Phil Silvers, in a screaming red shirt and a porkpie hat, made believe he was in a telephone booth. This was the second day of rehearsals for another episode in the career of Sergeant Ernie Bilko, the TV character that Phil Silvers has ridden to fame.
"What happens here?" he called out. The storyline had Bilko in New York on furlough, vainly trying to locate an old girlfriend via phone.
"Just throw in a one-liner," said Nat Hiken, the producer-director-writer-creator of Bilko.
"Okay. How long was she sent up for?"
Ten minutes later, they were running through the same scene again. Once more, Phil hesitated and asked what he was supposed to do. Nat again said to toss in a one-liner.
"Well, didn't the lawyer ask for an appeal?"
This was Phil Silvers, ad-libbing to two different gags in the same spot. No telling what he'll say when the scene will finally be shot. He was one of the top ad-libbers adding ad-libs!
He could stick to a script, when he had to but when his well developed sense of timing and comedy told him something was needed, he could toss in an aside or a griimace or a gag and make it look like fifteen writers had spent a frantic weekend perfecting it.
There was a five minute break and Phil sat on one of the folding camp chairs that lined the hall.
"This is the drudgery," he said. "This rehearsing -- plain drudgery."
Most of the cast went outside during breaks for a quick coke or a quick ciggy. Phil Silvers stayed for a hasty conference with Nat Hiken about an entrance, a rapid exchange of pleasantries and gags followed.
Then they was back to work......twinkling, just like Bilko -- scheming, plotting and gagging --- He made the transition look easy....to Phil it was easy. He said himself he'd spent eighty years perfecting the character that is Bilko; it's second nature to him now.....
The best time to drop into a filming of The Phil Silvers Show was not when they were shooting the last show before the break for the year-end holidays. It was even worse when filming during the day occured in the middle of one of New York's terrible rainstorms.
The first sight that greeted you as you arrived at the downtown New York film studio, was Joe E. Ross (Rupert Ritzik) poking his head out in the pouring rain trying to lure the passers-by into joining the sparse studio audience.
Joining the crowd on the improvised bleachers, you waited for a few minutes until Phil Silvers was announced and appeared to perform his usual audience warmup.Folks," he began, "I have a rare treat for you. For the first time this year I'm going to be able to introduce Nat Hiken, the producer, director and writer of this magnificent show which I do so well."
Phil continued with his introductions, including everyone behind the scenes, then said:
"You gotta know I don't have any jokes prepared for this warmup......when I introduce every nonentity to the crowd you've gotta forgive me, we're all filled with Christmas cheer."
Phil then introduced the various members of Sergeant Bilko's platoon, with little gags for each. When he got to Maurice Gosfield (Private Duane Doberman), he said:
"Maurice, here, is a guy who always gets kidded about his stature, but, folks, he's a genuine hero of World War II. He single-handedly saved an entire regiment. What did you do, Maurice? Come on tell everyone. How did you save an entire regiment?"
"I shot the cook," Gosfield answered.
With the amenities dispensed with the filming began and proceeded straight through with a minimum of breaks of fluffed lines. The studio audience was able to follow the show almost as readily as a home audience would. What the watching public didn't know was that when they've gone home, the cast and technicians remained on set and reshot all the badly done scenes.
During one break in shooting, the meagre and up-to-then subdued crowd suddenly broke into a spontaneous round of applause after the mikes had been turned off. Phil Silvers turned and cheekily glared at them.
"All right!" he snapped. "Don't try to make up for it now!"