up the bullion robbery gang headed by Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway. In the same year he also appeared in Lady Godiva Rides Again and The Galloping Major; in 1956 he had a non-comic supporting role as a journalist in the science-fiction film Quatermass 2. He also had a supporting part as a TV advertisement producer in Charlie Chaplin's A King in New York (1957).
Meanwhile, in 1954, he began working with Tony Hancock in BBC radio's Hancock's Half Hour playing a character with his own name (but having the invented middle name Balmoral), who was a petty criminal who would usually manage to con Hancock. When this was turned into a television series his part was greatly increased to the extent that some viewers considered it to be a double act. Sid James was soon getting as many laughs as his partner. In the final series, the show was renamed simply Hancock and James was not included in the cast. The show was one of the most popular comedy series in Britain on both television and radio.
The characters he portrayed in the films were usually very similar to the wise-cracking, sly, lecherous cockney he was famed for playing on television, and often had the name Sid or Sidney.
The exceptions were in Carry On Henry - a parody of Henry VIII - and Carry On Dick - a parody of legendary highwayman Dick Turpin, in which he played the titular roles.
Meanwhile his success in TV situation comedies continued, now heading the cast, notably in Taxi!, George and the Dragon, Two In Clover, and Bless This House. He suffered a heart attack on 26 April 1976, the opening night of The Mating Season at the Sunderland Empire Theatre and died on stage. The announcer called for the curtain to close and requested a doctor, whilst the audience (unaware of what was happening) laughed, believing the events to be part of the show. He was 62. He was cremated and his ashes scattered at Golders Green Crematorium.
Later it was rumoured that Sid James's ghost haunted the dressing room he occupied on the night of his death. After one experience during a gig there, the comedian Les Dawson refused to play the venue again. He never revealed why and would not talk on the subject.
It goes into detail about James's gambling addiction and the agreement he had with his agent, Michael Sullivan, whereby his wife did not know how much he was being paid, with a portion set aside for gambling. An inveterate gambler, James was also a largely unsuccessful one and lost tens of thousands of pounds over his lifetime.
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