Jim Rees remembers the ‘King of Chutzpah’

Many actors become associated with a character they have played year after year.
Bill Roache has been Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow for over half a century. Kevin Whately first appeared as Robbie Lewis in Morse and then in his own Lewis series for almost thirty years. No wonder we sometimes find it hard to separate the actor from the character.

Mention the name Phil Silvers to anyone and they will immediately think of Sgt. Ernie Bilko, the fast talking, get-rich-quick-scheme machine. Amazingly, Silvers played Bilko for just four seasons out of a career spanning six decades.

Born on 11 May, 1911, to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, Silvers was the youngest of eight children.
His father was a steel construction worker, which wasn’t a bad trade to have at that time as contractors competed with each other to build bigger and better office blocks and department stores all over the city.
Phil might well have followed in his father’s footsteps, but he was destined for other things.

A showman to his fingertips, from the age of eleven he would entertain disgruntled audiences in his local cinema whenever the projector broke down. This was such a common occurrence that the management allowed him free access to the cinema at all times, in case he was needed to calm tempers.

Realising that he could be paid money for his talents, he went to the local vaudeville theatre and was soon cracking jokes, singing and dancing to bigger crowds. It was only a matter of time before he was appearing on Broadway.

He branched out from variety into straight acting and comedy roles. Even when the shows or plays weren’t up to much, the critics loved Silvers. There was a star quality about him and Hollywood was where stars shone.

The year 1941 saw him make his talkie-film debut (he’d had parts in a few silent movies) and throughout the decade he appeared in many films as a character actor for major studios such as MGM, Columbia and 20th Century Fox.

But Silvers was much more than a character actor. In Cover Girl (1944), he showed that he could hold his own in a dance routine with Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth.
It was in 1955, when he was aged forty-four, that he was approached to play an army sergeant in a television comedy called You’ll Never Get Rich. Bilko was born. Silvers was such a natural for the part that after the first season, the series was renamed The Phil Silvers Show.

Over the next four years, Bilko and Silvers became the same person in 143 episodes, earning three consecutive Emmy awards. After thirty years in showbusiness, Phil Silvers was at the top of his profession.

His Hollywood neighbours included Lucille Ball, Dean Martin, Ed Sullivan and Jerry Lewis who were all regular visitors to his house. Frank Sinatra was also a close friend. John F. Kennedy had him to the White House on several occasions.

Kennedy suffered from back trouble, and on occasion he had to lay prostrate on the floor. At such times, he would phone Silvers who would regale him with a routine from 3,000 miles away.

It would appear that Phil Silvers had a charmed life. But no life is that charmed. Like many comic geniuses (and most would agree that he deserved that description), Silvers experienced very dark episodes in his life. In private, he was prone to bouts of depression and he had an addiction to cope with.

Drink and drugs seem to hold a deadly attraction for many artists. With Phil Silvers, it was gambling. He always said that he loved performing in Las Vegas, but it was a dangerous city for him. Despite his years of earning big money, there was never a lot to spare in the home. Perhaps it was this weakness that helped his two marriages to end in divorce. His first wife was Jo-Carroll Dennison. They married in 1940 and divorced five years later. He married Evelyn Patrick in 1956 and their ten year marriage produced Silver’s five daughters.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he continued to appear in films such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Carry On: Follow that Camel. Looking back on his career, he once said that he was more than a one-trick pony. He was a singer, a dancer, a comic, a straight actor. He had appeared on stage, television and cinema, “but I’ll always be Bilko”. To many of those in the business, however, he was affectionately known as ‘The King of Chutzpah’.

Phil Silvers died in his sleep at his Hollywood home on 1 November, 1985. It’s easy to see him talking his way past St Peter, already hatching a new scam.