Jump to content

Phil Silvers

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Phil Silvers
Silvers in a military uniform
Silvers as Sgt. Bilko
Birth namePhillip Silver
Born(1911-05-11)May 11, 1911
New York City, New York, U.S.
DiedNovember 1, 1985(1985-11-01) (aged 74)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Years active1922–1985
GenresCharacter comedy
(m. 1945; div. 1950)
Evelyn Patrick
(m. 1956; div. 1966)
Notable works and rolesThe Phil Silvers Show

Phil Silvers (born Phillip Silver; May 11, 1911[1] – November 1, 1985) was an American entertainer and comedic actor, known as "The King of Chutzpah". His career as a professional entertainer spanned nearly 60 years. He achieved major popularity when he starred in The Phil Silvers Show, a 1950s sitcom set on a U.S. Army post in which he played Master Sergeant Ernest (Ernie) Bilko. He also starred in the films It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). He was a winner of two Primetime Emmy Awards for his work on The Phil Silvers Show and two Tony Awards for his performances in Top Banana and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He also wrote the original lyrics to the jazz standard "Nancy (with the Laughing Face)".

Early life[edit]

Born Philip Silver, he was the eighth and youngest child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Saul and Sarah (née Handler) Silver.[2] 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.[3]


Silvers began entertaining at the age of 11, when he would sing in theaters when the film projector broke (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. Subsequently, he 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 All Through the Night (1942) with Humphrey Bogart. Around the same time, he played a scene with W. C. Fields in Tales of Manhattan (also 1942) 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), with Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth, and in Summer Stock (1950) with Kelly and Judy Garland.[9] 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 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 World War II, Silvers entertained the troops during several successful overseas USO tours with Sinatra.[11]

The Phil Silvers Show[edit]

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] 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,[13] 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.

Film roles[edit]

Silvers in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

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] 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. He never did stand-up, and, out of character, was not known for cracking jokes.

He was featured in Marilyn Monroe's last film, the unfinished Something's Got to Give (1962). 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.[16] Producer Peter Rogers employed him to ensure the Carry On films' success in America, though Silvers's presence did not ensure the film's success on either side of the Atlantic.[17] His salary was £30,000, the largest Carry On salary ever, only later met by the appearance of Elke Sommer in Carry On Behind.


Publicity photo of Silvers from the musical Top Banana

When Silvers played the quintessential con-man Harrison Floy in the 1947 Broadway production of High Button Shoes, Brooks Atkinson praised him as "an uproarious comic. He has the speed, the drollery and the shell-game style of a honky-tonk buffoon." Silvers later 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 which was initially released in 3-D.[4] 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."[18] 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.[4] 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.[19] The revival was a hit and Silvers became the first leading actor ever to win a Tony Award in a revival of a musical.

Later career[edit]

Silvers in The Beverly Hillbillies (circa 1969–1970)

Later in his career, Silvers guest-starred 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. He appeared as curmudgeonly Hollywood producer Harold Hecuba in the classic 1966 episode "The Producer" on Gilligan's Island, where he and the castaways performed a musical version of Hamlet.[20] (Silvers's production company Gladasya – named after his catchphrase "Gladdaseeya!"[A] – financed the show.) He continued to make guest appearances in television sitcoms including, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Happy Days, and his final screen credit CHiPs in 1983. He also starred in various television specials and talk shows such as The Bob Hope Special, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Dick Cavett Show, The David Frost Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Mike Douglas Show. In 1980, Silvers participated in The Friar's Club Tribute to Milton Berle alongside Don Rickles, Dick Shawn, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, George Burns, Karl Malden, and Robert Culp.[21]

Personal life[edit]

Phil Silvers was married twice, to Jo-Carroll Dennison and to Evelyn Patrick.[22] Both of his marriages ended in divorce.[12] He had five daughters — Candace, Cathy, Laury, Nancey, and Tracey [22] — all by his second wife, Evelyn Patrick, who later married British musician Terry Dene.[4]

Like his alter-ego Ernie Bilko, Silvers was a compulsive gambler, and also suffered from chronic depression.[23] 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 one "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!"[24]

His memoir is 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 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.[25] 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 The Chicken Chronicles (1977),[26] 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 daughter Cathy).[27] Silvers played the cab driver Hoppy in Neil Simon's send-up of hard-boiled detective films, The Cheap Detective (1978), 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 film's ending immediately prior to Falk entering "Hoppy's" cab. His final appearance was in an episode of CHiPs (entitled "Hot Date") in 1983.

On November 1, 1985, Silvers died in his sleep in Century City, California. He was interred at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.[28]


In 1996, TV Guide ranked him number 31 on its 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time list.[29]

In 2003, The Phil Silvers Show was voted Best Sitcom[30] 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[31] 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 animated series Top Cat, for which Arnold Stang moderately imitated Silvers's voice for the title character.[32] The 1993 animated series Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog featured a character called Wes Weasley, who had a very similar appearance and voice to Silvers.

Sgt Bilko's Vintage Emporium and The Phil Silvers Archival Museum houses personal and commercial memorabilia collected by Silvers's correspondent Steve Everitt. Opened in 2015 it is located in FarGo Village, Coventry, United Kingdom.[33]



Year Title Role Venue Ref
1939 Yokel Boy "Punko" Parks Majestic Theatre, Broadway [34]
1947 High Button Shoes Harrison Floy Broadway Theatre, Broadway
1951 Top Banana Jerry Biffle Winter Garden Theatre, Broadway
1960 Do Re Mi Hubert Cram 54th Street Theatre, Broadway
U.S. National Tour
1971 How the Other Half Loves Frank Foster Royale Theatre, Broadway
1972 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Pseudolus/Prologus Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Broadway


Source: Turner Classic Movies[35]

Year Title Role Notes
1937 Ups and Downs Charlie Short film
1940 Strike Up the Band Pitch Man Scenes deleted
1940 Hit Parade of 1941 Charlie Moore
1941 The Wild Man of Borneo Murdock
1941 The Penalty Hobo
1941 Tom, Dick and Harry Ice Cream Vendor
1941 Ice-Capades Larry Herman
1941 Lady Be Good Master of Ceremonies
1941 You're in the Army Now Breezy Jones
1942 Roxie Hart Babe
1942 My Gal Sal Wiley
1942 All Through the Night Waiter
1942 Footlight Serenade Slap
1942 Tales of Manhattan 1st Salesman at Santelli's Uncredited; scenes deleted
1942 Just Off Broadway Roy Higgins
1943 Coney Island Frankie
1943 A Lady Takes a Chance Smiley Lambert
1944 Four Jills in a Jeep Eddie
1944 Cover Girl Genius
1944 Take It or Leave It Phil Silvers
1944 Something for the Boys Harry Hart
1945 Diamond Horseshoe Blinkie Miller
1945 Don Juan Quilligan 'Mac' MacDenny
1945 A Thousand and One Nights Abdullah
1946 If I'm Lucky Wallingham M. 'Wally' Jones
1950 Summer Stock Herb Blake
1954 Top Banana Jerry Biffle
1954 Lucky Me Hap Schneider
1962 Something's Got to Give Insurance Salesman Incomplete
1962 40 Pounds of Trouble Bernie Friedman
1963 It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World Otto Meyer
1966 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Marcus Lycus
1967 A Guide for the Married Man Technical Advisor (Realtor)
1967 Follow That Camel Sergeant Nocker
1968 Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell Phil Newman
1970 The Boatniks Harry Simmons
1975 The Strongest Man in the World Kirwood Krinkle
1976 Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood Murray Fromberg
1977 The Chicken Chronicles Max Ober
1977 The Night They Took Miss Beautiful Marv Barker
1978 The Cheap Detective Hoppy
1979 Racquet Arthur Sargent
1980 The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood William B. Warkoff
1980 There Goes the Bride Psychiatrist


Year Title Role Notes
1948 The Phil Silvers Arrow Show Host-Performer 3 episodes[36]
1955–59 The Phil Silvers Show MSgt. Ernest G. 'Ernie' Bilko 143 episodes
1959 Keep in Step Himself/Sgt. Ernest G. Bilko Television movie
1959 The Ballad of Louie the Louse Louie Television movie
1960 The Slowest Gun in the West Fletcher Bissell III
The Silver Dollar Kid
Television movie
1962 The Jack Benny Program Himself Episode: "The Phil Silvers Show "
1963 Judy and Her Guests, Phil Silvers and Robert Goulet Himself Television special
1963–64 The New Phil Silvers Show Harry Grafton 30 episodes
1966 Gilligan's Island Harold Hecuba Episode: "The Producer"
1966 The Lucy Show Oliver Kasten Episode: "Lucy and the Efficiency Expert"
1966 At Your Service Performer Unsold pilot
1967 Damn Yankees Mr. Applegate Television movie
1967–70 The Beverly Hillbillies Shifty Shafer aka Honest John 6 episodes
1970 Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In Guest Performer Episode: #4.13
1971 Eddie Eddie Skinner unsold pilot
1971 Julia Capt. Biestoff Episode: "Swing Low, Sweet Charity"
1972 The Dean Martin Show Performer Episode: #7.24
1974 Kolchak: The Night Stalker Harry Episode: "Horror in the Heights"
1975 Get Christy Love! Uncle Harry Episode: "A Few Excess Love"
1975 S.W.A.T. Russ Baker 2 episodes
1975 The Carol Burnett Show Self Episode: #8.23
1976 Bob Hope Special: Bob Hope in "Joys" Self Television special
1977 The Night They Took Miss Beautiful Marv Barker Television movie
1977 Charlie's Angels Max Brown Episode: "Angels on Ice"
1977 The Love Boat Stubby/Morris Beckman 2 episodes
1978 Fantasy Island Charlie Parks Episode: "Carnival/The Vaudevillians"
1979 Goldie and the Boxer Wally Television movie
1980 Take Me Up to the Ball Game Irwin Voice; television movie
1981 Happy Days Roscoe Piccalo Episode: "Just a Piccalo"
1982 CHiPs Herman Hinton Episode: "Hot Date"

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Award Category Project Result
1956 Primetime Emmy Awards Best Comedian Phil Silvers Won
Best Actor in a Continuing Performance The Phil Silvers Show Won
1957 Best Continuing Actor in a Comedy Series Nominated
1958 Nominated
1959 Nominated
1952 Tony Awards Best Actor in a Musical Top Banana Won
1961 Do Re Mi Nominated
1972 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Won


  1. ^
    Or "Glad to see you". A 1944 musical titled Glad To See You was written with Silvers intended for the starring role, but he was contracted for the film Diamond Horseshoe and not available (and the musical closed during out-of-town tryouts and did not reach Broadway).[37][38]


  1. ^ "Phil Silvers | Biography, TV Show, & Facts". Encyclopædia Britannica. Entertainment & Pop Culture > Actors. May 1, 2024. Retrieved May 7, 2024.
  2. ^ Silvers, Phil; Saffron, Robert (1973). This Laugh Is on Me: The Phil Silvers Story. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-1391-9100-8.
  3. ^ "Dick Cavett interviews Phil Silvers in Hollywood in 1981". YouTube. January 22, 1982. Retrieved March 19, 2023.
  4. ^ a b c d "Phil Silvers". Masterworks Broadway. Archived from the original on November 8, 2011. Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  5. ^ Monush, Barry (2003). "Phil Silvers". Screen World Presents the Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors: From the silent era to 1965. Vol. 1. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 681. ISBN 978-1-5578-3551-2.
  6. ^ Bordman, Gerald; Norton, Richard (2010). "Yokel Boy". American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle. Oxford University Press. p. 575. ISBN 978-0-19-972970-8.
  7. ^ Suskin, Steven (2011). The Sound of Broadway Music. Oxford University Press. p. https://books.google.com/books?id=yy_9UJLhAUMC&pg=PT407 123]. ISBN 978-0-19-979084-5.
  8. ^ Crowther, Bosley (December 5, 1940). "Movie Review: 'Hit Parade of 1941' at Loew's Criterion". Archived 2012-03-10 at the Wayback Machine. The New York Times.
  9. ^ "Phil Silvers Filmography". Fandango. Archived from the original on October 13, 2011. Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  10. ^ Frank Sinatra: The Complete Guide. Google eBook. Retrieved November 25, 2011.[dead link]
  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. ^ a b Gomery, Douglas. "Phil Silvers". Museum of Broadcast Communications. Archived from the original on December 4, 2010. Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  13. ^ Newcomb, Horace (2004). "Phil Silvers Show". Encyclopedia of Television. Vol. 1 (2nd ed.). CRC Press. p. 1758. ISBN 978-1-5795-8394-1. Archived from the original on January 2, 2022. Retrieved October 28, 2020.
  14. ^ "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on January 25, 2012. Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  15. ^ Crowther, Bosley (January 24, 1963). "Movie Review: '40 Pounds of Trouble'". The New York Times. Archived from the original on October 12, 2013. Retrieved February 12, 2017.
  16. ^ Munden, Kenneth White (1971). "Follow That Camel". The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures. University of California Press. p. 360. ISBN 978-0-5202-0970-1. Archived from the original on January 2, 2022. Retrieved October 28, 2020.
  17. ^ Childs, Peter; Storry, Mike, eds. (1999). "Carry On films". Encyclopedia of Contemporary British Culture. Taylor & Francis. p. 83. ISBN 978-0-4151-4726-2. Archived from the original on January 2, 2022. Retrieved October 28, 2020.
  18. ^ Green, Stanley; Green, Kay (1996). "Do Re Mi". Broadway Musicals, Show By Show (5th ed.). Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 194. ISBN 978-0-7935-7750-7. Archived from the original on January 2, 2022. Retrieved September 11, 2023.
  19. ^ Green, Stanley; Green, Kay (1996). "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum". Broadway Musicals, Show by Show. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 198. ISBN 978-0-7935-7750-7. Archived from the original on January 2, 2022. Retrieved October 28, 2020.
  20. ^ Cantor, Paul A. (2003). "The Courage of the Fearless Crew". Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-7425-0779-1. Archived from the original on January 2, 2022. Retrieved October 28, 2020.
  21. ^ "Milton Berle Roast". classicfriarroasts.com. Archived from the original on September 26, 2020. Retrieved May 26, 2020.
  22. ^ a b "Phil Silvers: Biography". Archived 2012-03-09 at the Wayback Machine. TV Guide.
  23. ^ Maslon, Lawrence; Kantor, Michael (December 2, 2008). "Phil Silvers". Make 'em Laugh: The Funny Business of America. Hachette Digital. ISBN 978-0-4465-5575-3. Archived from the original on May 8, 2016.
  24. ^ Moe, Albert Woods (2001). Nevada's Golden Age of Gambling. Puget Sound Books. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-9715-0190-4. Retrieved September 11, 2023.
  25. ^ "Phil Silver's Illness Threatens 'Forum' Run". The New York Times. August 8, 1972. p. 21.
  26. ^ "Phil Silvers Rough Road Back". Archived 2016-04-03 at the Wayback Machine. The Prescott Courier. August 25, 1977.
  27. ^ Brant, Marley (2006). "Jennie Piccolo". Happier Days: Paramount Television's Classic Sitcoms 1974-1984. Billboard Books. p. 59. ISBN 978-0-8230-8933-8. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016.
  28. ^ Farah, Judy. "Kings of Comedy Mourn Funnyman Phil Silvers". The Associated Press. November 4, 1985.
  29. ^ TV Guide Guide to TV. New York: Barnes and Noble. 2004. p. 596. ISBN 978-0-7607-5634-8.
  30. ^ "Best Sitcom". Archived 2007-02-21 at the Wayback Machine. BBC News. September 29, 2003.
  31. ^ "Hokey Wolf". Cartoon Scrapbook. Archived from the original on December 8, 2010. Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  32. ^ Weber, Bruce (December 22, 2009). "Arnold Stang, Milquetoast Actor, Dies at 91". The New York Times. Archived from the original on December 7, 2016. Retrieved February 12, 2017.
  33. ^ "Sgt Bilko's Vintage Emporium & the Phil Silvers Archival Museum". Fargo Village. Archived from the original on January 15, 2019. Retrieved September 11, 2023.
  34. ^ "Phil Silvers". Archived 2011-11-04 at the Wayback Machine. Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  35. ^ "Phil Silvers Biography". Archived 2011-09-27 at the Wayback Machine. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  36. ^ "The Phil Silvers Arrow Show". Billboard. December 4, 1948. p. 10. Archived from the original on January 2, 2022. Retrieved August 17, 2016.
  37. ^ Bloom, Ken (2006). The Routledge Guide to Broadway. Routledge. p. 516. ISBN 978-0-4159-7380-9. Archived from the original on January 2, 2022. Retrieved July 18, 2021.
  38. ^ Filichia, Peter (April 23, 2019). "Say Hi to High Button Shoes". Masterworks Broadway. Archived from the original on July 18, 2021. Retrieved July 18, 2021.

External links[edit]