The son of Colonel H.G. Toler, breeder of trotting horses, Sidney Toler acted on stage by the time he was seven years old. He was an established star of the theatre by the 1890s, long before his career in motion pictures began.
Frequently under the auspices of theatrical impresario David Belasco, Sidney starred in Broadway comedy for twelve years (1918-30). Having decided to abandon his successful stage career, he made the move to Hollywood and played supporting roles as a free-lance actor for several years, often cast as police officers, bankers or butlers.
In the mid-1930s, he joined 20th Century Fox under contract. The death of Charlie Chan impersonator Warner Oland in 1938 presented him with an opportunity for a leading role and he successfully auditioned for the part among 34 candidates screen-tested. His expansive, avuncular personality made Sidney, arguably, the most popular incarnation of the famous oriental detective with a noticeably strong line in sarcastic wit -- usually directed at 'Number Two Son'.
He played Chan in 22 feature films beginning with Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938), and ending with The Trap (1946). The first 11 Charlie Chan outings were produced by 20th Century Fox Studios. All of them were box office hits. However, by 1942, the quality of the series began to decline. With America's entry into the Second World War, overseas markets began to dwindle.
Moreover, after years of being typecast as Charlie Chan and given few opportunities to expand his range as an actor, Sidney's performances also became less defined and more automatic. While filming the last three Charlie Chan installments the actor became increasingly incapacitated by ill-health which resulted in extra screen time for his co-stars Mantan Moreland and Victor Sen Yung. After being bedridden for several months, he passed away at his Hollywood home from intestinal cancer on February 12, 1947 at age 72.