Phil Silvers (May 11, 1911 – November 1, 1985) was an
American entertainer and comedy actor. He is best known for his work is
The Phil Silvers Show, a 1950s sitcom set on a US Army post in which he
played Sergeant Bilko; the show was also often referred to by this name.
The show's chief writer, Nat Hiken, was TV's first writer-producer, and
Hiken helped set a high comic tone for the show through his inventive
plots and snappy comedic repartee for the characters.
Born Philip Silversmith in Brooklyn, New York, Silvers was the youngest
of eight children in a Russian Jewish family. His father was one of the
workers on the early New York skyscrapers. Silvers started entertaining
at age 11, when he would sing in theaters when the projector broke down
(a common occurrence in those days). Two years later, he left school to
sing professionally, before appearing in vaudeville as a stooge.
Silvers then landed work in short films for the Vitaphone studio,
burlesque houses, and on Broadway, where he made his debut in the
short-lived show Yokel Boy. The critics raved about Silvers, who was
hailed as the bright spot in the mediocre play. He then wrote the revue
High Kickers, until he went to Hollywood to star in films.
He made his film debut in Hit Parade of 1941 (1940) (his previous
appearance as a pitch man in Strike Up the Band was cut). Over the next
two decades, he appeared in character roles for MGM, Columbia, and 20th
Century Fox, in such films as Lady Be Good, Coney Island, Cover Girl,
and Summer Stock. When the studio system started collapsing, he returned
to the stage.
Silvers wrote the lyrics for Frank Sinatra's "Nancy (With the Laughing
Face)". Although, he was not a songwriter he wrote the lyrics on a whim
while visiting Sinatra's home with composer Jimmy Van Heusen. The song
became a popular hit in 1944 and was a staple in Sinatra's live
Silvers scored a major triumph in Top Banana, a Broadway show of 1952.
Silvers played Jerry Biffle, the egocentric, always-busy star of a major
television show. (The character is said to have been based on Milton
Berle.) Silvers dominated the show and won a Tony Award for his
performance. He repeated the role in a 1954 film version that was
originally released in 3-D.
Silvers became a household name in 1955 when he starred as Sergeant
Ernest G. Bilko in The Phil Silvers Show. The military comedy became a
huge television hit, with the opportunistic Bilko fast-talking his way
through one obstacle after another. Most episodes of the series were
filmed in New York. The series ceased production in 1959, not due to any
decline but because of high production costs (the show had a huge
ensemble cast; see the Wikipedia entry for The Phil Silvers Show).
Throughout the 1960s he appeared internationally in films. such as It's
a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and 40 Pounds of Trouble. He was featured in
Marilyn Monroe's last film, the unfinished Something's Got to Give. In
1967 he starred as a guest in one of the famed British Carry On films,
Follow That Camel, a Foreign Legion spoof in which he played a variation
of the "Sergeant Bilko" character. Producer Peter Rogers employed him to
ensure the Carry On films' success in America. His salary was £30,000,
the largest Carry On salary ever, only later met by the appearance of
Elke Sommer in Carry On Behind. Silvers's presence did not ensure the
film's success on either side of the Atlantic.
Silvers was offered the leading role of conniving Roman slave Pseudolus
in the Broadway musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the
Forum. Silvers declined, and the role went instead to
Zero Mostel, who
was so successful in the role that he repeated the role in the 1966 film
version. By this time Silvers realized his error, and agreed to appear
in the film as a secondary character, flesh merchant Marcus Lycus. When
actor-producer Larry Blyden mounted a Broadway revival of Forum in 1972,
he wanted Phil Silvers to play the lead, and this time Silvers agreed.
The revival was a big hit.
Silvers also guested on The Beverly Hillbillies, and various TV variety
shows such as The Carol Burnett Show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and The
Dean Martin Show. Perhaps Silvers' most memorable guest appearance was
as curmudgeonly Hollywood producer Harold Hecuba in an episode (titled
"The Producer") of Gilligan's Island (Silvers's production company
Gladasya - named after his catchphrase "Gladdaseeya!" - financed the
Illness and death
In 1972, Silvers suffered a
stroke which he never fully recovered from. Despite his poor health, he
continued working into the early 1980s including a cameo appearance on
Happy Days as the father of "Jenny Piccolo" (played by his real-life
daughter Cathy Silvers). A frail Silvers, interviewed before his death,
revealed one of his secrets: "I’m an impatient comedian. And I feel the
audience is as impatient as me."
Silvers died on Novermber 1, 1985 in Century City, California at the age
of 74. The cause of death was a heart attack. He was interred at Mount
Sinai Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California.
In 2003, The Phil Silvers Show was voted Best Sitcom
in the BBC guide to television comedy. In a 2005 poll to find The
Comedian's Comedian, he was voted #42 on the list of the top 50 comedy
acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. Dick Van Dyke, who
made his TV debut on "Bilko", says he "was always fascinated with Phil's
sense of timing. Incredible."
Silvers was as compulsive a gambler in real life as his legendary comic
character Sgt. Bilko. He suffered from depression on and off over the
years. His memoirs were titled 'The Laughs were on Me'.
When Silvers got to his more elderly years, he was rumored to watch his
own movies and television shows over and over in the nursing home.
Silvers bears a resemblance to the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama
- in 1987 in Tibet, Chinese soldiers attempted to remove from an English
tourist a T-shirt with an image of Silvers. 
Famed voice actor Daws Butler employed an impression
of Silvers as the voice of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Hokey
Wolf and also used the same voice in numerous cartoons for Jay Ward.
Furthermore, the premise of The Phil Silvers Show was the basis for the
Hanna-Barbera cartoon Top Cat, for which Arnold Stang moderately
imitated Silvers' voice for the title character.
1939 Yokel Boy
1947 High Button Shoes
1951 Top Banana
1960 Do Re Mi
1972 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Ups and Downs (1937)
Here's Your Hat (1937)
The Candid Kid (1938)
Strike Up the Band (1940)
Hit Parade of 1941 (1940)
The Wild Man of Borneo (1941)
The Penalty (1941)
Tom, Dick and Harry (1941)
Lady Be Good (1941)
You're in the Army Now (1941)
All Through the Night (1942)
Roxie Hart (1942)
My Gal Sal (1942)
Footlight Serenade (1942)
Tales of Manhattan (1942)
Just Off Broadway (1942)
Coney Island (1943)
A Lady Takes a Chance (1943)
Four Jills in a Jeep (1944)
Cover Girl (1944)
Take It or Leave It (1944)
Something for the Boys (1944)
Diamond Horseshoe (1945)
Don Juan Quilligan (1945)
A Thousand and One Nights (1945)
If I'm Lucky (1946)
Summer Stock (1950)
Top Banana (1954)
Lucky Me (1954)
Something's Got to Give (1962)
40 Pounds of Trouble (1962)