The Daily Mail, Weekend magazine
13 September 2014
How Bilko tried to save Robin Williams
Phil Silvers was also a comedy genius with a deeply troubled private life—but here his daughter tells how his advice to the Good Morning, Vietnam star tragically went unheeded
By Lina Das
For the man who made Sergeant Bilko into a comedy legend—one that endures even 60 years later—this was no laughing matter. Phil Silvers—who played Bilko in the hit TV series that ran on BBC1 and 2 from 1955 to 2004 and is now being mooted for a re-run on BBC4 next year—was talking to a rising star called Robin Williams.
The year was 1980 and at a charity show in Hollywood, Williams came face to face with Silvers, his hero. Silvers’ daughter Cathy, who had just been cast in Happy Days as teenager Jenny Piccalo, was there and remembers the advice he gave Williams. ‘It was the same advice Dad gave me,’ says Cathy. ‘He told Robin, “Treat acting as a business and don’t let it go to your head.” Then Dad cried and said, “You don’t want to end up like my friends”, because some of them, including Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, had died tragically. I guess Robin didn’t take his advice.’
It’s a poignant time for Cathy, 53. Not only is she still reeling from the death of Williams last month—he had remained a lifelong friend—but next year is the 30th anniversary of her father’s death and a commemorative DVD box set of the Bilko shows is being released this month.
There are similarities between Robin Williams and Phil Silvers. Both were comedy geniuses who struggled with addiction (with Silvers it was gambling, with Williams drink and drugs) and both had periods of depression. Silvers once admitted, ‘I only smile in public. When I’m alone, I just sort of stare. People know that we actors are frightened. And when they read this, they’ll know that I’m depressed.’
The Phil Silvers Show—known as Sgt. Bilko—ran for 143 episodes. Sergeant Ernest G Bilko was the wise-cracking boss of a team at fictional US Army base Fort Baxter, who spent more time concocting get-rich-quick schemes—none of which were successful—than working.
It won three consecutive Emmys and turned Silvers into a star. He performed at the White House for President Eisenhower and John F Kennedy would even call him at home. ‘He loved Dad and we’d get these calls to the house,’ says Cathy. ‘Kennedy would be lying on the floor because of his bad back and would say, “Phil, I’m in pain” and so Dad would launch into some comedic routine and crack up the President.’
Certainly the early days of Cathy’s childhood were marked by glamour. Growing up in Beverly Hills with her four sisters, father Phil and mother Evelyn Patrick (Silvers’ second wife), Cathy would often witness her parents’ lavish parties. ‘Lucille Ball lived up the street so she’d be there and so would Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.’
Frank Sinatra was also a good friend. Silvers wrote the lyrics to one of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ most popular songs, Nancy With The Laughing Face, and both had a fascination for the Mafia. ‘Once Dad and the gangster Bugsy Siegel were being taken to the opening night of the Tropicana hotel in Las Vegas,’ says Cathy. ‘Suddenly, shots were fired through the back window and Bugsy threw my dad onto the floor, shouting, “Phil, Phil, I’m so ashamed. You’ve made me laugh all my life and I love you and now we might not live to get to Vegas.” My dad had found himself in the middle of a gang shoot-out. Obviously, he did survive and we never worried about the Mafia because Dad was loved by them.’
Vegas, however, was dangerous for Silvers for other reasons: he was a compulsive gambler. His first wife, ex-Miss America Jo-Carroll Dennison, once remarked, ‘We never lived expensively, or travelled, because he gambled everything away,’ Says Cathy now, ‘He was addicted to gambling and though it didn’t affect my life, it was a problem. There wasn’t help like there is today.’
Silvers’ absences took their toll on his marriage and Cathy’s parents divorced when she was five. He was, however, never short of female company, ‘His three best girl friends were Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn,’ she says. ‘I think because he was single and he wasn’t a womaniser, they felt comfortable with him. I wouldn’t know if he fell in love with them—he wouldn’t have told me—but they loved to talk about Dad and what an amazing friend he was.’
Silvers starred in the 1962 film Something’s Got To Give opposite Monroe in what was to be her last film, and though it was never completed, he did film its most memorable scene. ‘Dad walked down the stairs and there was Marilyn, naked, sitting at the edge of the pool covering her breasts with her hands for the famous pool scene,’ says Cathy. ‘She died shortly afterwards and so maybe Dad had one of the last conversations with her. He was very fond of her.’
Phil Silvers died in his sleep in November 1985 aged 74. Cathy is now an advocate for healthy eating and lives in LA with her husband and two children. She’s currently writing a script about her father, ‘taking us through his experiences of vaudeville, silent film, Broadway and the move to Hollywood. He made me laugh so much, but his gift was a gift to the world.’ And to the world, Phil Silvers once said, there was only one role he’d be remembered for. ‘To them,’ he admitted, ‘I’m Bilko.’
Sgt Bilko: The Complete Collection is out on DVD on 22 September.