In the early 1950s, Phil really did raise the bar for wise-cracking comics. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were at the height of their fame at this time too. They were performing at the same hotel were Phil was staying. In the middle of their routine, Phil entered the auditorium, wearing bathrobe, pyjamas and slippers. The sight of Phil stopped the show, and he walked up to the microphone, where Dean and Jerry had been raucously performing, and asked, "Can you guys keep it down, I'm trying to get some sleep," he then turned and left.
As well as the release of Top Banana in 1954, Phil had another movie on show at the box office that year, that film was Lucky Me. Phil played the part of Hap Schneider, a struggling performer in a musical troup. Headlining, the movie was non-other than Doris Day, one of the fave ladies of the U.S.A. at this time, as she had just come off the great success of Calamity Jane which had been an Oscar winner and she had also had a tremendous hit record with 'Secret Love.'
Nancey Walker, Doris Day, Phil and Eddie Foy jr.
At this moment in time let's give a thought for the men with little fringe on top. Phil of course was one. He started to lose his hair in 1941, when he was just 29 years of age. For many years he had a superb thatch of hair on his head. But not any more.
Phil said at the time; "Oh, I used to let it worry me. I would sit around and brood about it. But then I snapped out of it - What the heck! - I've been doing well in my chosen profession and there are one or two girls who like me. I should worry."
He had become so used to his shining scalp that he balked at the suggestion that he should wear a wig for this movie.
"At first I didn't go for the idea. I couldn't see that it made a difference. But they said that a man with hair on his head standing beside a pretty girl is better than a bald man. So who can argue? You get to accept things. It's like the rushes. Everybody says go and see the rushes. I reply that I'll go to see the rushes on the day when they accept the suggestions I make about the scenes. Those decisions are made by higher authority than I. You can't fight it."
Phil maintained that having a high-off-the-forehead number made not one ounce of difference with his attraction. He proved it when the lovely British actress, Jean Simmons, visited the set with her partner Stewart Granger. Phil asked her if she could see anything different about himself. "That's a lovely new tie," she said. Phil had to point out the toupee to her!
"Live and let live" is the motto of Phil Silvers. However he has always long wanted to be the man who gets the girl in a movie, whether he has no hair or not. In his early film career he had always played the buddy of the hero. Here he doesn't play the buddy of the hero. But he still doesn't get the girl. Well at least he was making progress!!
Doris Day was under contract to the Warner Brothers studio at this time, when she first saw the script to this movie, she marched into Jack Warner's office to protest about how thin on the ground the plot was.
Nevertheless, she had contractual obligations to meet. So make it she did. Little did she know that this musical would become a staple diet with her fans worldwide. They love it.
After being convinced that she should do the picture, she decided to give her performance 200% even though she was not very well at the time. And, what a stunning performance she gives! With great support from Phil, Nancy Walker, Eddie Foy Jr. and Martha Hyer and a fantastic co-star in Robert Cummings, she was divine as 'Candy Williams' a stuck-in-Florida showgirl with dreams of Broadway stage stardom.
Candy Williams is a struggling performer in a musical troupe, headed by Hap Schneider (Phil). Unfortunately, the troupe has fallen on hard times, forcing the members to get jobs cleaning hotel rooms. This all changes when one day Candy catches the eye of celebrity song writer, Dick Carson. Candy has no idea who he is, but, the rest of the troupe, especially Schneider, believes this is their lucky break. When Candy realizes who he really is, she’s furious because he deceived her. By this time, Dick has “fallen head over heels” for Candy - this could be a problem, since he is currently dating another girl, Lorainne, the daughter of an oil tycoon. Dick secretly sits through one of Candy’s performances, and is impressed, giving him a brilliant idea - Candy could perform the songs from the musical he has been preparing, and which he hopes Lorainne’s father will finance. However, this is not going to be easy, since Lorainne has become very jealous, especially, when it comes to Candy getting closer to Dick.
Lucky Me was the first musical to be shot in CinemaScope.
Lucky Me is a fun musical which opens with Doris Day's dynamite opening number, 'The Superstition Song', which she sings while bouncing down the streets of Miami! A true star performance! Only Doris could have gotten away with this, and she was brilliant. She played Candy Williams, a singer-actress who was appearing in a travelling show, Parisian Pretties which bombed in Miami. Stranded, she meets a New York songwriter, Cummings, who is casting a new Broadway show. He pretends to be someone else to court Candy, but falls in love with her. During the proceedings, Doris Day sings most of the numbers including her chart hit, 'I Speak to the Stars'. The highlight is 'I Wanna Sing Like an Angel' and 'Love You, Dearly,' a lovely ballad, which should have been a hit.
Phil Silvers was simply superb and had a great number with Doris called 'Men!' The other actors gave Miss Day able support and everyone seemed to work well with each other.
The cast work well together. Bob Cummings gives the same kind of smooth performance he gave opposite another blonde star, Betty Grable, a decade or so earlier. He seems ageless. Phil shows he can play more than Jerry Biffle, and Nancy Walker, reminds us of her musical-comedy roots. Eddie Foy, Jr., is amusing and Martha Hyer, who later married famed producer Hal Wallis and wrote (uncredited) the screenplay for the 1975 teaming of John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn, Rooster Cogburn is pretty window dressing.
The plot about a troupe of "down on their luck" performers, is not new. Since the inception of talkies it has been done by virtually every performer - male and female. This version doesn't add a lot of new twists. However, the cast play their roles with such conviction, you find yourself smiling at their antics and tapping your feet to the catchy songs.
Doris Day fans will just love seeing their favourite star do anything. Even though Miss Day didn't like the picture, her fans seem to love every minute of it. I must admit, I liked it! Ralph McKnight, New York, Nov 1998
Lucky Me didn't break box-office records when it was released but it deserves a better reputation than it has earned through the years. Thanks to Doris and company, the film is a lucky break for viewers! Paul Brogan, September 2003
1954, Phil was invited to be top nut (M.C.) at the TV and Radio Correspondents' Washington Dinner. This is a big deal, held yearly, and politicians, not being adverse to publicity, make it a point to attend. President Eisenhower was present, as were his Cabinet and most important officials in Washigton.
He walked to the rostrum and then, without saying a word, pretended to shuffle papers as if he had lost his act. Every once in awhile he peered over his famed hornrimmed glasses in a rather disgusted fashion. The silence in the room was loud indeed and there was genuine embarrassment as Phil continued to shuffle papers, clear his throat and ogle the audience. What few realized at the time was that Phil was setting up the audience for the kill, using every ounce of the timing sense he had perfected in thirty years of trouping. Suddenly he dropped the papers and eyed the audience with genuine astonishment.
"My goodness," he said, "who's minding the store?"
The biggest men in the United States laughed for two solid minutes. Later in the routine a telephone unexpectedly rang in the back room. A lesser comic might have been completely knocked off his timing. A man from burlesque is ready for anything. Suddenly, in the middle of his act, he cocked his ear, walked to the wings and, leaning back, called to the President's table:
"Long-distance call from some fellow named Dulles. Says he'll talk to anyone."
Sitting in the audience was a man named Hubbell Robinson, a vice-president in charge of almost anything at CBS-TV, who muttered words to the effect of where has this banana been hiding? He is truly a merry caper and I must have him on my network before the other one (NBC) grabs this clown.
Mr Robinson introduced Phil to a small, owlish-looking man named Nat Hiken, a bright, witty comedy writer who had made jokes for such good joke makers as Fred Allen, Milton Berle and Martha Raye. It is significant that when Nat left any of these shows the rating plummeted toward oblivion. The man has the art of making funny people much funnier than they are.
These two sat around in hotel rooms smoking cigaretttes and eating cheesecake until they came up with the implausible idea of the lovable, crooked, cockeyed sergeant who goes around winning friends by bilking innocent lambs. They secretly were afraid of the idea, but they had been working on it for the better part of a month and they had to show something for all the cheesecake they had consumed. Mr Robinson showed that he was no dunderhead by immediately sensing in the show the mark of great entertainment. That afternoon Sergeant Bilko was born.
You'll Never Get Rich was the thirty-first show CBS threw against Milton Berle in an attempt to dislodge the NBC star from his top-rating post. In three weeks Phil Silvers did what was said to be impossible -- kicked Uncle Miltie out of the lead and then into virtual exile from the TV kingdom.
Phil said this about the new show; "I’ll have no alibis when it’s over, I can’t say they harassed me. It was simple compared to doing a show like Top Banana on the stage. I’m convinced that film is the thing for a television show. I was able to do it before the cameras every week – and my mother not believing I was working. Before Nat Hiken wrote the script we kicked around fifty formats. We didn’t want it to be a charming story and we didn’t want me with a family of kids. Bilko is a guy who stays in the Army after the war. The Army is his cocoon. He operates great. He has a contour chair in his day room and he lives real well. He runs the best platoon in the Army and he’s really got it going for him. I spent a lot of time among GIs on U.S.O. tours here and overseas during the war. I lived with them and got to know how they talked and thought. I’m kind of a louse, but I’m a lovable louse this I like to be. “I’m insured for $750,000, it’s a very unique policy. I have to get hit by an iceberg. Of course, if it’s a submerged iceberg I get double indemnity."
The title of this new comedy show was You'll Never Get Rich later the title changed to the more familiar The Phil Silvers Show
Phil with publicist, Sid Garfield and Nat Hiken
Allan, Phil and Harvey love the new script!
With the show sponsors
Preparing to film. An early run-through: Note how close the colonel's office is to Bilko's barracks
The unpredictable Phil was still a little nervous for the show as he had arrived too many times before to know that one can always depart as quick as one came in. But the combination of Phil and Nat, a beautiful team who understood each other (whenever the show seemed to run down in rehearsals Nat would say something like: "Phil, remember that old bit you used to do about the tramp and the cop," and Phil would begin to swing into one of the beloved tried and tested routines) and worked like hand in glove. Together they would work the routine into the script and, lo, in five minutes the two have hatched up a comedy bit that just a few weeks later would have 30,000,000 Americans howling with laughter in their living rooms.
So popular was the show, that Bilko made an appearance on the iconic Times Square advertising board
There was a hush in the tense squad room while the sergeant's large, expressive eyes, rolling with outraged innocence behind his hornrimmed glasses, stared the private down. "Listen!" the sergeant roared. "When you play cards with me, you don't lose money. You get an education." The sergeant should have course have been lynched. But he wasn't any sergeant. This was Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko, television's wacky, implausible, sly grifter, lovable con man, big-dealer, scheming fixer and, outside of the Communists, the next most serious threat to the proper functioning United States Army. Phil was now stepping out with Evelyn Patrick, the unbelievably beautiful lady who did commercials on the hugely popular quiz show The $64,000 Question. He was never more happy than when Evelyn visited him on the Bilko set....
May 9th 1956: Phil put on his Sergeant Bilko uniform to prove that he was no television illusion when he amazed the Riviera Hotel opening night audience.
In the crowd this evening was non other than the top entertainer, Liberace. Who had just finished a hugely successful season in this gambling mecca of the World, the previous day.
Phil Silvers and his gang, on hand were Maurice Gosfield as Private Duane Doberman, Billy Sands as Private Dino Papparelli, Allan Melvin as Corporal Steve Henshaw and Herbie Faye as Corporal Sam Fender, warmed up with a portrayal of Army life that television viewers would never see. The sketch was a GI version of Top Banana, Phil said this at the time: "We'll make Elvis Presley sound like a choir boy."
Phil had a well rehearsed routine where he'd snap his fingers behind as he was saying goodnight to the audience, and Doberman would come down and whisper in his ear, then Phil would say, "Well I don't know Dobe, I'll try," and then he'd ask a pretty young singer to come down and they'd stand together holding hands supposedly giving off the air of a really warm little moment. But Phil, ever the joker, snapped his fingers early and Doberman ran down, and he said, "No, no not yet Doberman," so he went back in line with the others and started to fume. Doberman (Gosfield) was very annoyed that he had been summoned and rejected summarily.
The new material Phil provided was very pleasing for the audience. The highlight of the show being his imitation of a temperamental singer learning the lyrics of the classic song, 'Old Man River'.
New York Central Park circa 1956
Bernard "Toots" Shor was, during the 1940s and 1950s, the proprietor of a legendary Manhattan restaurant, Toots Shor's Restaurant. He was known as a saloonkeeper, friend, and confidante to some of New York's biggest celebrities during that bygone era.
Here we see a baseball team, jam-packed full of celebrities, that was sponsored by Toots.
Some years later, Toots and Phil reminisce
During 1956, New Haven, Connecticut: Phil weds Evelyn Patrick, the unbelievably beautiful cosmetics lady from The $64,000 Question TV show. The ceremony was performed by Max Schwartz, Justice of the Peace, at nearby Woodbridge, in his New Haven law office The wedding party included Freddie Fields, Phil's Agent and the actress, Polly Bergen.
Evelyn and her equally gorgeous sister Edythe, visit the set
On June 6, 1956, Milton Berle was the 'victim' on the American version of This is Your Life -- Phil Silvers, a friend of Milton since childhood, appeared as a guest. Here is that said appearance in all its glory. With Phil and Milton is host Ralph Edwards.
June 1957: Without display of temperament or advance warning, Nat Hiken, guiding genius behind the series, left the Bilko show after 70 odd episodes, pleading weariness. This meant Phil would have to fend for himself from now on. But, oddly enough, one didn't find Phil beating his chest in despair. "What's to cry about," exclaimed Phil, deadly serious for a change."Am I supposed to abandon the show because Nat is tired. I'm glad Nat is in a position to walk away. As a dedicated comedian, I don't know how to walk away. It's too big a show. Nobody is going to make me mad at Nat. He is constructed to work hard, and after three solid years of this grind, he's tired ------- wrung out! And when he says he's tired I must take him at his word. Much as we'll miss him!! He has a truly comic mind, and I'd be hard put to name another writer in TV who surpasses his talent "
On June 27, 1957 Phil and Evelyn had every right to celebrate with the arrival of their first baby daughter, Tracey.
Some new writers were brought in, one was a young Neil Simon.......subsequently the show went from strength to strength.
1958: Nat Hiken produced Man of the Hour....a ceremonial dinner, organised by the Friar's Club, in honour of Ed Sullivan. Phil presented Ed with the award.
On June 27, 1957 Phil and Evelyn had every right to celebrate with the arrival of their first baby daughter, Tracey.
15th June 1959 - Arriving in London
After four hugely successful series, Taps was finally blown on The Phil Silvers Show on June 19,1959. Phil and the boys were done, CBS cancelled the show for money reasons. Though it was getting better Nielsen ratings than ever!
The show had become, due to its large cast, expensive to produce. So CBS executives thought they'd cut a deal and put it into syndication. A GIANT of television comedy was no more, sent out to pasture at the height of its popularity.
After the cancellation Phil Silvers said this, "The cancellation of the Bilko show came as a complete surprise to me. After five big years on the air it was killed without anyone consulting me. It destroyed my pride. I was startled and hurt by the action, but there was nothing I could do about it. I was always beefing about how tired I was from all the work, but I wanted to retire from the show myself, not have it done for me. Still I can't complain too much, I owned half the show and gave it up for a considerable sum of money in my children's names."
As part of the settlement CBS gave Phil, due to the cancellation, he got his own production company and guess what he called it? Gladasya Productions after his own legendary catchphrase!
Some years later Phil said this about the Bilko show; "We were a happy group of guys, you know. Men get on with each other professionally so much better than women - there's no jealousy about who's best dressed. We were at the height of our rating when it finished. You see it was a very expensive show and nobody policed it, moneywise -- the average sitcom has five people, while we started with twenty four. The network just wasn'tmaking enough money on it. I guess they looked at the balance sheets, saw how much it was costing them and decided to chuck it. Of course they're sorry now because they've made 500 times the money they put into it then."
Every comedy show from now on will want to reach the level to which the Bilko show attained. The bar had been raised, for comedy, to an unbelievably high mark, this was the show that every new show from Dads Army to Fawlty Towers, Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm will want to be compared to. Phil Silvers et al, have left a legacy to be enjoyed forever, a show that cannot date, a show of such intricate plots and characters that future generations must be allowed to watch it and laugh out tremendously loud with it!