The New York Times
16 April 1972

A Funny Thing About Phil

By Judy Klemesrud

Well, it certainly looks like Phil Silvers, this man in the doorway of the Delmonico hotel suite. Everything is there: The bald pate. The black-rimmed glasses. The gleaming enamel. The chipmunk pouches under the jaw that appear to be stuffed with tissue paper. Yes, it certainly is Phil Silvers. But to hear him talk, you’d think it was Gloomy Gus, and not the laughing, lovable larcenist we’ve always known from the movies and on TV as Sergeant Bilko and now on stage as Pseudolus in the Broadway musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” Phil’s first big hit of any kind since 1960.

You’d think the Tony nomination he got for “Funny Thing” would make him happy, wouldn’t you? Wrong. You’d think that once being married to a former Miss America might make him happy, wouldn’t you? Wrong. Well, how about the $1-million plus he made from the Bilko series? Wrong.

Listen:

“I only smile in public,” he says dourly, as he leads me into the blah beige suite. “When I’m alone, I just sort of stare.” And then, a few minutes later: “I am two people. On the street they think I’m the zany guy they see, but I’m quite a serious, unhappy man.” And: “I think pain has made me a better comedian . . . it suddenly flashes before me . . . the waste.” And: “Why doesn’t anyone understand me? I’m just a little baby at heart. But then I’m going to be 61 in May. It’s frightening.”

Phil Silvers, who triumphs in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”
“Why doesn’t anyone understand me? I’m just a baby at heart.”

It’s a real downer for an interviewer who has waltzed into Delmonico’s expecting to get a midday lift from one of the world’s funniest guys, only to find that the funny guy is playing tragedian instead of comedian. That all he wants to talk about are his five-year depression and his troubles with gambling and women, and the cataracts on his eyes.

“I went into a very deep depression five years ago,” he says, as he sits on a couch in front of a coffee table that holds a colored photograph of his five daughters and a copy of Playboy magazine. “I got very down. I started identifying with people who were in much worse shape than I was. I didn’t want to do anything. It was the worst pain a human body can have witnout being malignant. I thought I was suicidal, but the psychiatrist I went to said, ‘No chance. If you were going to kill yourself, you wouldn’t talk about it.’

“I think it started when I got a cataract on my left eye. The second week I knew about it I was sightless in that eye. That was the beginning of my disturbance. I had it removed by surgery, and now I wear a contact lens in that eye. But now I’m getting another cataract on my right eye. Oh, those were five torturous years. The eyesight, the divorce [his second]. I was just withdrawn, I had gone through hell. Now I think I’m better.”

Phil looks like an insurance salesman from Oshkosh as he sits there, alternately sipping on a Coke and puffing on a cigarette. He is dressed in a conservative black suit, a white turtleneck sweater with two orange juice spots on the front, yellow socks that match the spots, and new black patent loafers. Since the reason for the interview is his outstanding performance in “Forum” (which opened five days earlier than it was supposed to because the producers were running out of money), I attempt to veer the conversation in that direction.

“I was a compulsive gambler, you know,” he says, preferring to exorcise his private demons rather than toot his horn. “I’ve won big amounts of money, and lost it, too. No, I won’t tell you how much. It’s sickening. It’s shameful. I started when I was 18 and kept it up when I wasn’t getting jobs. I had to manifest my manhood and do something big. I’d never bet against individuals. It was me against the house. I’d bet with bookmakers or at the track and I was always very silent about it, very secretive—except everybody knew it. My biggest things were sports—football, basketball, baseball—and, of course, the track. I was a good analyst of sports. In fact, I was well respected in the sports field. I had a pass to every major league baseball park in the country. I used to be the Yankee jester. When the individuals involved became my personal friends, that’s when I went downhill. When I got to know DiMaggio, how could I bet against the Yankees?

“My gambling was comparable to an alcoholic’s drinking,” he goes on. “I couldn’t bet a little amount and get a kick out of it. But in the last few years, with a doctor’s help, I’ve pulled myself together and now I can go and play a nice game of pinochle now and then at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills. That’s very engrossing. [In 1968, Phil testified at a Los Angeles grand jury hearing on alleged rigged card games at the Friars Club that he once dropped $10,000 at pinochle and klaberjass.] Mainly, I quit because of the huge responsibilities I have. I’m supporting two households and five children. I’ve always been able to pay my gambling debts because I was usually working, and I had 10 per cent of most of the shows I was in. I had good credit with the bookies, because everybody knew I was always good for my debts. They knew I would pay.”

And your show, Phil? You know, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum?”

“I’ve got to start dating,” he says, meandering again. “Maybe I’ll start with you. I love women. I think I’m a masculine man, an emotional man, a sexy man. I have all the instincts of a male animal. I mean, I like it. I become very attracted to certain types of girls. No guy ever made a girl who didn’t want to be made, I’m gonna get a girl. What are you doin’ tonight?”

He breaks into that familiar mile-wide grin—the first of the afternoon—and it reminds me of those carefree mid-50’s Tuesday nights when he was Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko, head of the motor pool at mythical Fort Baxter in a town called Roseville, Kan. For anyone who was a fan of that show (called “You’ll Never Get Rich”), it is hard to think of Phil as anyone else but the brash army con man who dreamed up bamboozling projects to dispel the bleakness of army life and fleece a soldier of his pay.

“I’ll always be Bilko,” he says, resignedly, “and I find it quite annoying. Here I am in one of the biggest hits ot my career—a personal victory—but they still call me ‘Bilko.’ People on the streets yell ‘Hi, Sarge’ and ‘Hey, how’s Bilko?’ Actually, Bilko’s method was the same as Pseudolus’s is in ‘Forum.’ Both knock down authority. Pseudolus is a scheming slave who wants his freedom, and Bilko was against the Pentagon. All my characters seem to be against authority in one way or another. I can do something onstage that they’d stone anybody else for doing. The audience somehow forgives me. Everybody roots. In ‘The Godfather’ the other night, they started to root for the hoodlums. People like to root against The System.”