HAIRCUT 100: Day 92, No. 92. Phil Silvers (1911-1985), comic genius, ‘The King of Chutzpah,’ and Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko, US Army. Silvers was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the eighth and youngest child of Russian Jewish immigrants. He started performing aged eleven, singing in movie theatres when the projector packed-up in return for free tickets. By thirteen, he was working in vaudeville as a burlesque comic. He started acting in short films for Vitaphone in the 1930s, landing his first Broadway role at the end of the decade. His feature film début was Hit Parade of 1941, and he went on to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia, and 20th Century Fox, appearing in All Through the Night with Humphrey Bogart in 1942.
But it was as Sergeant Bilko that Silvers became a household name. Conceived and written by Nat Hiken, a chain-smoking workaholic perfectionist who later developed Car 54, Where Are You?, The Phil Silvers Show (originally titled You’ll Never Get Rich), ran on CBS from 1955 to 1959, picking up three consecutive Emmys. The sitcom was based around the sleepy military base of Fort Baxter, Kansas, and the motor pool platoon run by Sergeant Ernie Bilko. The fast-talking, fast-thinking but fundamentally indolent Ernie spends most of his time playing cards, delegating and generally swinging the lead, while grifting his way through get-rich-quick schemes that never seem to quite pay off and stalling his fiancé, Sergeant Joan Hogan, who is waiting for a proposal. The show boasted an impeccable supporting cast, and much of it was filmed live in front of a studio audience, leading to the odd fluffed line and some truly wonderful improvisations. Although the show has been broadcast in repeats all over the world ever since, Silvers was paid a fixed rate for each episode and never saw a dime in residuals. My late-father loved Sgt. Bilko (as it was known in the UK), and could quote entire scenes verbatim. I have a lot of fond memories of watching it with him as a kid.
Like his alter-ego, Silvers was a compulsive gambler. He was also a depressive, suffering a nervous breakdown in 1962, and his memoirs are sardonically entitled The Laugh Is On Me. After The Phil Silvers Show was cancelled, he continued to act on stage and screen, although a stroke in 1972 effected his speech. Notable performances include a lead in Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (which he played on Broadway and in the subsequent movie), Carry On! Follow That Camel, and the memorable Nightstalker story ‘Horror in the Heights’ in which a retirement community is menaced by a shapeshifting demon. His final appearance was in an episode of CHiPs in 1983. He died in his sleep two years later and is interred at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery, Los Angeles. In 1996, TV Guide listed Silvers as one of the ‘50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time.’ ‘I like a sporting event in which I know the outcome ahead of time. It’s more organized.’