Sylvia Sidney isn't much for polite phone chat. Ask the 88-year-old silver-screen legend how she is and, between cigarette-induced coughing fits, she rasps, ''Do you really f---in' care?''
Consider that your wake-up call: Sidney is no cookie-baking granny. Take her 2-pack-a-day nicotine habit, still going strong after more than half a century despite a near-fatal bout with pneumonia 8 years ago. Or her decision to buck retirement for a weekly one-hour drama namely, ABC's revamped Fantasy Island, which shoots in Hawaii, a 10-hour flight from the actress' New York City home. Or her opinion of her role as saucy travel agent Clia. ''For Christ's sake, don't call it a role,'' she barks. ''It's a part.'' The difference? ''A role is Lady Macbeth. A role is Juliet. A part is a part. It's a job.''
But of course. Born Sophia Kosow to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Sidney landed her first Broadway part in The Squall at 16. Four years later, she signed with Paramount and became one of Hollywood's most sought-after actresses, starring in 40-plus films, including such insta-classics as Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage and William Wyler's Dead End. ''Oh, God,'' moans Sidney. ''You want me to remember 50 years ago? I was lucky. I worked with a lot of important directors, and I became a very happy actress for a time.''
Alas, contentment has never been one of her strong suits. By 1940, fed up with being typecast as the victimized girlfriend/wife, she didn't re-sign with Paramount. Instead, she returned to the stage and eventually began to dabble in TV. A guest shot on The Defenders earned her an Emmy nomination in 1963, and 10 years later, she snagged her sole Oscar nod for Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. But Sidney speaks most fondly of working with director Tim Burton in 1988's Beetlejuice (as a chain-smokin' counselor) and 1996's Mars Attacks! (as a chain-smokin' senior). ''I adore him. He's one of the most talented men who ever lived. I think we were great lovers in another life.''
Past-life theories aside, the thrice-divorced Sidney has no room for New Age sentiment. Arriving to film Fantasy's pilot, she found an ''Aloha!'' note from the show's producers. Says exec producer Barry Josephson: ''She wrote back 'Aloha yourself. Thank you for turning my sunset years into a living nightmare.'''
This season, look for Clia to indulge a Fantasy of her own. ''Let's just say it's romantic in nature,'' teases Josephson. If Sidney herself has a wish, it doesn't seem to include a condo in Florida. ''Retiring is like quitting,'' she says. ''And honey, I don't know how to do that.''