Young and talented
Born in Brooklyn, New York on May 11, 1911. Phillip Silversmith was the youngest of 8 children born to a Russian-Jewish family. Phil Silvers, (name shortened for performing), had a fine voice and a facility for wisecracking which helped him to escape his impoverished circumstance. He started performing at age 11, singing in theaters when the projector broke down, a common occurrence. Two years later he quit school to sing professionally. He was discovered and enlisted in his early teens by vaudevillian Gus Edwards, who hired Silvers to work in his act. Silvers lost his singing voice when his voice changed, so concentrated on his comedic talents. He kept himself busy acting in various vaudeville
acts, along the way befriending comic Herbie Faye
, who Silvers would work with at times throughout his career.
Phil Silvers got his break in 1939 when he was signed to star in the Broadway musical comedy show Yokel Boy. This exposure landed Silvers in films, starting in 1940 with Coney Island, using his talents for comic relief.
A different time
By today's standards, Phil Silvers would have never been given a shot. His balding head, shifty grin, and horn-rimmed glasses gave him a look more suitable to an unethical accountant rather than a film star. Silvers, however, came from a different age. His popularity grew and he continued to work in film and on stage until he scored a Tony Award (as well as a Donaldson Award) for his work in Top Banana in 1951.
Phil Silvers made the transition to TV in 1953, reprising his role in Top Banana.
The Phil Silvers Show
His big break in TV came in 1955, playing slick talking hustler Sgt. Ernie Bilko in the hit series The Phil Silvers Show, originally titled You'll Never Get Rich. The show ended not due to flagging rating but because there were so many supporting players, costing too much to sustain. The show was an early springboard for the likes of Paul Lynde, Fred Gwynne, Alan Alda, and Dick Van Dyke, all of whom were just starting their young careers at the time. The show lasted from 1955 to 1959, producing 142 episodes, and Silvers racked up 2 Emmy Awards from the series. After the TV series ended, Silvers went back to the Broadway stage, scoring another success in 1960 with Do Re Mi.
The magic wanes
Phil Silvers had his first strong taste of defeat with his own sitcom named The New Phil Silvers Show in 1963. Rather than choke on the experience, Phil Silvers spit out the taste and kept going. He appeared in numerous TV specials and films. The list includes roles on The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, and The Lucy Show.
Back in fine form
Phil Silvers had a role in the 1963 comedy romp It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (along with just about every living comic of the period). The movie was a wild, fast-paced race to find $350,000 hidden by a con. Phil Silvers was in the 1966 film A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. In 1971 he was in the stage revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, scoring yet another Tony Award for his efforts. Silvers had been offered a role in the original play in 1962 but had passed, mistakenly thinking the show wouldn't go far.
Phil Silvers had a setback in 1972, suffering a stroke. During his convalescence, he penned The Laugh Is On Me, his candid autobiography. Silvers recovered sufficiently to perform again despite his speech being slurred. His once famous timing was also shot, but he was so well regarded in the profession he always managed to find work.
Personal life and family
Phil Silvers was married in 1945 to Jo-Carroll Dennison. The marriage didn't endure, ending in divorce in 1950. Silver remarried in 1956 to Evelyn Patrick. They produced 5 children over their 10 year marriage which ended in divorce in 1966. The children are all daughters, named Tracy Silvers, Nancey Silvers, Cathy Silvers, Candace Silvers, and Laury Silvers respectively. Cathy Silvers is an actress in her own right, best known for her support work in the hit series Happy Days. Daughter Tracy Silvers is a film producer/writer.
Silvers' trademark "Gladaseeya!", his big grin, and his ever present glasses made him an easily recognized icon. When he had cataract surgery and implants, he no longer needed lenses or contacts, but still wore those large frames sans lenses because they were so much a part of his persona.
Phil Silvers was so well known that he was spoofed and imitated many times over. The cartoons had their way with him as Top Cat, a character that patterned itself along the lines of Sgt Bilko. The Flintstones, when they acquired their pet Dino, found the reptile could speak, and it originally sounded an awful lot like Phil Silvers.
Phil Silvers' other accomplishments include songwriting, including a song he wrote for friend Frank Sinatra's daughter Nancy entitled Nancy With the Laughing Face. He owned a production company, (Gladaseya), which co-produced the comedy hit Gilligan's Island.
A known gambling addict, Phil Silvers was seen with a roll of bills while pleading hard times. When asked why he didn't live on his roll of green, the inquirer was told that the roll didn't count because it was gambling money.
Farewell, Sgt. Bilko
Phil Silvers died on November 1, 1985 at Century City, California from a heart attack. He is buried in Mount Sinai Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California.
Ups and Downs (1937) (short subject)
Here's Your Hat (1937) (short subject)
The Candid Kid (1938) (short subject)
Strike Up the Band (1940) (scenes deleted)
Hit Parade of 1941 (1940)
The Wild Man of Borneo (1941)
The Penalty (1941)
Tom Dick and Harry (1941)
Lady Be Good (1941)
You're in the Army Now (1941)
All Through the Night (1942)
Roxie Hart (1942)
My Gal Sal (1942)
Footlight Serenade (1942)
Tales of Manhattan (1942) (scenes deleted)
Just Off Broadway (1942)
Coney Island (1943)
A Lady Takes a Chance (1943)
Four Jills in a Jeep (1944)
Cover Girl (1944)
Take It or Leave It (1944)
Something for the Boys (1944)
Diamond Horseshoe (1945)
Don Juan Quilligan (1945)
A Thousand and One Nights (1945)
If I'm Lucky (1946)
Summer Stock (1950)
Top Banana (1954)
Lucky Me (1954)
Something's Got to Give (1962) (unfinished)
40 Pounds of Trouble (1962)
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)
A Guide for the Married Man (1967)
Carry On...Follow That Camel! (1967)
Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968)
The Boatniks (1970)
Hollywood Blue (1970) (documentary)
The Strongest Man in the World (1975)
Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)
The Chicken Chronicles (1977)
Hey, Abbott! (1978) (documentary)
The Cheap Detective (1978)
The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood (1980)
There Goes the Bride (1980)