Phil Silvers: Wikis


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Phil Silvers
Born Philip Silver
May 11, 1911(1911-05-11)
Brooklyn, New York,
United States
Died November 1, 1985 (aged 74)
Century City, California
United States
Occupation Actor
Years active 1937–1983
Spouse(s) Jo-Carroll Dennison
Evelyn Patrick (1956-1966)

Phil Silvers (May 11, 1911 – November 1, 1985) was an American entertainer and comedy actor, known as "The King of Chutzpah." He is best known for starring in The Phil Silvers Show, a 1950s sitcom set on a U.S. Army post in which he played Sergeant Bilko.


Early life and career

Born Philip Silver[1] in Brooklyn, New York, Silvers was the youngest of eight children in a Russian-Ukrainian 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. 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 appear in films.

He made his film debut in Hit Parade of 1941 in 1940 (his previous appearance as a 'pitch man' in Strike Up the Band was cut). Over the next two decades, he worked as a character actor 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 began to decline, 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 performances.

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 the 1954 film version that was originally released in 3-D.

1950s fame and later career

Silvers became a household name in 1955 when he starred as Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko in You'll Never Get Rich, later retitled 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 owing to any decline in popularity, but because of the high production costs of a show with a huge ensemble cast.

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 the 1963-1964 television season, he appeared as Harry Grafton, a factory foreman interested in get-rich-quick schemes, much like the previous Bilko character, in CBS's 30-episode The New Phil Silvers Show, with co-stars Stafford Repp, Herbie Faye, Buddy Lester, Elena Verdugo as his sister, Audrey, and her children, played by Ronnie Dapo and Sandy Descher. In 1967 he starred as a guest in one of the British Carry On films, Follow That Camel, a Foreign Legion parody 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' 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 and Silvers became the first actor ever to win a Tony Award in a revival of a show.

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, where the he and the castaways performed a musical version of Hamlet (Silvers's production company Gladasya - named after his catchphrase "Gladdaseeya!" - financed the show).

Illness and death

In 1972, Silvers suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. Despite his poor health, he continued working into the early 1980s including an appearance on Fantasy Island as an old comic trying to reunite with his old partner, and 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 November 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 Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

Personal life

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 This Laugh Is On Me.

While staying in Reno, Nevada, in the 1950's, he would often gamble all night. After heading over Mt. Rose to Lake Tahoe one evening, Silvers came in and “took over” the crap game at the tiny Cal-Vega Lodge. Starting with a $50 buy in, he told one-liners and began to really enjoy himself. Gambling was “bigger than life” for Phil, and soon so were his bets. The club had a $200 maximum per number at craps, but the dice stayed hot and Silvers filled the rail around himself with chips. When the dice got cold, the chips began disappearing. That didn’t matter to the players as Silvers continued to tell jokes and generally “harass” the dealers. Unfortunately, as often happened, his luck stayed bad.

Soon the rails were empty and so was Silvers’ wallet. He asked for credit and went through another $1,000. At that point a taxi was called and he was taken back to Reno. It was “One of the worst nights of my life”, said Silvers to the driver, then added, “Don’t wait for any lights and don’t wait for any tip, I left it at the Cal Vega.”[2]

Both Silvers' marriages ended in divorce. He had five daughters, all by his second wife.


In 2003, The Phil Silvers Show was voted Best Sitcom in the Radio Times Guide to TV 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."

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. The 1993 cartoon series The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, featured a character called Wes Weasley, who had a very similar appearance and voice to him.

Playboy's Little Annie Fanny cartoon featured the character of manager "Solly Brass" who was based on Phil Silvers.

Stage credits



  1. ^ Silvers, Phil; Saffron, Robert (1973). This Laugh Is on Me: The Phil Silvers Story. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. p. 15. ISBN 0139191003.  
  2. ^ Moe, Albert Woods.: Nevada's Golden Age of Gambling, Puget Sound Books, 2001, ISBN 0-9715019-0-4

External links

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