Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 26: Phil Silvers, Actor

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
RARELY CAN a project have been as ill-starred as Steve Martin's attempt a few years ago to revive Sergeant Bilko, the TV character made gloriously immortal by the great Phil Silvers. Martin's trouble is that he suffers from what doctors call Robin Williams syndrome, an insatiable need for every character he plays to be a touchy, feely, huggy bundle of love, which wasn't Bilko at all.

The joy of Bilko was that he was essentially disreputable, an army sergeant who would trick the young soldiers in his charge out of their meagre wages and shamelessly flatter his superiors for his own nefarious ends; yet for all that, you could not help liking him.

This was almost entirely due to the performance of Silvers, previously a successful vaudevillian, an occasional movie star, and the composer of Frank Sinatra's hit song "Nancy with the Laughing Face", who in his own words "was predestined to play Bilko".

Not that there was much performing involved. When Silvers was cloistered with the writer Nat Hiken in 1954, and asked to come up with a sit-com for CBS, his genius was to create a character based, according to the journalist Robert Chalmers, in a definitive profile of the actor, "on Silvers' own instincts, notably a fundamental compassion masked by a pathological craving for action".

Phil Silvers was the gambler's gambler, haunted by the voice that tormented Sergeant Bilko. "I hear money," Bilko would tell his men. "Our money. Crying out into the night, `Daddy, take us home'." The difference was, as Silvers once lamented, that Bilko had rather better scriptwriters. He used to win the jackpot sometimes.

Silvers, by all accounts, like many in thrall to his particular addiction, got his buzz out of losing. It was a buzz he was rarely short of, but it did not, it will hardly startle you to learn, bring him happiness. The comic genius's twin constant companions of melancholia and fear of failure blighted Silvers' life to the very end, in 1985.

The actor's mental problems even found their way into Nat Hiken's scripts for Bilko. In one episode, "The Rest Cure", Bilko feigns psychosis and is tormented by tom-toms audible only to himself. In another, he is plunged into a listless decline, having lost the urge to gamble. "Freud," Bilko tells the motor pool in one of his semi-improvised monologues, "states that when a man has receded from society in his mind, and the frustration is inside him, he will withdraw from the world" - foreshadowing his own story.

But despite his problems, he - Bilko/Silvers - was, according to the evidence, a pussycat, loving of his children and generous to colleagues. And very, very funny. When he visits a medium, he says: "There are no lights on. She must be in."

He could improvise brilliantly. In the episode "The Court Martial", a chimpanzee is accidentally inducted into the motor pool. Bilko is defending the animal at its trial when, to the horror of the cast, the accused climbs down from the stand and lifts the receiver of a nearby telephone. "Sir, I request an adjournment," says Bilko. "My client is calling for another attorney."

It is difficult to diverge from Chalmers' view that, for its brief life between 1955 and 1959, The Phil Silvers Show achieved a level of sustained inspiration that has never been bettered in television comedy.

In an era when the tradition in American sit-com was for the male lead to be played by some nondescript Dick in a button-down shirt - Dick York in Bewitched, Dick Van Dyke in anything - Silvers' self-destructive decision to put so much of himself into prime time had more than a whiff of the gambler's foolhardy heroism about it.