Phil Silvers

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Phil Silvers
Phil Silvers Top Banana.JPG
Publicity photo of Silvers
from the musical Top Banana
Birth namePhilip Silver
Born(1911-05-11)May 11, 1911
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
DiedNovember 1, 1985(1985-11-01) (aged 74)
Century City, California, U.S.
GenresCharacter comedy
SpouseJo-Carroll Dennison (m. 1945; div. 1950)
Evelyn Patrick (m. 1956; div. 1966)
Influence(s)Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin
InfluencedDana Snyder, Larry David

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 Master Sergeant Ernest (Ernie) Bilko.

Early life and career[edit]

Born Philip Silver[1] or Philip Silversmith[2] on May 11, 1911, in Brooklyn, New York, in the working-class Brownsville section,[3] he was the eighth and youngest child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Saul and Sarah (née Handler) Silver. His siblings were Lillian, Harry, Jack, Saul, Pearl, Michael, and Reuben Silver. His father, a sheet metal worker, helped build the early New York skyscrapers.

Silvers started entertaining at age 11, when he would sing in theaters when the film projector broke down (a common occurrence in those days), to the point where he was allowed to keep attending the same movie theater free of charge, to sing through any future breakdowns.[4] By age 13, he was working as a singer in the Gus Edwards Revue, and then worked in vaudeville and as a burlesque comic.[5]

Silvers next worked in short films for the Vitaphone studio, such as Ups and Downs (1937), and on Broadway, where he made his début in the short-lived show Yokel Boy in 1939. Critics raved about Silvers, who was hailed as the bright spot in the mediocre play.[6] The Broadway revue High Kickers (1941) was based on his concept.[7]

He made his feature film début in Hit Parade of 1941 in 1940[8] (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 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia, and 20th Century Fox, in such films as 1942's All Through the Night with Humphrey Bogart. That same year, he played a scene with W.C. Fields in Tales of Manhattan which was cut from the original release, but restored decades later in home video issues. Silvers also appeared in Lady Be Good (1941), Coney Island (1943), Cover Girl (1944), and Summer Stock (1950).[9] When the studio system began to decline, he returned to the stage. Cover Girl demonstrates that Silvers was an accomplished dancer, performing flawlessly in quick-tempo trios with famed dancers Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth.

Silvers wrote the lyrics for Frank Sinatra's "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)". Although he was not a songwriter, he wrote the lyrics while visiting composer Jimmy Van Heusen. The two composed the song for Van Heusen's writing partner Johnny Burke, for his wife Bessie's birthday. Substituting Sinatra's little daughter's name Nancy at her birthday party, the trio pressed the singer to record it himself. The song became a popular hit in 1945 and was a staple in Sinatra's live performances.[10] Towards the end of the Second World War, Silvers entertained the troops during several successful overseas USO tours with Sinatra.[11]

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.[4]

According to the documentary on the DVD of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Silvers was not a traditional comedian: he was a comic actor. Silvers never did stand-up, and, out of character, he was not known for cracking jokes.

1950s fame and later career[edit]

File:Phil silvers as bilko.JPG
Silvers as Sgt. Bilko

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 television hit, with the opportunistic Bilko fast-talking his way through one obstacle after another. In 1958, CBS switched the show to be telecast on Friday nights and moved the setting to Camp Fremont in California. A year later, the show was off the schedule.[12]

Silvers returned to Broadway in the musical Do Re Mi in December 1960, receiving a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical. Stanley Green wrote, "It was particularly blessed by offering two outstanding clowns in Phil Silvers as the pushiest of patsies and Nancy Walker."[13] Throughout the 1960s, he appeared in films such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)[14] and 40 Pounds of Trouble (1963).[15] He was featured in Marilyn Monroe's last film, the unfinished Something's Got to Give (1962).[16] 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,[17] 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, Sergeant Nocker.[18] Producer Peter Rogers employed him to ensure the Carry On films' success in America, though Silvers' presence did not ensure the film's success on either side of the Atlantic.[19] His salary was £30,000, the largest Carry On salary ever, only later met by the appearance of Elke Sommer in Carry On Behind.

File:Silvers hillbillies 1970.JPG
Silvers had recurring roles in The Beverly Hillbillies as Shifty Shafer or "Honest John" in 1969 and 1970.

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,[4] 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.[20] The revival was a hit and Silvers became the first leading actor ever to win a Tony Award in a revival of a musical.

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 the classic 1966 episode "The Producer" on Gilligan's Island,[21] where he and the castaways performed a musical version of Hamlet.[22] (Silvers' production company Gladasya – named after his catchphrase "Gladdaseeya!" – financed the show.)

Personal life[edit]

Phil Silvers was married twice, to Jo-Carroll Dennison, and to Evelyn Patrick.[23] Both of his marriages ended in divorce.[12] He had five daughters — Candace, Cathy, Laurie, Nancey, and Tracey Edythe[23] — all by his second wife, Evelyn Patrick.[4]

Like his alter-ego Ernie Bilko, Silvers was a compulsive gambler and suffered from chronic depression.[24] He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1962 while performing in Spain. While staying in Reno, Nevada, in the 1950s, he would often gamble all night. On one occasion, at the tiny Cal-Neva Lodge in nearby Lake Tahoe, Nevada, Silvers spent an entire night playing craps until he lost all his money and then went through $1,000 in credit. A taxi was called to return him to Reno. It was "[o]ne of the worst nights of my life', Silvers told the driver, adding, "Don't wait for any lights and don't wait for any tip . . . I left it at the Cal-Neva!"[25]

His memoirs are titled This Laugh Is On Me.

Illness and death[edit]

Silvers suffered a stroke during the run of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in August 1972.[26] He was left with slurred speech. Despite his poor health, he continued working, playing Harry Starman in the 1974 "Horror in the Heights" episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker starring Darren McGavin. His guest appearances continued into the early 1980s, including co-starring in 1977's The Chicken Chronicles,[27] 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 daughter Cathy Silvers).[28] In 1978, Silvers played the cab driver "Hoppy" in Neil Simon's send-up of hard-boiled detective films, The Cheap Detective, which starred Peter Falk. In his cab, Silvers can be heard (three words) and seen turning his head towards the camera and breaking into a smile (1/4 fps) at the end of the movie, immediately prior to Falk entering "Hoppy's" cab. His final appearance was in an episode of CHiPs in 1983.[citation needed]

On November 1, 1985, Silvers died in his sleep in Century City, California. According to his family, Silvers died of natural causes.[29] He was interred at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.[30]


In 1996, TV Guide ranked him number 31 on its 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time list[31]

In 2003, The Phil Silvers Show was voted Best Sitcom[32] in the Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy. In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, Silvers 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."

Voice actor Daws Butler employed an impression of Silvers as the voice of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Hokey Wolf[33] and also used the same voice in numerous cartoons for Jay Ward.[citation needed] 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.[34] 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 Silvers.[35]

The Playboy cartoon "Little Annie Fanny" featured the character of manager Solly Brass, who was based on Phil Silvers.[citation needed]

In The Simpsons episode "Homer the Vigilante" (Episode #1F09, 6 January 1994), Bart tricks Phil Silvers' character Otto Meyer from the 1963 film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World into driving into a river."[36]

In 1987, in Gyangste, Tibet, a Chinese soldier tried to tear off British tourist Kris Tait's Phil Silver shirt because Silver resembled the Dalai Lama; she fled and changed her clothes.[37]

Stage credits[edit]

Source:Internet Broadway Database[38]


Source: Turner Classic Movies[39]


  • The Phil Silvers Arrow Show (1948 - ?)[40]
  • The Phil Silvers Show (1955-1959) as MSgt. Ernest G. 'Ernie' Bilko
  • Keep in Step (1959) as Himself / Sgt. Ernest G. Bilko
  • The Ballad of Louie the Louse (1959) as Louie
  • The Slowest Gun in the West (1960) as Fletcher Bissell III, The Silver Dollar Kid
  • The Jack Benny Program (1962) as Himself (guest appearance)
  • Judy and Her Guests, Phil Silvers and Robert Goulet (1963) as Himself
  • The New Phil Silvers Show (1963-1964) as Harry Grafton
  • Gilligans Island (1966) air date October 3, 1966 Season 3 (no. in series 72) (no. in season 4) The Producer
  • At Your Service (1966) (unsold pilot)
  • Damn Yankees (1967) as Mr.Applegate
  • The Beverly Hillbillies (cast member from 1969-1970) as Shifty Shafer aka Honest John
  • Eddie (1971) as Eddie Skinner (unsold pilot)
  • Bob Hope in Joys (1976)
  • The Night They Took Miss Beautiful (1977) as Marv Barker
  • Charlie's Angels, Angels on Ice (1977)
  • Goldie and the Boxer (1979) as Wally
  • Take Me Up to the Ball Game (1980) as Irwin (voice)



  1. Silvers, Phil; Saffron, Robert (1973). This Laugh Is on Me: The Phil Silvers Story. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. p. 15. ISBN 0-13-919100-3.
  3. Erickson, Hal."AMG Allmovie Guide. Phil Silvers Biography", accessed November 26, 2011
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 "Phil Silvers", accessed November 25, 2011
  5. Monush, Barry (2003). Screen World Presents the Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors: From the silent era to 1965. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. "Phil Silvers" 681. ISBN 1-55783-551-9.
  6. Bordman, Gerald and Norton, Richard (2010). American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle. Oxford University Press. p. 575 (link: 'Yokel Boy'). ISBN 0-19-972970-0.
  7. Suskin, Steven (2011). The Sound of Broadway Music. Oxford University Press. p. 123. ISBN 0-19-979084-1.
  8. Crowther, Bosley."Movie Review: 'Hit Parade of 1941' at Loew's Criterion" The New York Times, December 5, 1940
  9. "Phil Silvers Filmography". Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  10. Frank Sintra : The Complete Guide. Google eBook. Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  11. Andrews, Maxene; Gilbert, Bill (1993). Over Here, Over There: The Andrews Sisters and the USO Stars in World War II. Thorndike Press. p. 200. ISBN 978-0-7862-0094-8.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Gomery, Douglas."Phil Silvers"The Museum of Broadcast Communications (, accessed November 25, 2011
  13. Green, Stanley and Green, Kay."'Do Re Mi'"Broadway Musicals, Show By Show (1996, 5ed.), Hal Leonard Corporation, ISBN 0-7935-7750-0, p.194
  14. "'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World' Listing", accessed November 25, 2011
  15. Crowther, Bosley."Movie Review:'40 Pounds of Trouble'" The New York Times, January 24, 1963
  16. "'Something's Got to Give' Listing", accessed November 25, 2011
  17. Newcomb, Horace."'Phil Silvers Shw'"Encyclopedia of Television, Volume 1 (2004, 2ed.), CRC Press, ISBN 1-57958-411-X, p. 1758
  18. Munden, Kenneth White."'Follow That Camel'"The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures (1971), University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-20970-2, p.360
  19. Childs, Peter and Mike Storry (1999). Encyclopedia of Contemporary British Culture]. Taylor & Francis. p. 83. ISBN 0-415-14726-3.
  20. Green, Stanley and Green, Kay."'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum'"Broadway Musicals, Show by Show (1996), Hal Leonard Corporation, ISBN 0-7935-7750-0, p.198
  21. "'Gilligan's Island' Episode", accessed November 25, 2011
  22. Cantor, Paul A."The Courage of the Fearless Crew"Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization (2003), Rowman & Littlefield, ISBN 0-7425-0779-3, p. 19
  23. 23.0 23.1 "Phil Silvers: Biography",
  24. Maslon, Lawrence and Kantor, Michael."Phil Silvers"Make 'em Laugh: The Funny Business of America (2008), Hachette Digital, Inc., ISBN 0-446-50531-5
  25. Moe, Albert Woods. Nevada's Golden Age of Gambling, Puget Sound Books, (2001), ISBN 0-9715019-0-4.
  26. "Phil Silver's Illness Threatens 'Forum' Run", ("Mr. Silvers has been out of the cast since he was stricken a week ago and hospitalized".) The New York Times, August 8, 1972, p. 21
  27. "Phil Silvers Rough Road Back" The Prescott Courier, August 25, 1977
  28. Brant, Marley."Jennie Piccolo"Happier Days: Paramount Television's Classic Sitcoms 1974-1984 (2006), Random House Digital, Inc., ISBN 0-8230-8933-9, p. 59
  29. Kerr, Peter. "Phil Silvers, TV'S Sergeant Bilko, Dead At 73", The New York Times, November 2, 1985, p. 32
  30. Farah, Judy. "Kings of Comedy Mourn Funnyman Phil Silvers", The Associated Press, November 4, 1985.
  31. TV Guide Guide to TV. Barnes and Noble. 2004. p. 596. ISBN 0-7607-5634-1.
  32. Best Sitcom
  33. "Hokey Wolf", accessed November 25, 2011
  34. Weber, Bruce."Arnold Stang, Milquetoast Actor, Dies at 91"The New York Times, December 22, 2009
  35. "Western Animation: Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog", accessed November 25, 2011
  36. Groening, Matt (1997). Richmond, Ray; Coffman, Antonia (eds.). The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family (1st ed.). New York: HarperPerennial. ISBN 978-0-06-095252-5. LCCN 98141857. OCLC 37796735. OL 433519M.
  37. Associated Press, "Tourist Had to Get It off Her Chest: 'Dalai Lama' Was Sgt. Bilko", Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1987.
  38. "Phil Silvers Listing" InternetBroadwayDatabase, accessed November 25, 2011
  39. "Phil Silvers Biography", accessed November 25, 2011
  40. "The Phil Silvers Arrow Show". Billboard. December 4, 1948. p. 10. Retrieved 17 August 2016.

External links[edit]