Of Jewish decent, James was born Joel Sollihan Cohen in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, South Africa. He worked as a diamond cutter and hairdresser and as a part-time boxer in fairgrounds before becoming a professional actor. He changed his name in order to assimilate into the British stereotype and also because he wanted to distance himself from his Jewishness which apparently embarrassed him.
During World War II, 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, making his first appearance in 1947 in the film Night Beat.
His first major comedy was The Lavender Hill Mob: 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 was a supporting actor in the science-fiction film Quatermass 2.
In 1954 he began working with Tony Hancock in BBC radio's Hancock's Half Hour playing a character with his own name, who was a 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.
When Hancock had James dropped from the show, he returned to films to become a leading member of the Carry On team, originally to replace Ted Ray who had appeared in Carry On Teacher in 1959. It was intended that Ray would become a recurring Carry On star, but he had been dropped after just one film due to a complex contractual embarrassment (he was contracted to the ABC film studio who had never used him). James ultimately made 19 Carry On films.
Sid James was so identified with the character that he frequently played that his characters were often also called 'Sid' or 'Sidney'. Apart from the Sidney Fiddler, Sid Carter, Sid Plummer, Sidney Bliss, Sidney Boggle and Sidney Ruff-Diamond of the Carry On films, he played Sid Abbot in Bless This House on television and its spin-off film, Sids Jones, Turner, Marks, Stone, and Gibson as well as four characters called just 'Sid'. His Sidney Balmoral James from Hancock's Half Hour also appeared in his own Citizen James series.
He later enjoyed success at the head of casts of TV situation comedies, notably George and the Dragon, Taxi and Bless This House. He suffered a heart attack on the opening night of The Mating Season at the Sunderland Empire and died on the way to hospital at the age of 62.
Later it was rumoured that the ghost of Sid James 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.
- The Whippit Inn Information on the Carry On Film Series