The year was 1969 and Paul Henning's hugely successful comedy show The Beverly Hillbillies was entering it's eighth season. The show centered on the antics of a poor backwoods family, the Clampetts, who had struck oil on their land and become billionaires. The show's premise saw them move to the plush settings of Beverly Hills in California and focused on their fish-out-of-water experiences in their new surroundings.
The show starred Buddy Ebsen as patriarch Jed Clampett and featured Irene Ryan as Granny, Donna Douglas as Elly Mae and Max Baer Jr as Jethro. Fine comic support came from Nancy Kulp as Jane Hathaway and Raymond Bailey as the Clampetts' banker Milburn Drysdale.
The show was so successful that creator Paul Henning went on to expand the hillbilly theme with two more successful shows, Green Acres and Petticoat Junction.
Henning wrote the role of Shifty Shafer (aka Honest John) a conman out to fleece the Clampetts, specifically with Phil Silvers in mind. He approached Silvers with the offer of the role. Phil had previously worked with Buddy Ebsen in the 1939 Broadway musical Yokel Boy and they had remained friends ever since. The chance to work with Buddy again was something Phil couldn't pass up.
"I'm so indebted to Buddy for his open-minded support in Yokel Boy, I'm happy to do it at minimum scale. My agent later raises the price - "Hillbillies" is not a charity case - and I make seven (in actuality six) episodes. It's like the old days: fun again, and working with Buddy." said Phil. He spent many a happy hour on set with Buddy reminiscing about the old days in vaudeville, laughing, joking and even recreating some of the old sketches and dance numbers.
Henning found Phil a complete joy to work with. He even broke one his own golden rules when Phil appeared on the show. Due to time constraints of shooting a weekly sit-com the cast adhered to the final script. However, Phil was allowed to ad-lib. "That was rare!" said Henning. "Phil couldn't read a script cold. He was terrible. But when he gets on, there's nobody better. Nobody. He kept using a different line each take, but each one was a classic. We always looked forward to having him on the show."
The Beverly Hillbillies finally left the air on March 23 1971. For a total of eight of it's nine season run it remained in the top twenty of the prime time network shows - a truly remarkable achievement. With a total of 274 episodes, one of television's most memorable theme tunes, The Ballad Of Jed Clampett, and it's gentle comedy it remains one of the best-loved sit-coms of all-time.
Between 1969 and 1970 Phil made a total of six appearances on the show and all six episodes are available here to view:
Jed Buys Central Park - (Air Date - 29/10/69) - Shifty Shafer finds himself stranded in Silver Dollar City and is desperate to get back to New York. His spies his chance to fleece Jed Clampett by selling him a famous New York City landmark..
The Clampetts In New York - (Air Date - 5/11/69) - Shifty Shafer shows the Clampetts the delights of New York and in the process sells them not only Central Park but also the Statue Of Liberty and the Staten Island Ferry.
Honest John Returns - (Air Date - 11/3/70) - Shifty Shafer and his wife Flo arrive in Beverly Hills hoping once again to con the Clampetts out of their fortune. This time Shifty convinces Jed to invest in a scheme to rid Los Angeles of the smog problem.
Honesty Is The Best Policy - (Air Date - 18/3/70) - Keen to invest in Shifty's latest scheme Jed collects his fortune from the bank. Former safe-cracker Flo decides to try and empty the safe at the Clampett's house.
The Clampetts In Washington - (Air Date - 22/9/70) - When the Clampetts arrive in Washington to meet the President, Shifty Shafer sells them the White House.
Jed Buys The Capitol - (Air Date - 29/9/70) - Shifty sells the Clampetts more of Washington's famous landmarks including the Capitol building, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and even the Pentagon. Pricked by his conscience Shifty finds he can't continue with the con.