Born Philip Silver in Brooklyn, New York, Silvers was the youngest of eight children in a Russian Jewish family. His father was one of the workers on the early New York skyscrapers. Silvers started entertaining at age 11, when he would sing in theaters when the projector broke down (a common occurrence in those days). Two years later, he left school to sing professionally, before appearing in vaudeville as a stooge.
Silvers then landed work in short films, burlesque houses, and on Broadway, where he made his debut in the short-lived show Yokel Boy. The critics raved about Silvers, who was hailed as the bright spot in the mediocre play. He then wrote the revue High Kickers, until he went to Hollywood to star in films.
He made his film debut in Hit Parade of 1941 (1940) (his previous appearance as a pitch man in Strike Up the Band was cut). Over the next two decades, he appeared in character roles for MGM, Columbia, and 20th Century Fox, in such films as Lady Be Good, Coney Island, Cover Girl, and Summer Stock. When the studio system started collapsing, he then turned to television and more stardom in the role of Sgt. Ernie Bilko.
Throughout the 1960s, he appeared in films such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He also guested on various variety shows such as The Carol Burnett Show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and The Dean Martin Show.
Silvers famously starred as a guest in one of the famed British Carry On films, Follow That Camel (1967), as a Sergeant Bilko character in a spoof of the Foreign Legion films. Peter Rogers employed him to ensure the Carry On films' success in America.
His salary was £30,000, the largest Carry On salary ever, only later met by the appearance of Elke Sommer in Carry On Behind. Despite his appearance in the film, he did not ensure the film's success on either side of the Atlantic.
Famed voice actor Daws Butler employed an impression of Silvers as the voice of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Hokey Wolf and also used the same voice in numerous cartoons for Jay Ward. Furthermore, the premise of The Phil Silvers Show was the basis for the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Top Cat, for which Arnold Stang moderately imitated Silvers' voice for the title character.
Silvers was very ill in the last few years of his life, even though he continued work into the early 1980s in film and TV, including a cameo appearance on Happy Days as the father of Jenny Piccolo (played by his real-life daughter Cathy Silvers). This was a thrill for Silvers, who was by all accounts a devoted father; his daughter Laurie wrote of her father secretly fighting his fear of water in the backyard pool at night, so that he could swim with his four young girls.
A frail Silvers, interviewed before his death in 1985, revealed one of his secrets: "I'm an impatient comedian. And I feel the audience is as impatient as me." He died in his sleep of a heart attack in 1985 at age 74.
In 2003, The Phil Silvers Show was voted Best Sitcom in the BBC guide to television comedy. In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, he was voted #42 on the list of the top 50 comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. Dick Van Dyke, who made his TV debut on Bilko, says he "was always fascinated with Phil's sense of timing. Incredible."
Silvers was as compulsive a gambler in real life as his legendary comic creation Sgt. Ernie Bilko.
Phil Silvers Facts
|Birth Name||Philip Silversmith|
|Birthday||May 11, 1911|
|Birthplace||New York, New York, USA|
|Date of death||November 1, 1985 (Century City, California, USA, age 74)|
|Height||5' 11" (1m80) How tall is Phil Silvers compared to you?|
|It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World|
|It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World|
|Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum|
|A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum|
|The Strongest Man In The World|
|The Slowest Gun in the West|
|Horror in the Heights|