Born Philip Silver on Thursday, May 11, 1911, in Brooklyn, New York, in the working-class Brownsville section, he was the eighth and youngest child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Saul and Sarah (née Handler) Silver. His siblings were Lillian, Harry, Jack, Saul, Pearl, Michael, and Reuben Silver. His father, a sheet metal worker, helped build 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). By age 13 he was working as a singer in the Gus Edwards Revue, and then worked in vaudeville and as a burlesque comic.
Silvers next worked in short films for the Vitaphone studio, such as Ups and Downs (1937), and on Broadway, where he made his debut in the short-lived show Yokel Boy in 1939. Critics raved about Silvers, who was hailed as the bright spot in the mediocre play. The Broadway revue High Kickers(1941) was based on his concept.
He made his feature film debut in Hit Parade of 1941 in 1940 (his previous appearance as a 'pitch man' in Strike Up the Band was cut). Over the next two decades, he worked as a character actor for MGM, Columbia, and 20th Century Fox, in such films as Lady Be Good (1941), Coney Island(1943), Cover Girl (1944), and Summer Stock (1950). When the studio system began to decline, he returned to the stage.
Silvers wrote the lyrics for Frank Sinatra's "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)". Although he was not a songwriter, he wrote the lyrics while visiting composer Jimmy Van Heusen. The two composed the song for Van Heusen's writing partner Johnny Burke, for his wife Bessie's birthday. Substituting Sinatra's little daughter's name Nancy at her birthday party, the trio impressed the singer to record it himself. The song became a popular hit in 1944 and was a staple in Sinatra's live performances.
Silvers scored a major triumph in Top Banana, a Broadway show of 1952. Silvers played Jerry Biffle, the egocentric, always-busy star of a major television show. (The character is said to have been based on Milton Berle.) Silvers dominated the show and won a Tony Award for his performance. He repeated the role in the 1954 film version that was originally released in 3-D.
According to the documentary on the DVD of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Silvers was not a traditional comedian: he was a comic actor. Silvers never did stand-up, and out of character, he was not known for cracking jokes.
1950s fame and later career
Silvers became a household name in 1955 when he starred as Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko in You'll Never Get Rich, later retitled The Phil Silvers Show. The military comedy became a television hit, with the opportunistic Bilko fast-talking his way through one obstacle after another. In 1958 CBS switched the show to be telecast on Friday nights and moved the setting to Camp Fremont in California. A year later the show was off the schedule.
Silvers returned to Broadway in the musical Do Re Mi in December 1960, receiving a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical. Stanley Green wrote that "It was particularly blessed by offering two outstanding clowns in Phil Silvers as the pushiest of patsies and Nancy Walker." Throughout the 1960s he appeared in films such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and 40 Pounds of Trouble (1963). He was featured in Marilyn Monroe's last film, the unfinished Something's Got to Give (1962). In the 1963–1964 television season, he appeared as Harry Grafton, a factory foreman interested in get-rich-quick schemes, much like the previous Bilko character, in CBS's 30-episode The New Phil Silvers Show, with co-starsStafford Repp, Herbie Faye, Buddy Lester, Elena Verdugo as his sister, Audrey, and her children, played by Ronnie Dapo and Sandy Descher. In 1967 he starred as a guest in one of the British Carry On films, Follow That Camel, a Foreign Legion parody in which he played a variation of the Sergeant Bilko character, Sergeant Nocker. Producer Peter Rogers employed him to ensure the Carry On films' success in America. Silvers' presence did not ensure the film's success on either side of the Atlantic. His salary was £30,000, the largest Carry On salary ever, only later met by the appearance of Elke Sommer inCarry On Behind.
Silvers had a recurring role inThe Beverly Hillbillies
as Shifty Shafer or "Honest John" in 1969 and 1970.
Silvers was offered the leading role of conniving Roman slave Pseudolus in the Broadway musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Silvers declined, and the role went instead to Zero Mostel, who was so successful in the role that he repeated the role in the 1966 film version. By this time Silvers realized his error, and agreed to appear in the film as a secondary character, flesh merchant Marcus Lycus. When actor-producer Larry Blyden mounted a Broadway revival of Forum in 1972, he wanted Phil Silvers to play the lead, and this time Silvers agreed. The revival was a hit and Silvers became the first actor ever to win a Tony Award in a revival of a show.
Silvers also guested on The Beverly Hillbillies, and various TV variety shows such as The Carol Burnett Show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and The Dean Martin Show. Perhaps Silvers' most memorable guest appearance was as curmudgeonly Hollywood producer Harold Hecuba in an episode (titled The Producer) onGilligan's Island (broadcast in 1966), where he and the castaways performed a musical version of Hamlet. (Silvers' production company Gladasya – named after his catchphrase "Gladdaseeya!" – financed the show).
Illness and death
Silvers suffered a stroke during the run of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in August 1972. He was left with slurred speech. Despite his poor health, he continued working, playing Harry Starman in the 1974 "Horror in the Heights" episode of The Night Stalker starring Darren McGavin. His guest appearances would continue into the early 1980s including co-starring in 1977's The Chicken Chronicles, an appearance on Fantasy Island as an old comic trying to reunite with his old partner, and on Happy Days as the father of Jenny Piccolo (played by his daughter Cathy Silvers).
A frail Silvers, interviewed shortly before his death, revealed one of his secrets: "I’m an impatient comedian. And I feel the audience is as impatient as me."
Silvers died in his sleep on November 1, 1985 in Century City, California. "Mr. Silvers's family said he died of natural causes." He was interred at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Phil Silvers was married twice, to Evelyn Patrick and to Jo-Carroll Dennison. Both of his marriages ended in divorce. He had five daughters — Candace, Cathy, Laurie, Nancey, and Tracey Edythe — all by his second wife.
Like his alter-ego Ernie Bilko, Silvers was a compulsive gambler and suffered from depression on and off over the years. He suffered a severe mental breakdown while performing in Spain in 1962. While staying in Reno, Nevada, in the 1950s, he would often gamble all night. On one occasion, at the tiny Cal-Neva Lodge in nearby Lake Tahoe, Nevada, Silvers spent an entire night playing craps until he lost all his money, and then went through $1,000 in credit. A taxi was called to return him to Reno. It was "[o]ne of the worst nights of my life', Silvers told the driver, adding, "Don't wait for any lights and don't wait for any tip . . . I left it at the Cal-Neva!"
His memoirs are titled This Laugh Is On Me.