Phil Silvers

Active - 1940 - 2000  |   Born - May 11, 1912 in Brooklyn, New York, United States  |   Died - Nov 1, 1985   |   Genres - Comedy, Musical, Romance

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Growing up in the squalid Brownsville section of Brooklyn, Phil Silvers used his excellent tenor voice and facility for cracking jokes to escape a life of poverty. He was discovered as a young teen by vaudevillian Gus Edwards who hired him to perform in his schoolroom act. Silvers' singing career ended when his voice changed at 16, whereupon he took acting jobs in various touring vaudeville sketches. During his subsequent years in burlesque, he befriended fellow comic Herbie Faye, with whom he would work off and on for the rest of his career. While headlining in burlesque, Silvers was signed to star in the 1939 Broadway musical comedy Yokel Boy. This led to film work, first in minor roles, then as comedy relief in such splashy 1940s musicals as Coney Island (1943) and Cover Girl (1944). Silvers became popular if not world famous with his trademark shifty grin, horn-rimmed glasses, balding pate, and catchphrases like "Gladda see ya!" He returned to Broadway in 1947, where he starred as a turn-of-the-century con man in the Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn musical High Button Shoes. In 1950, he scored another stage success as a Milton Berle-like TV comedian in Top Banana, which won him the Tony and Donaldson Awards. From 1955 through 1959, Silvers starred as the wheeling-dealing Sgt. Ernie Bilko on the hit TV series You'll Never Get Rich, for which he collected five Emmy awards. Upon the demise of this series, Silvers stepped into another success, the 1960 Styne-Comden-Green Broadway musical Do Re Mi. The failure of his 1963 sitcom The New Phil Silvers Show marked a low point in his career, but the ever scrappy Silvers bounced back again to appear in films and TV specials. In 1971, he starred in a revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (nine years after turning down the original 1962 production because he felt the show "wouldn't go anywhere."). He collected yet another Tony for his efforts -- then suffered a severe stroke in August of 1972. While convalescing, Silvers wrote his very candid autobiography, The Laugh Is on Me. He recovered to the extent that he could still perform, but his speech was slurred and his timing was gone. Still, Silvers was beloved by practically everyone in show business, so he never lacked for work. Phil Silvers was the father of actress Cathy Silvers, best known for her supporting work on the TV series Happy Days.

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  • At age 11, became a "breakdown singer" at a Brooklyn movie house, entertaining the audience whenever the projector failed.
  • Started in vaudeville at age 13.
  • Made his Broadway debut in 1938 in a Buddy Ebsen musical, "Yokel Boy."
  • One of his first screen tests was for the role of an English vicar in the 1940 production of Pride and Prejudice, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. He didn't get the part.
  • Introduced Lana Turner to legendary bandleader---and his pal---Artie Shaw. When the two eloped, it was left to Silvers to break the news to Shaw's girlfriend, Betty Grable.
  • Initially dismissed the concept of The Phil Silvers Show (aka You'll Never Get Rich) as "too Abbott and Costello."
  • Won the Best Comedian Emmy Award in 1956.
  • In 1981, guest starred on Happy Days opposite his daughter Cathy, who played Joanie's pal Jenny Piccalo.