Wednesday, May 11, 2011

 

Centennial Tributes: Phil Silvers


By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
One of the many (but I should amend that to “many, many”) Facebook groups of which I am a member is The British Phil Silvers Appreciation Society — an organization whose title admittedly causes me a bit of distress from time to time. Does an American Phil Silvers Appreciation Society not exist? Are they having trouble with the paperwork? I’m not disparaging the B.P.S.A.S., you understand — our cousins on the other side of the pond clearly display exemplary good taste by continuing to appreciate one of the funniest men to walk the planet. In 2003, Mark Lewisohn of Radio Times tabbed The Phil Silvers Show as the Best Sitcom of all time, a fine testament to the show’s star and a reminder that the once-proud TVLand, which prominently featured the program in prime time during its startup days, has strayed from its classic television path and instead occupies valuable air time with newly devised paeans to Betty White. (The Beeb, on the other hand, made the series a staple of its programming up until 2004…and even though it was scheduled in a late night slot the reruns would often garner audiences of 8 million, an impressive figure in UK viewership.)

If you’re fortunate to be in the area covered by the Chicago-based MeTV, you can still catch Phil Silvers’ signature series on Sunday nights…and after what seemed like an eternity for Bilko fans, CBS DVD-Paramount released the first season of the television chestnut to disc in July of last year (they previously issued a “best of” collection in 2006, commemorating the show’s 50th anniversary). At the risk of sounding like an ingrate, the digital versatile disc tribute to the man born 100 years ago on this date as Philip Silver didn’t come quickly enough…but I offer up a silent prayer that there will be future seasons to come while at the same time acknowledging the highlights of “The King of Chutzpah’s” extraordinary show business career.


In the good old days of the movie houses, malfunctioning of movie projectors was a common occurrence — and when this would happen at his local theater in Brooklyn, 11-year-old Phil Silvers would often entertain the impatient crowd waiting for the necessary repairs with a song. Silvers was the youngest of eight children born to Jewish immigrants Saul and Sarah Silver, and it’s a sure bet that the response he received during his formative years of entertaining persuaded him to adopt show business as his profession, for he left school two years later to fully concentrate on his career. When his voice changed at the age of 16, Phil drifted into comedy and acting, and his early stomping grounds were the uniquely American form of theatrical entertainment known as burlesque. He was one of a handful of entertainers talented enough to move beyond burlesque into bigger venues like vaudeville and later the Broadway stage.

Phil’s big Broadway break was as the comic relief in a revue called Yokel Boy, which was pretty much panned by critics for its mediocrity…but they were also in agreement that Silvers was the best thing in the show. Broadway would be very good for the comedian — he would headline such productions as High Button Shoes (in 1947), Do Re Mi (1960) and How the Other Half Loves (1970), and would win a Tony Award in 1952 for his standout performance in Top Banana, in which he played egotistical TV comic Jerry Biffle — a character whose resemblance to a certain boob tube funster dubbed “Mr. Television” was more than a little coincidental. (Silvers would reprise the role in a 1954 movie adaptation as well.) Phil took home a second Tony 20 years later for his starring role of conniving slave Pseudolus in a 1972 revival of the musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum…a part that he also was offered in the original 1962 production. Silvers turned down the role because he would have had to perform without his trademark glasses, without which he was blind as a bat (He feared falling into the orchestra pit). The part eventually went to Zero Mostel, whose Tony Award acquisition for his performance convinced Silvers he’d made a huge mistake…but not so much that he didn’t grab at the chance to play flesh peddler Marcus Lycus alongside Mostel in the 1966 film adaptation.

With his success established in burlesque, vaudeville and Broadway, Phil Silvers set out to see if he could make it in the motion picture business, and debuted on the silver screen in a handful of Vitaphone short subjects that were still being filmed in New York (where he was performing nightly on stage). His exposure in these soon led to featured roles in many of the movie musicals that were in vogue at the time: Lady Be Good (1941), My Gal Sal (1942), Coney Island (1943), etc. One of his most memorable movie showcases was as sidekick to Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth in the 1944 Columbia hit Cover Girl, in which he admirably displayed not only his comic prowess but also his singing and dancing know-how. (He would later re-team with Kelly in the 1950 MGM musical Summer Stock, which co-starred Judy Garland.) Silvers’ fame as an actor and comedian often overshadows the fact that he was also quite musically inclined; in 1942, with composer Jimmy Van Heusen, he penned a birthday paean for the wife of Van Heusen’s partner Johnny Burke that was later transformed two years later into a tribute to Frank Sinatra’s daughter on her natal anniversary as well. “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” so impressed the Chairman of the Board (he believed that the tune was expressly written for Nancy, and the three men chose not to inform him otherwise) that he recorded it as a single, where it became one of his biggest hits.

At the same time his movie career was in full swing, Phil Silvers began to conquer other mediums as well — he was a frequent quest on Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall (often coming out and greeting the audience with his trademark “Glad to see ya!”) and he made the rounds on radio shows headlined by Rudy Vallee, Dinah Shore, Charlie Ruggles and Johnny Mercer as well. His 1945 film Don Juan Quilligan was adapted for a broadcast of The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre the following year, but perhaps his most impressive achievement in the aural medium was guest starring in a seriocomic role on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” Suspense, in an April 3, 1947 installment entitled “The Swift Rise of Eddie Albright.” And when that young upstart known as television began to dominate the entertainment field, Silvers would find the vehicle that would cement his immortality in show business.

Veteran scribe Nat Hiken, who achieved great success writing for the likes of Fred Allen and Milton Berle on radio, was anxious to work with Phil on a concept for a television sitcom and after considering (and then tossing out) various ideas hit upon a surefire notion that would star the comedian as a larcenous U.S. Army master sergeant named Ernest G. Bilko (service number RA 15042699). The series, originally titled You’ll Never Get Rich, was set against the backdrop of a motor pool at the fictional Army base of Fort Baxter where Bilko was in charge…but he and his fellow soldiers rarely did any actual work; instead he spent most of his time in the service concocting scams and get-rich-quick schemes in constant pursuit of a fast buck. His nemesis on base was the autocratic but easily flustered Colonel J.T. Hall (Paul Ford), a man who was clearly out of his league going up against the wily Bilko but who managed to reign in his adversary before Ernie went too far. Bilko’s men were a sorry, ragtag group of misfits who displayed an admirable sense of loyalty toward their “Sarge” despite the fact that they usually served as the sheep for Ernie’s constantly-in-motion fleecing. (The surname of “Bilko” was not, in fact, a reference to “bilking” someone but was inspired by minor league ball player Steve Bilko — both Hiken and Silvers were big baseball fans.)

The Phil Silvers Show — or as it is also known, Sergeant Bilko — was never a huge ratings smash during its four-year-run on CBS-TV from 1955 to 1959 (its highest ranking in the Nielsens was No. 23 in its second season) but it was considered by both audiences and Silvers’ industry peers to be one of the best situation comedies on the air…so much so that it won three consecutive Emmy Awards as Outstanding Comedy Series. Its cancellation after four seasons was not due to low ratings but was simply a matter of economics: the large ensemble cast (which included TV stalwarts such as Allan Melvin, Harvey Lembeck, Herbie Faye and Joe E. Ross) made the show too expensive to produce, and to top off that monumental blunder CBS sold the show’s rights to NBC for quick cash…later watching in dismay as NBC profited from the show by scheduling repeats five-days-a-week to huge financial returns. The influence of The Phil Silvers Show would inspire later TV hits like McHale’s Navy (which was essentially Bilko in the Navy) and Top Cat — a cartoon version of You’ll Never Get Rich that featured the voice of Bilko regular Maurice Gosfield (aka “Private Doberman”) and Arnold Stang doing an atypical Silvers impersonation. (The Silvers persona of the glad-handing con man became a staple among voice artists, notably Daws Butler…who adopted Phil’s unmistakable vocal patterns for Hanna-Barbera creation Hokey Wolf while also cribbing the personality for many of the characters he voiced for Jay Ward’s Rocky and His Friends.)

In 1963, Phil tried to capture lightning in a bottle a second time with a sitcom entitled The New Phil Silvers Show — which only lasted a single season, and despite its title, was really too similar to the old Phil Silvers Show; only Phil’s character name (Harry Grafton) and occupation (plant foreman for a large corporation) had changed. For better or for worse, Silvers’ Bilko persona pretty much became his stock-in-trade as far as TV guest appearances went for the rest of his career; he’d appear on the likes of Gilligan’s Island (in that show’s all-time best episode, “The Producer” — which featured Phil as Broadway impresario Harold Hecuba), The Lucy Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Dean Martin Show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, The Beverly Hillbillies and Julia while continuing to work in feature films such as 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), Follow That Camel (1967) and A Guide for the Married Man (1967). Silvers also appeared in what I believe to be his signature movie role in the 1963 all-star comedy opus It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World; his presence as Otto Meyer, a con man trying to outwit his fellow treasure hunters such as Berle, Ethel Merman, Jonathan Winters and Sid Caesar with Spencer Tracy as the cop on their trail, was so unforgettable that it was riffed in a humorous throwaway gag in a 1994 episode of The Simpsons (“Homer the Vigilante”).

At the time of his Tony Award-winning triumph in Forum in 1972, Phil Silvers suffered a stroke which left him with slurred speech and in dicey health for the rest of his life. His previous fast-paced timing suffered as a result, but he nevertheless continued to land guest star parts on TV dramatic series such as Kolchak: The Night Stalker, S.W.A.T., Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island and in films such as The Strongest Man in the World (1975) and The Cheap Detective (1978). His last show business credit was in a 1983 episode of CHiPs but perhaps the most poignant was an appearance on Happy Days two years earlier in which he played the father of one of the show’s characters, the libidinous Jenny Piccalo. Jenny was portrayed by Silvers’ real-life daughter Catherine, who also had a small role in the 1996 feature film Sgt. Bilko which had to make do with Steve Martin in the part that Phil pretty much owned. (The Happy Days appearance was the only time father and daughter worked together, an experience Cathy later described as "magic.")

By all accounts, Silvers was the complete opposite of his established Bilko television persona save for their mutual fondness for gambling; the comedian experienced frequent struggles with depression for most of his life but nevertheless continued to follow the old maxim of “the show must go on” — giving his all as entertainers are wont to do. Bilko, of course, made me a fan of his work (not to mention Forum, World and the 1945 musical comedy A Thousand and One Nights) but I also remember seeing him chat with Dick Cavett one time in the 1970s and he explained that he personally believed redemption in the after life depended a lot on the good will you racked up in the former. It’s a principle that I adopted and still subscribe to, and if there is a place that one goes to upon shuffling off this mortal coil Phil Silvers will almost have to be there. (It wouldn’t be Heaven otherwise.)


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Comments:
I was surprised when I watched Ginger Rogers in Roxie Hart, one of early film forerunners of the musical Chicago, when Silvers popped up as a newspaper photographer.
 
Fine look at this one-of-kind entertainer, Ed. Thanks.
 
A legend, may he rest in peace.

Phil
 
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