The Saturday Evening Post
7 September 1957
I Call on Phil Silvers
By Pete Martin
“Sergeant Bilko” reveals why he once scorned TV, and he tells about the Hollywood screen test rigged to wreck his career.
I sat with Phil Silvers in his living room high above Central Park, in New York, listening to him talk. It was an easy and pleasant experience. Thoughts pour from him as if bottled under pressure.
As TV’s brash, larcenous Sergeant Bilko, his voice is high-pitched and strident, but in ordinary conversation, although he speaks very rapidly, his voice strokes the ear. His words struggle to keep pace with his thoughts. Sometimes the words lose.
“It might be a good idea if we started with the story of how Jack Benny advised me not to go into TV,” he told me. “Jack thinks it’s funny and he’s a good judge. Let me try it on you and see what you think. I’ll do it in three stages. The first stage has to do with the arrival of Top Banana, a show in which I was starring in Los Angeles on June first, 1953. Stage Two has to do with a telegram Jack sent me in 1956, and Stage Three concerns a wire I sent him in 1957. That ought to wrap it up.
“Top Banana opened originally in 1951, in Philadelphia. Two years later we were ending a series of dates on the road. By this time I knew every line, every nuance, every costume, every spangle of the production; but now that we were about to open in Los Angeles, suddenly I was full of trepidation. All the frustrations I had suffered in that town backed up inside of me until I felt choked.”
“How do you mean, frustrations?” I asked. “I’ve checked on you and you have a long list of screen credits. I remember you in Cover Girl, with Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth. They were good in it, too, but to me you sneaked up, tucked that picture under your arm and ran away with it.”
“You don’t know what went on before that,” he told me. “When I first hit Hollywood, I was an attraction in the local hot spots and I was king of the free-talent benefits, but although I’d been signed by a major studio—M-G-M—at five hundred a week, paradoxically I couldn’t crash the movies.”
I must have looked mystified, for he explained, “I know it sounds crazy, but being under contract to a studio didn’t necessarily mean you ever made a movie. In 1938 I went into my first Broadway show, Yokel Boy, straight out of burlesque. L. B. Mayer, head of production at Metro, saw me in that show and asked me to come to California. I went to Hollywood, but for six months no one even asked me to make the usual screen test. I even had to get a pass to get through the M-G-M gates. Many a night I went home and stared at the walls and wondered what I ought to do that I wasn’t doing. If I happened to be playing a benefit and I knew somebody like Darryl Zanuck was there, I tried extra hard. I don’t mean I sat home and wallowed in misery. In show business you don’t do that. You just keep on trying and you don’t whine.
“Finally an M-G-M director called me and said, ‘We have a test we’d like to have you make. We need an actor for a picture. We’ve tested several people, and if you get the role it will be a feather in your cap.’ I said, ‘Give me a crack at it. I’ll eat it and sleep it and drink it. Nobody will do it better than I can.’
“I went home with the three sheets of paper on which someone had typed the lines for my test, but when I looked at them I couldn’t figure why a big studio like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was taking time out for a practical joke, yet I could figure it no other way; I was to be tested as the Reverend Mr. Collins in an early-nineteenth-century story, Pride and Prejudice. I have never forgotten some of the lines. They’re burned on the lining of my brain. ‘My Dear Dame Elizabeth,’ they began, ‘you can hardly doubt the purport of my discourse. Please forgive this outburst of passion. Your modesty does you no disservice.’
“The trouble was I couldn’t be sure it was a practical joke. I had to assume that it was on the level. If a Broadway musical had been involved, I would have called the Shuberts and found out, but I was too much in awe of L. B. Mayer to bother him.
“The next morning I spent over four hours with a poor guy in Make-up who tried to help me look like a British rector. Before he was done he was tearing apart old Nelson Eddy wigs and an Edward G Robinson wig from the movie Tiger Shark and gluing them on my noggin, swearing softly as he glued.
“When I reached the sound stage, the test director said, ‘Phil, we’re late getting this thing started. I know it’s not your fault, but we must get going. I want you to be British in a very subtle manner. Then he rehearsed me, and all my New Yorkese rushed to the front. The last word of the sentence, ‘My dear Dame Elizabeth, your modesty does you no dissoivice,’ tore it, and when I said ‘outboist of passion’ it didn’t help.
“Next morning, when they ran that test, I was there to see what I looked like. In my frantic efforts to ‘be British in a very subtle manner,’ I practically had fire flashing from my eyeballs, and when I said, ‘My dear Dame Elizabeth,’ I looked like Valentino rolling his eyes at that doll who played opposite him in The Sheik.
“That test sickened me, and I wondered what other business I could go into. I didn’t know that I had had no chance from the beginning. That test was supposed to destroy me because Mr. Mayer himself had found me. I hadn’t gone through proper channels. This was a side of Hollywood I didn’t know about—its jealousies and chicaneries.
“Actually that test, which seemed a tragedy, forced me to keep on learning something about an entirely different facet of entertainment. In desperation I began to entertain at parties and play more and more benefits, which gave me new scope, and I began to get bigger and better night-club bookings. Without that training, I wouldn’t have been able to play such places as Ciro’s, and the Copa. Before that I had been a book comedian. That means I had only delivered lines a writer had written in the book for a show.
“I didn’t know it—I thought I was being ignored—but producers and directors saw me at benefits or at night spots; then they called Metro to ask about me. When they did, they were shown that British cleric test. They looked at it and said, ‘I guess he’s only funny at Ciro’s.’
“I finally learned about the run-around I was getting—from Harry Kurnitz, a great humorist and a great writer. He stopped me on the street one day and said, ‘My producer, Sidney Franklin, caught you at Ciro’s last night and he asked, “Why is our studio borrowing comedians at triple salaries when we’ve got a boy like this already under contract? Let’s see some of Silvers’ film”; and, Phil, they showed us some awful thing where you were a British clergyman.’ ”
“And this was the first time you actually realized that you’d been getting the finger?” I asked.
“It was,” he told me; “and I knew I had to do something about it, so I indulged in a little blackmail and, as a result, I succeeded in having that British-cleric print burned. The trouble was that when Top Banana opened in Los Angeles years later, I discovered that all those months of corroding frustration hadn’t been burned with that print, and out of nowhere the dries hit me.”
I said I tried to keep up to date on show-business talk, but “the dries” was new to me.
“They’re flop sweat in reverse,” he explained. “Your mouth is dry and your blood and your body juices dry up too. I didn’t think I was going to be able to walk out on that stage. Me, whose scrapbook was full of flaming write-ups! I know it was idiotic to have that feeling, but I was so nervous that I wandered out on the stage twenty minutes before I was due. Looking around I glanced through the peephole in the asbestos curtain. Jack Benny and his party were seated in the second row. Jack had called me to ask for four seats for himself, his wife, Mary Livingstone, and George Burns and Gracie Allen, and I was delighted to take care of them.” He paused and added, “Hollywood is a funny place.”
“I know,” I said; “it only resembles Hollywood.”
“You can say that again,” he told me. “The movie colony comes to your opening night. After that, if you don’t have a smash, the Hollywood crowd, who make up a large percentage of your audience, stay home. You’ve had your one night of hilarity. From then on, if you haven’t got a great show, or at least a good show, you play to half-empty houses and to stagehands. But to get back to Jack Benny—I noticed that, of all things, he was screaming with laughter at the overture. He had seen the show twice in New York, he was laughing at what he was going to see before he saw it, and he was telling the people with him all about it. It was so funny that it ran the dries out of me, and when the curtain went up I walked out on the stage and did the kind of standard performance I ought to have done.
“Afterward Jack and I planned a golf date, but later, when I called him to set a time for it, he said, ‘I’ve got a cold, Phil. I feel kind of lousy.’ I said, ‘I’m too tired to play golf anyhow, so forget it.’
“ ‘Are you alone?’ he asked. ‘Do you want some company? No one’s here. Mary’s shopping.’ I said, ‘I’d love to see you. Come over.’ When he came, he said, ‘Phil, do you realize that all of us out here envy you?’ ”
“What did he mean by that?” I asked.
“He said, ‘What we wouldn’t give to be Broadway stars, to hear that real applause every night instead of the canned stuff, to work on a performance until it’s polished like a cameo. How few of us can do it and sustain it. I’m telling you—and you can believe me—TV will go after you. They’ll have to, Phil, but TV is an octopus. It ensnares people and it devours them. Stay out of it if you can. You’ll be great in it, but what will you accomplish? The flurry will be over soon, and tedium will set in. Yesterday’s TV heroes are soon forgotten.’
“I figured that Jack’s cold was making him gloomy, yet what he said made sense. ‘Stay in the Broadway theater,’ he urged. ‘Don’t get into this mechanical industry. It’ll drain you. Do another stage show. Be a musical-comedy star.’
“I intended to do what Jack advised. I planned to do a couple of guest-star TV shots, but he had convinced me that the new medium was not for me on a steady basis.”
“You’ve been working at it pretty steadily for three years,” I said. “Did the two telegrams you two exchanged have anything to do with changing your mind?”
“Look,” he said, “we’re going about this wrong. I’m no writer, but it seems to me we ought to backtrack a little so you’ll know how I got to Los Angeles in Top Banana in the first place. Then I’ll bring you up to where I’m Sergeant Bilko. Otherwise you’re going to get so confused you won’t know whether I’m talking about things that happened in 1937 or 1957. Then I’ll tell you about those two telegrams.