Phil Silvers is an American entertainer and comedy actor considered one of the greatest comedic geniuses from the Golden Age of Television. Known as "The King of Chutzpah," he is probably best known for the character, Sergeant Bilko, from the 1950s TV-series, "The Phil Silvers Show."
Born on May 11, 1911 in Brooklyn, New York of Russian-Jewish ancestry, he was the eighth and youngest child of Saul and Sarah Silver, Russian Jewish immigrants. His father was a sheet metal worker who helped build the early New York skyscrapers. In his youth, Phil sang in movie theaters when the projectors broke down. He worked in Vaudeville and later joined the retinue at Vitaphone Studio, starring in the movie "Ups and Downs" in 1937, and appeared on Broadway in the short-lived show, "Yokel Boy" in 1939. His talent lead to his feature film debut in "Hit Parade of 1941" in 1940, leading to further work as a character actor for MGM, Columbia, and 20th Century Fox, in several movies through the Forties, such as "All Through the Night" with Humphrey Bogart, "Lady Be Good," "Coney Island," "Cover Girl" and "Summer Stock" in 1950. He returned to the stage afterward as a dancer, often working with performers such as Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth, and dabbling as a song writer with composer Jimmy Van Heusen, writing the lyrics for Frank Sinatra's "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)."
Silvers finally established himself as a comedy actor in the Broadway play, "Top Banana," loosely based on the life of TV legend Milton Berle. In 1955, the play landed him the role of Sergeant Ernest Bilko, the commanding officer of a motor pool at Fort Baxter, a sleepy, unremarkable U.S. Army post in the fictional town of Roseville, Kansas on "The Phil Silvers Show." The series was a major success until CBS changed the setting and dynamic of the show. After the series ended, Silvers briefly returned to Broadway, starring in TV shows and movies in between jobs. During the Sixties, he starred in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," one of his most popular screen appearances alongside Jim Backus, "Forty Pounds of Trouble" and "Something's Got to Give," the movie Marilyn Monroe was filming when she died, leaving it unfinished. As a compulsive gambler, he held rotating poker games at the exterior sites of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" with Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Sid Caesar and Jonathan Winters. In his private life, he married twice, having five daughters by his second wife, Jo-Carroll Dennison. One of his daughters, Cathy Silvers, also became an actress.
Silvers also starred in "The New Phil Silvers Show," "Gilligan's Island," which was produced by his studio, Gladasya Studios, and "The Beverly Hillbillies" in the recurring role of Shifty John Shafer, a con-artist trying to bilk the hillbillies of their fortune. He also turned down the role of conniving Roman slave Pseudolus in the Broadway musical-comedy "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," instead giving it up to actor Zero Mostel, who became a success in the role. Silvers, however, won his first Tony Award during a revival of the play.
During the run of the play, Silvers suffered a stroke which slowed him down and slurred his speech, but he still managed to make cameos in "Kolchak The Night Stalker" and on "Happy Days," where he played the father of Jenny Piccolo, played by his daughter, Cathy Silvers. shortly after his role in the TV series, "CHiPs," he quietly passed away in his sleep in his home in Century City, California on November 1, 1985 in Century City, California from natural causes. He was interred at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. His memoirs were published in the book, "This Laugh Is On Me."