Newspaper Enterprise Association, syndicated
13 February 1956
Phil Silvers’ Life Is Just Like “Sgt. Bilko”
By Dick Kleiner
NEA Staff Correspondent
New York (NEA)—Phil Silvers, in a screaming red shirt and a porkpie hat, made believe he was in a telephone booth. This was the second day of rehearsals for another episode in the career of Sgt. Ernie Bilko, the TV character Phil has ridden to fame.
“What happens here?” he called out. The story line had Bilko in New York on furlough, vainly trying to locate an old girl friend via phone.
“Just throw in a one-liner,” said Nat Hiken, the producer-director-writer-creator of Bilko.
“O.K. ‘How long was she sent up for?’ ”
Ten minutes later, they were running through the same scene again. Once more, Silvers hesitated and asked what he was supposed to do. Hiken again said to toss in a one-liner.
“O.K. ‘Well, didn’t the lawyer ask for an appeal?’ ”
This is Phil Silvers, ad libbing two different gags in the same spot. No telling what he’ll say when the scene is finally shot. He’s one of the top ad libbers currently adding libs. He can stick to a script when he has to but when his well-developed sense of timing and comedy tells him something is needed, he can toss in an aside or a grimace or a gag and make it look like 15 writers spent a frantic week-end perfecting it.
There was a five-minute break and Phil sat down on one of the folding camp chairs that lined the hall. He mopped his face with a handkerchief and bummed a cigaret.
“This is the drudgery,” he said. “This rehearing—plain drudgery.”
Most of the cast went outside during the break for a quick Coke. Phil stayed for a hasty conference with Hiken about an entrance, a rapid exchange of pleasantries and gags with comedian Jack E. Leonard who wandered in, a brief discussion of his publicity schedule with his press agent.
Then he was back to work. In a twinkling, he was Bilko—scheming, plotting and gagging. He made the transition look easy. And, to Phil Silvers, it is easy. He’s spent 30 years in perfecting the character that is Bilko; it’s second nature to him now.
The Bilko-ish character is a result of three decades of work in vaudeville, burlesque, movies, the stage. Gradually, Silvers evolved the curious mixture of larceny and lovableness that is Ernie Bilko. Gradually, he acquired the sense of timing that makes this a comic masterpiece. There is nothing admirable about Bilko, yet people are drawn to him.
Silvers explains this simply.
“There’s a little larceny in all of us,” he says. “I’ve known millionaires who love to get free tickets. They could buy the theater, but they like free tickets. Sgt. Bilko appeals to that streak. He’s no angel, but nobody hates him.”
Silvers started in show business at 14 as a singer. When his voice changed he became the “brat” in an old vaudeville act. Here he learned that he could make people laugh and—more importantly—that people laugh at brats. (Bilko is, after all, a mature brat.) He drifted into burlesque and here he acquired the sense of timing and the ad lib-ability that’s another part of Bilko.
In Hollywood, where he was usually cast as the hero’s fast-talking pal, he learned the tricks of the camera trade. On Broadway, where he starred in several musicals, notably “Top Banana,” he learned the discipline of a script.
As he says, “All these factors combine to make ‘The Phil Silvers Show’ successful. It took me 30 years to get it all.”
There was one other contributing factor—patience. For over a year, after “Top Banana” closed, he was in virtual retirement. He was plotting and planning, creating and rejecting, until he and Hiken came up with the Bilko format. Before Bilko, they’d dreamed up some 50 other ideas—one would have cast him as the proverbial brother-in-law, another as the proprietor of a gym.
“What we did was see if we could come up with a good idea for the 30th show,” Silvers says. “Anybody can do one good show—if he can’t, he should get out of town. We tried to get a series where the 30th show would be as good as the first.”
His success can be measured in ratings. Phil is the first to out-rate Milton Berle, and he’s done it several times.
Silvers is a native and confirmed New Yorker. He likes to hang around with the boys in Lindy’s, the connoisseur’s delicatessen. He likes the sports and theatrical bunch. He’s never alone. His one marriage—to one-time Miss America Jo Carroll Dennison—went on the rocks, his friends say, because his idea of a big night out with his wife was a basketball game and a late supper at Toots Shor’s with a covy of his cronies hanging around.
Lots of laughs, no privacy.
Now he’s at the top. Thirty-years of work and a solid year of planning have given him fame and recognition as one of the top bananas of television.
There was another break in the rehearsal. Phil flopped down in the chair, bummed another cigaret, stretched his legs out and tried to catch his breath.
“Drudgery,” he said. He was talking to himself.