Sidney James was born Solomon Joel Cohen in South Africa on 8 May 1913. He later changed his name to Sidney Joel Cohen and then Sidney James.
Sid trained and worked as a hairdresser in Johannesburg before joining the Johannesburg Repertory Players. During World War II, he served as a lieutenant in an entertainment unit of the South African Army and subsequently took up acting as a career.
Moving to Britain in December 1946 (financed by his service gratuity), Sid Initially worked in repertory before being spotted for the nascent British post-war film industry. He made his first credited film appearances in the crime dramas Night Beat and Black Memory (both 1947) before turning to comedy with a role in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951).
He began working with Tony Hancock in 1954 in the BBC Radio series Hancock’s Half Hour.
His part in the show greatly increased when the series made the transition to television, and many viewers came to think of Hancock and James as a double act.
By 1958, James was starring with Miriam Karlin in East End, West End, a half-hour television comedy series for Associated-Rediffusion, and his Sidney Balmoral James character from Hancock resurfaced in the series Citizen James (1960–1962).
His next series was the comedy-drama Taxi! (1963–64).
Sid then became a regular member of the cast of the immensely popular and highly successful Carry On film franchise, appearing in nineteen Carry On films with top billing in seventeen of them.
With his lecherous laugh and a keen eye for the main chance (sexual or financial or both), he was perhaps the keystone which held the series together. Mostly playing characters called Sid(ney) – memorably as Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond in Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) – he had his finest hour as Mark Antony in Carry On Cleo (1964) and as Johnny Finger, the Rumpo Kid in Carry On Cowboy (1965).
During his time with the Carry Ons, Sid had a three-year-long affair with co-star Barbara Windsor. Their affair was documented in ITV’s 2000 TV film Cor, Blimey!, adapted from the stage play Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick.
Popular and sociable, Sid’s hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-betting lifestyle took its toll.
In the mid-sixties, he suffered a massive heart attack and was forced to ease up. He was in such poor health during the making of Carry On Doctor (1968) that he played all his scenes from his bed.
Sid had a heart attack on 26 April 1976 on stage at the Empire Theatre in Sunderland only 10 minutes after the curtain rose on the first night of The Mating Game. He died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. He was just 62.