Phil Silvers was born Philip Silver on May 11th, 1911 in the Brownsville district of Brooklyn, New York. He was the youngest of eight children born to Saul and Sarah Silvers, Russian-Jewish immigrants who had fled to the United States. Phil once remarked that his parents' story "was like Fiddler On The Roof, minus the music, Chagall-style scenery and friendly Gentiles!"
As a kid, Phil was no stranger to poverty. "I could put my socks on from either end!" said Phil. He began to sing on street corners and outside movie theatres to earn money. He began to realise he could use his talent to buy those things he otherwise couldn't afford.
By the age of eight Phil had developed a beautiful boy-soprano voice and was regularly earning money by singing for audiences at parties, theatres and in the local movie houses. At one performance, a welcome home party for a local hoodlum, he was singing his signature song Break The News To Mother when the hoodlum in question was shot dead at Phil's feet.
At age 12, whilst singing on the boardwalk at Coney Island beach, Phil was discovered by theatre impressario Gus Edwards. Edwards was a successful vaudevillian and songwriter, who had discovered such talents as George Jessel and Eddie Cantor. Edwards offered Phil a private audition which lead to him landing a slot with Gus Edwards' Proteges of 1923.
At the age of 13, having been robbed of his glorious boy-soprano voice by puberty, Phil went to work for the Morris and Campbell touring company. Joe Morris and Flo Campbell were a big draw on the vaudeville circuit and Phil realised they could teach him a lot about the business.
By 1931 vaudeville was a dying art, killed by the advent of the talking picture. "What killed vaudeville?" said Phil. "The movies helped. But the real executioner was vaudeville itself. Its complacency. Acts never changed. The performers thought their routines had been handed down from Mount Sinai, on stone tablets!"
It was around this time that Phil encountered his life-long friend and mentor, Herbie Faye. Herbie was working with Mildred Harris Chaplin, Charlie's former wife, on a new vaudeville act. It just so happened that they needed a third person to round out the act. Herbie and Phil worked on developing the act and after a shaky start things began to take shape. They worked solidly until one disastrous night Miss Harris slipped an unrehearsed strip routine into the show and the act was fired.
To make ends meet Phil and Herbie developed their own act called She Won't Take It. They took it around the New York nightclubs. For Phil it was a real learning curve. "I was as stiff as a scenery brace, and I didn't have a clue what I was supposed to be. Herbie nursed me, cajoled me, taught me the fundamentals of stage comedy. I loosened up, became more creative. I improvised instantly on my feet!"
When Phil and Herbie brought the curtain down on their act, Phil was offered a job as a social director at the Evans Hotel in the Catskill Mountains, a popular Jewish holiday resort. This was more popularly known as the Borscht Belt Circuit and many Jewish stand-up comics got their start in showbusiness there. It was during his time in the Catskills that Phil really began to learn his trade as a performer and comedian.
He also met many life-long friends there including Sammy Cahn, Saul Chaplin and Jack Kraft. Kraft, whose real surname was Albertson, was originally a tap dancer. Phil took him under his wing and began to teach Jack the stagecraft that Herbie Faye had taught him.They began to perform sketches, musicals and stand-up routines.
In 1932 Phil and Jack headed for New York and an audition with Minksy's Burlesque at the Republic Theatre on 42nd Street. They got the job and went out on the road touring such places as Boston, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Phil had recently developed a love for the clarinet and began to incorporate it into the act. It was hard work which Phil loved...unfortunately Jack Albertson did not. After a couple of months on the road Jack decided to leave the act and try his hand at acting (it eventually paid off as Jack won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1968!)
It was his time with Minsky's that was to prove the most fertile of all for Phil. For it was here that he began to blossom, to discover his identity as a performer. "The only chance you had for individuality was your own improvisation. New facets of character or voice. Bits of business." So it was that Phil began to develop his instincts for improvisation and ad-lib that would serve him so well throughout his career.
Phil differed from other Burlesque comics because he hated using funny costumes or gimmicks, his only distinguishing feature being the tortoise-shell glasses he wore. He wanted to play things as real as he could and this, along with his fast-paced delivery made him stand out from the crowd. Soon he was being billed above the strippers, something that until then was unheard of.
At Minsky's Gaiety Theatre Phil met and began working with Rags Ragland. Rags (real name John) was an ex-boxer who had drifted into showbiz. They shared many hilarious adventures and formed a deep, close friendship that lasted until Rags passed away in 1946. "I idolised Rags. What an exhilarating comedian." said Phil.
In 1939 Phil was offered a part in a new Broadway production entitled Yokel Boy. It was a small role, just a two minute scene....the producers were having difficulty finding anyone who could do anything with the part. Phil did an improvised audition and impressed the producer enough to be offered the part on the spot. Phil was a big hit. When the star of the show, Jack Pearl, quit after a few days it was decided to rewrite the show and expand Phil's role. Thus Punko Parks was born. "That's how the role that I played for years, the aggressive, smiling, call-a-tall-man-Shorty manipulator was born." remarked Phil.
As a result of his role in Yokel Boy, Louis B Mayer of MGM offered Phil a seven year movie contract. Phil had dabbled previously in Hollywood when he appeared in several two-reel pictures....but it seemed now that he was destined for bigger things. However that was not the case. "For the first two years they had me sit on my keister. Nothing. The only pictures I made were with a Brownie camera...pictures I could send back East to the boys at Lindy's and Toots Shor's!" said Phil.
Phil was eventually called by the casting department. He was to play the role of William Collins, an English vicar, in a production of Pride & Prejudice. He filmed a test reel. "I saw the test days later. The Bensonhurst-Broadway accent was as emphatic as a jack-hammer. These three minutes were perhaps the funniest I've ever done!" said Phil. The role in the finished film was played by Melville Cooper.
Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney lobbied hard for Phil. Judy was a big fan of Phil's having seen him several times in Yokel Boy. Arthur Freed who was the overseer of many of MGM's grand musicals, gave Phil a six-minute scene in Babes In Arms opposite Judy & Mickey. Phil was good...too good. Arthur Freed saw the rushes and decided that Phil's role be excised from the film.
Despite the lack of movie roles Phil stayed busy in Hollywood. He entertained at parties and nightclubs and was in demand to perform at the homes of his Hollywood friends - who included Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. When MGM cancelled the option on Phil's contract he teamed up with old pal Rags Ragland and put together a new act.
Phil's old friend Garson Kanin was directing a new movie called Tom, Dick & Harry and offered Phil the role of a wise-cracking ice-cream salesman. Phil was a big hit as was the film itself and soon more roles came his way. Although the roles were often small Phil played them all with the same zest and relish with which he had performed on stage and he often stole scenes from some very fine actors.
Movie followed movie....You're In The Army Now, My Gal Sal, Coney Island, Cover Girl....eventually some 25 films in all. But the Hollywood years were not a happy time for Phil. He often refered to them as his 'Blinky' years. "I was always cast as 'Blinky', the hero's best friend. He always comes in and shouts 'It's gonna be alright, we got the money' or I'd tell Betty Grable 'I mean it honey, he really loves you, he told me'. Of course, I'd never get the heroine. And always they'd make me use my tag-phrase, 'Gladaseeya!'". Whilst filming Something For The Boys in 1944 Phil met and, following a whirlwind romance, married former Miss America Jo-Carroll Dennison.
In 1946 Phil was asked to re-team with his old friend Rags Ragland for a series of shows at the Copacabana in New York. Sadly it was not to be. Rags was an alcoholic and his many years of sustained hard-drinking had taken its toll. His liver and kidneys were severly damaged. Rags was rushed to hospital where he lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered. "I watched my best friend die." said Phil "I delivered the eulogy at his funeral. I never cried at my own father's funeral. This time I did."
When Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, both of whom Phil knew from his vaudeville days, created a musical entitled High Button Shoes, they offered him a part in the show. Phil initially turned them down. When the show was re-written and Phil's character became the centre-piece of the show he saw the potential and realised he could bring something to the mix. "Harrison Floy was a flamboyant scamp with great dreams. A Bilko in spats!" said Phil. Once again he turned in a tour-de-force performance, using every trick in the book. The show eventually ran for 727 performances.
In the midst of all his hectic showbiz life Phil's marriage to Jo-Carroll Dennison suffered. Phil found it hard to give up his bachelor lifestyle....fight nights, card games with the boys, racetrack meets. "I had no empathy." said Phil "I didn't realise that she just wanted to be with me. I put her down for being so corny. I was wrong!" They divorced in 1950.
1951 turned out to be the year that Phil's career finally saw him heading for the big-time. Hy Kraft came up with an idea for a musical based on television's leading comics of the day, with songs provided by Johnny Mercer. The original draft was called Jest For Laughs. At Phil's behest Kraft came up with a wittier, pacier script which closely parodied Phil's close friend Milton Berle. At the time Berle was riding the crest of a wave as the undisputed King Of Television. The central character was called Jerry Biffle, an ex-burlesque comic who had become a TV megastar with an outsized ego. The show was retitled Top Banana - (the title was adapted from First Banana - a vaudeville term for a lowly comic who had risen through the ranks to become a lead comic.)
Phil surrounded himself with a set of seasoned ex-vaudevillians, close friend and mentor Herbie Faye, Jack Albertson and Joey Faye, all of whom would be comfortable with Phil's style of ad-libbing. Rose Marie, a seasoned vaudeville performer was brought in as the female lead. The show was set....a great script, wonderful songs, great support artists and a comic performer at the top of his game. All Phil had to do now was to break the news to Milton Berle that he was about to be parodied!
Legend has it that during a game of golf with Berle, when questioned about his forthcoming Broadway musical Phil explained to Berle "It's about a guy who's been 'on' all his life. His only goal is the laugh....everything to him is a comedy bit. He never listens to anyone's conversation....he's just thinking of what he'll say next."...Pause..."I'll be a sonofabitch!" says Berle, "I know guys just like that!"
Top Banana won rave reviews. Phil Silvers was the toast of Broadway and went on to win a Tony award for his performance. The show ran for a year on Broadway and then the prodcution went on the road. A few weeks before the shows final performance Phil was approached by Joe Justman, a promoter who just happened to own his own film production centre. The film would be shot literally as a stage performance over two days. Justman wanted to shoot the movie in 3-D. Phil was offered 25 per cent of the profits. But Justman was a promoter with big ideas but no money to back them up. The movie was a critical and box office flop.
His performance as Jerry Biffle brought in dozens of television offers. But Phil baulked at the idea of doing television feeling it could not offer him the same thrill as working a live audience. He subsequently refused several offers from the major television networks.
After the final performance of Top Banana Phil went to Hollywood to film Lucky Me opposite Doris Day and Robert Cummings. "It made me a Blinky again - at a higher salary!" said Phil. It was at this time that Phil was also asked to MC a show that was being put together in Washington for the President. Once again Phil proved to be a big hit. "I walked out onto the stage and looked over the audience - President Eisenhower, Vice-President Nixon, the Cabinet, Congressmen and Senators. Well I'd come a long way from Brownsville, so I took a good look....about 15 seconds - an eternity. Finally, I turned to Mr. Eisenhower and said "My God, who's minding the store?"
It was an ad-lib of genius proportion and it just happened to be witnessed by one of the most powerful men in television at that time, Hubbell Robinson Jr. Robinson was then Vice-President in charge of Programming at CBS Television. Within a matter of days came the news that CBS wanted Phil to develop a half-hour situation comedy series. Phil had already turned down numerous television offers. He thrived on the energy and adrenaline of a live audience - something he felt he would not get from television. Two words however changed his mind.... Nat Hiken.
Nat Hiken was already considered to be an outstanding comic writer. He'd spent many years writing for comedian Fred Allen's radio show, and written for both Milton Berle and Martha Hyer. The pair were put on a retainer and went to work in Nat's office on 48th Street, New York. Nat came up with several ideas - a wise-guy brother-in-law, racetrack tout, manager of a minor league baseball team, larcenous theatre agent, hotel bellboy, Turkish bath attendant and even an army Sergeant in business for himself. "The Abbott & Costello drill-routine and all that army jazz! Forget it." said Phil.
Five months went by and they had come up with 38 possibilities. It began to dawn on Phil that maybe the idea of a Sergeant in the army might not be a bad idea after all. The more he thought about the idea the more he realised that this guy was a culmination, a drawing together of all his other incarnations - Punko Parks, Harrison Floy and Jerry Biffle. Nat Hiken put together an outline of their ideas for the character and the series and presented it to Hubbell Robinson. He was sold on the idea and immediately ordered a pilot show. Thus the immortal Sergeant Bilko was born. The fun-filled, machine-gun mouthed baby fathered by two comic Gods!
Originally called You'll Never Get Rich, the show title was quickly changed to The Phil Silvers Show. Within weeks of being on air the show deposed Milton Berle from his throne as the King of Television. Berle was gracious in defeat, after all, he had seen off all-comers until now. It ran for four glorious seasons and garnered a total of eight Emmy awards Iincluding three consecutive awards for Best Comedy Series) and was undoubtedly the pinnacle and crowning jewel in Phil's career.
In 1956 Phil married for the second time. Evelyn Patrick became Mrs. Evelyn Silvers on October 21, 1956. This time Phil felt ready to leave his bachelor lifestyle behind and settle down with Evelyn to raise a family. 1957 saw the birth of their first daughter, Tracey. They eventually went on to have four more children, all girls, Nancey, Cathy, Laury and Candace! Phil once remarked "Our genes linked up as precisely as the Apollo spaceships. every time I said 'Hello, honey' too loudly, I had another child!"
After filming of episode 142 of The Phil Silvers Show, Phil was called in to see the CBS executives. He was told that the show was to be cancelled and the series was to be sold into syndication. The show was becoming increasingly expensive to film and CBS reasoned that they could make money from the show without having to make new episodes. So it was that on September 11th, 1959 Sgt. Bilko and his motley crew were discharged!
Although he was tiring of the gruelling shooting schedules for The Phil Silvers Show, Phil was never the less devastated when the axe finally fell, "The cancellation of the Bilko show came as a complete surprise to me. After five big years on the air it was killed without anyone consulting me. It destroyed my pride. I was startled and hurt by the action, but there was nothing I could do about it. I was always beefing about how tired I was from all the work, but I wanted to retire from the show myself, not have it done for me. Still I can't complain too much, I owned half the show and gave it up for a considerable sum of money in my children's names."
In addition to a generous cash settlement from CBS, for cancelling the show, Phil was given his own production company...which he promptly named Gladasya Productions.
Phil then went straight back to work for CBS in a series of television specials with his old Bilko cohort, Nat Hiken. They included The Ballad Of Louie The Louse, The Slowest Gun In The West, Just Polly and Me and Summer In New York. He particularly enjoyed these specials as they allowed him to return to his vaudeville roots, performing in sketches amd musical numbers.
In 1960 Phil was offered the chance to star in a new musical written by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove. The project was based on the works of Plautus and was to be called A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Phil was not keen on the idea and quickly signed on to appear as Hubie Cram in Do Re Mi.
The musical was a real reunion of sorts for Phil. The script was written by his old friend Garson Kanin and the musical numbers were written by Jules Styne. The cast included old vaudeville friends and acquaintances like Al Lewis and Nancey Walker. Although not as big a hit as hoped the show was very successful and ran for two years with a total of 400 performances.
1962 saw Phil appearing in his first film for Walt Disney, 40 Pounds Of Trouble. The film was an adaptation of the Damon Runyon short story Little Miss Marker and starred Tony Curtis and Suzanne Pleshette. (Interestingly, Curtis later appeared in the 1980 re-make Little Miss Marker playing essentially the same role that Phil played.) He also lent his voice to Sid & Marty Kroft's Les Poupees De Paris.
Phil was also signed to appear in the ill-fated Something's Got To Give - which proved to be Marilyn Monroe's last film. Monroe by this time was uncontrollable and her constant lateness, inability to learn lines and general unprofessionalism gave the studio cause to fire her. Attempts were made to recast but it was to no avail and the film was duly cancelled.
Producer and director Stanley Kramer offered Phil a role in his upcoming comedy extravaganza It's A Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World. Kramer had long held an ambition to put together an homage to the great comedies of the 20's and 30's. He employed the cream of Hollywood's finest comics - Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Mickey Rooney, Jack Benny et al. "The clowning off-camera was madder than the scenes on." said Phil. "Jonathan Winters was never himself. One day he was an African explorer, next day he was a German colonel!"
During filming of a sequence in which he had to drive a car into a river, he almost drowned. "They had this scene where I ride my car down into the river and it sinks." said Phil, "I thought my stuntman was going to do it but Stanley said, 'No, your reactions are what will make it funny,' and he was right, of course. The car was on pontoons or some sort of raft, so they could lower it like it was sinking. There were frogmen there to pull me out because I couldn't swim. I almost drowned but it was a great gag."
"Kramer didn't have to direct me much. I played the same Bilko I always played. I could have done it in my sleep, except that you couldn't sleep with all those comics around. Buddy Hackett — I used to call him "The Bear" — said, "Blink and you lose your position." No one was stealing scenes but if you weren't at your best, they were ready to pounce and move in."
The New Phil Silvers Show debuted on the CBS network on September 28, 1963. Phil was cast as factory foreman, Harry Grafton and had high hopes for the show. "Some of the episodes were as colourful and electric as the best of the Bilkos. Still if you don't make your ratings in the first eight weeks, you're doomed." As Phil later explained, "Harry Grafton had a fundamental flaw - the audience wasn't rooting for him. Bilko was an underdog - Grafton was not. In a small company the owner is the real underdog. This never occurred to us. We received resentful letters from working men."
In a bid to save the show, Harry was given a family and the show's emphasis was switched from the factory to Harry's homelife. "If the beginning premise is wrong, the most brilliant show doctors cannot save you." The show was cancelled and Harry and his gang were thrown out of work on June 27, 1964.
It was at this time that Phil was plagued by several bouts of illness and depression. Then he received the news that he was developing a cataract in his left eye. This unfortunately compounded his depression and it began to affect him both physically and mentally. He worked sporadically on television, preferring instead to spend time at home with his beloved Evelyn and his five beautiful children.
By 1966 following consultations with his eye specialist, he felt well enough to return to work. He flew to Spain to play Lycus in Richard Lester's film version of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. His lack of vision in his left eye did create a few problems for him. "I could not judge depth or distance accurately. I stumbled around on set and even had problems hitting my marks."
On his return to the US, Phil underwent surgery to remove the cataract only to be floored by more bad news. He was told by the eye specialist that he was now developing a cataract in is right eye. The news of another cataract sent him into another deep depression. "This feeling of helplessness, of moving around on a visual crutch, depressed me. I felt old age had crept up on me." Sadly Phil's problems were beginning to impact on the family and he and Evelyn were divorced in late 1966.
Following the divorce Phil threw himself back into work. He filmed a brief cameo for Gene Kelly's A Guide For The Married Man and was paid $10,000 for two days work. He flew to England to star in Follow That Camel (later re-named Carry On Follow That Camel) as Sgt.Nocker opposite Kenneth Williams and Jim Dale. He was paid the princely sum of £30,000 - the highest salary paid to a Carry On actor at that time (only equalled in 1975 by Elke Sommer in Carry On Behind).
Phil was welcomed into the Carry On fold by almost everyone. Kenneth Williams however took an initial dislike to Phil. Williams believed that a professional actor should turn up on set knowing his lines. Phil favoured the use of idiot boards (prompt cards) - a practice that had been used in US television a movies for many years. Not wishing to upset Williams, Phil turned up on set one day knowing not only his lines but all the other actors too. Kenneth Williams was deeply impressed that Phil had taken the time and care to do this. For the rest of the shoot they remained on friendly terms.
Following the filming for a TV pilot, written by old pal Larry Gelbart, called Eddie (aka Bel Air Patrol), Phil went to Italy to film Mel Franks' Buona Sera Mrs Campbell. The story, recently re-worked for the hit musical and film Mama Mia, concerned three soldiers who all believe they fathered a child with a local Italian beauty during the war. "It's a clever, warm comedy, shot in a village near Rome. Telly Savalas, Peter Lawford and I are in an Air Force platoon in wartime." said Phil."We are all intimate with Gina Lollobrigida and she gives birth to a girl after we leave. The platoon holds a reunion in the village and the three of us desperately want to know whose child it is."
In 1968 Phil undertook a working tour of Australia with his accompanist and straight man Leo DeLyon. Phil had worked with Leo on many occassions. Leo was a talented musician and actor - he was also the voice of Brains and Spook in Top Cat.
On his return to the US Phil signed on for six episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies. He was cast as Shifty John Shafer (aka Honest John) and it was a happy reunion for him with his old friend and Yokel Boy co-star Buddy Ebsen. They spent man a happy hour on set reminiscing about their old vaudeville days. "Paul Henning asked me to play a small part, as a fast-talking conman who sells the Staten Island ferry to the Clampetts. I was so indebted to Buddy for his open-handed support in Yokel Boy I did it for minimum scale. It was just like the old days - fun again and working with Buddy!" said Phil.
By this time Phil was beginning to feel more like the Phil Silvers of old. His love of performing was returning. The offers of work were starting to come in again and he following several therapy sessions with his psychiatrist he felt he was finally coming to terms with his worries and fears. It had been a long hard road to recovery but Phil Silvers felt that he still had plenty to offer to his audience!
Following his second movie for Disney, The Boatniks in 1970, Phil returned to live theatre with his first straight acting role in How The Other Half Loves. The play was written by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn and was his first play to be transfered to Broadway. Although not a critical success, Phil received some excellent reviews. New York critic Clive Barnes said "The remarkable Mr. Silvers.....his performance has style, pace and assurance."
When he was offered the chance to take the lead in a new production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum - a role which was originally written for him - Phil was both thrilled and indeed nervous. "I had been away from musicals since Do Re Mi - a lifetime ago." said Phil. "I was hooked alright, but years of pulsations, hot sweats and depression had made me apprehensive."
It would prove to be yet another happy reunion for Phil. Old friend and writer of the original Forum Burt Shevelove signed on to direct the production and Phil's Do Re Mi co-star Nancy Walker signed on to play the part of Dominia.
The first cast read-through swept away all of Phil's fears. "I felt a sense of joy, refreshment. It was an exciting romp in which I could use all my skills. This was my real medium. I could expand on the musical stage. I could be bigger than myself. Better!"
Forum did indeed turn out to be the all-encompassing triumph - a culmination for Phil of all those hard years learning his trade in vaudeville, burlesque, television and radio. His efforts were rightly rewarded and in 1972 Phil Silvers was presented with the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical! It was a triumphant return for Broadway's favourite son!
Sadly the phenomenal return would be short-lived. Phil suffered a stroke. Although it was a minor stroke and the initial medication he was given helped to reduce the severity of the effects, it was enough to close the production of Forum. Phil had lost the use of his arms and legs, his doctors assured him that his brain function had not been affected and that he would regain the use of his limbs. Phil was again thrown into deep turmoil by the events. "I asked myself....why me? Why now after I was back on top? My doctors had no answer. It was blind bad luck again."
Phil spent the next several months recuperating, trying desperately to restore himself. It was a long hard-fought battle. Gradually he regained the use of his limbs. "I lifted weights and walked the sidewalks for months. I felt embarrassed when anyone saw my infirmity. After I met someone who wished me well, I retreated to my apartment and holed up for the rest of the day."
After many months of gruelling physiotherapy, Phil finally regained his health. The battle he then faced was getting back to work. It would again prove to be another long, lengthy uphill struggle. His recuperation did at least give him the chance to spend time with his beloved daughters.
The breakthrough came in 1974. Following consultations with his doctors Phil was given the all-clear to return to work. He was offered the chance to reprise his role in a touring production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. He toured in his beloved England, and then on to Scotland & Ireland and was once again a huge success.
He returned to the big screen in Disney's 1975 comedy The Strongest Man In The World. Although much of his later work was done in smaller television productions and lower-budget films he never gave anything less than his best.
In 1977 daughter Cathy auditioned for a role in Walter Shenson's The Chicken Chronicles. It just so happened that they were looking for someone to play the role of the fast-food restaurant owner. Cathy suggested that her father would be just right for the part! Phil was cast as Max Ober and had high hopes for the fim, his enthusiasm for the part once again re-ignited his wish to re-establish himself. in showbiz. "I'm very enthusiastic about my career again. In The Chicken Chronicles I play a dirty old man who runs a take-out chicken restaurant. There's even a chance for me to use a couple of Bilko's scams. I'm working with a nice bunch of kids and I think this picture will do well."
The Chicken Chronicles was a modest success, but sadly not the hit that Phil had hoped for. Once again he found he was only offered bits parts and cameos in such television fare as Fantasy Island, The Love Boat and Charlie's Angels. It was much the same story with films - low-budget films such as Racquet, The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood and There Goes The Bride.
In 1981 he appeared opposite daughter Cathy in an episode of Happy Days (Just A Piccalo) and made a successful appearance in Live At The Improv in 1982 - and showed that even at the age of 71 he could wow an audience. He made just two more on-screen appearances - 1983 saw him appear in a brief role in CHIPs and he recorded a television interview with Sonny Foxx in 1985. His final interview (audio-only) was recorded in October by the BBC for inclusion in an edition of the live daytime TV programme Pebble Mill At One, celebrating 30 years of The Phil Silvers Show.
Phil spent his final years living in comfortable semi-retirement in his Century City apartment in Century Towers, Los Angeles. He spent a great deal of time seeing his daughters and doted on his grandchildren. His eldest daughter Tracey and son-in-law Iren were frequent visitors and they all regularly went to the theatre, the movies or a spot of lunch.
Having spent much of the morning reading and replying to his fan-mail Phil went for a nap. He died peacefully in his sleep on November 1st, 1985 at the age of 74.
RED BUTTONS - PHIL'S EULOGY
Academy award-winning comedian and actor Red Buttons was Phil's lifelong friend. Here is the affectionate eulogy that Red delivered at Phil's funeral in 1985.
"Most of us here in this chapel have known each other for a lifetime. And as of late we've come together too often to say goodbye to each other. The second Phil in only a few short months.
In the thirties, when I dreamed about show business, I used to shlep downtown from the Bronx whenever Milton Berle or the Ritz Brothers played Loews State. On one of those interboro journeys my youthful libido propelled me across the street to the Gaiety Burlesque. I went in to see the dolls but I fell in love with a guy - comedian Phil Silvers - a love affair that's lasted all my life.
The cliche tells us that life is a gamble and the cards are stacked against us. And that very few of us ever fill to an inside straight. Phil did - he took a comic spark and ignited it into a comic brilliance. He found what all truly great comedians have been able to discover in themselves - a rhythm of movement and speech that complemented their physical being.
In Phil's case, it translated itself into the charmer we all came to know as Bilko - Phil in his infinite comic wisdom was able to put skin, bones and flesh on a hip hustler to a point of making him laughable and loveable, a crucial prerequisite for every clown. This invention will serve as his monument to the fraternity of all those who ever dared extract the elusive prize called laughter from a faceless and oft-times hostile audience.
Week after week we watched with anticipation and glee and respect as this awesome comedy machine demolished everything in its path - the raw energy, the raucous verve, and let us not for a moment forget the native intelligence and street smarts that comprised this one-man army.
It was nothing less than poetry in motion to watch Phil as Bilko, weaving his own special brand of magic. An original at work.
If he was a painting he'd be hanging in the Louvre. Phil Silvers was a Top Banana. What else is there to aspire to if you're a funny man?"
(Red Buttons passed away, at the age of 86, on July 13, 2006.)
Reproduced from Ye Epistle, the Friars Club magazine
MILTON BERLE - PHIL'S EULOGY
Known as Mr Television or, more affectionately Uncle Miltie, Milton Berle delivered this wonderful eulogy to his old friend and fellow comedian Phil Silvers at Phil's funeral in 1985.
"Phil Silvers was my friend....but I'm only one among millions. Phil Silvers was a friend of the whole world, a recognisable face that people all over the globe identified with laughter. At this very moment, somewhere on the planet, some television station is showing Phil Silvers as the inimitable Sergeant Bilko, raising havoc with the military. The loveable conman that Phil created is being enjoyed in every country on earth. It is a universal source of laughter, and Phil Silvers was the driving force that made it so.
Phil was an original in the field of comedy, a dynamic artist who was honoured and respected by his peers. Among comedians, he was the complete professional - a master of timing with a superb delivery, a true perfectionist of his craft. That sly, silky, smooth voice, those black horn-rimmed glasses, the ingratiating manner and sincere grin that warmed the audience while it sucked them into his mischievous antics - all were trademarks of Phil's comedic technique.
He was not a stand-up comic but, rather a fine actor who performed comedy with the best of them. Phil won four Emmys on television and was a Tony-winning entertainer on the Broadway stage, a hilarious performer who appeared in countless motion pictures, even a songwriter who produced one of Sinatra's big hits, Nancy With The Laughing Face.
The talent of this superstar will be sorely missed by all of us, especially his many pals at the Friars Club, his home away from home. Phil was a man's man who gloried in the world of male camaraderie. Give him a friendly game of pinochle or a fast filly at Hollywood Park. Phil's greatest pleasure was to wager a few bucks and root like hell.
Today, we are not here to mourn Phil Silvers. It is more important that we celebrate his having lived among us as a vital part of our lives. My memories of this multi-talented giant go back a long way. It was right after the World War I when Phil and I met as teenagers, two young hambones struggling to make it big in show business. Incidents and anecdotes by the score flash through my mind when I think of Phil but, so long as I can recall and relive these marvellous moments, he will always be with me. And the same can be said for every man and woman who ever shared a memory with him, wether a personal one, or as an image on the screen
And nobody shared more delicious memories than those who were closest to him - his beautiful wife Evelyn, his five lovely daughters, Tracey, Nancey, Laury, Cathy and Candy, and his darling granddaughter, the apple of his eye, little Jaclyn Sarah, who was named after his beloved mother.
We'll all miss him terribly, but we're all deeply grateful for the legacy of laughter he left us.
The Top Banana has joined all the other Top Bananas. And I'm sure that somewhere up there, Phil is saying to Jack Benny, to Durante, to Cantor and Ed Wynn: "Hi ya fellas. Glad to see ya!"
God Bless you Phil, and thanks for your friendship and a million laughs."
(Milton Berle passed away, aged 93 on March 27th, 2002)
Reproduced from Ye Epistle, the Friars Club magazine