Looking back at Bilko, Phil finds the memories somewhat bittersweet. In those days, it was easy to take swipes at the military; today, with Vietnam, the shenanigans don’t seem quite so funny any more. “I try to black all of that out,” Phil says, gloomier than ever. “The Pentagon loved the show and enlistments trebled. Those young guys thought that’s what army life was really like. I feel guilty about that, about the waste. A show like Bilko could never go now. Things are too serious; there would be a great deal of resentment. We’re in a war we shouldn’t be in, and it’s a little vicious. Calley and those black market men and those guys on pot . . . it’s much more vicious now. Now it isn’t funny.”

What is funny is “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which was originally written with Phil in mind back in 1962. Phil read the script then and turned it down (“I didn’t think it would go anywhere”), so the lead role of Pseudolus went to Zero Mostel, who played it to raves on Broadway and later to lesser raves in the 1966 film version. Phil, who by then had seen the error of his ways, accepted the second lead as Lycus, the devious dealer in courtesans, in the film version, and has been yearning to do Pseudolus ever since.

“When we were talking about reviving it a year ago, Stephen Sondheim [who wrote the music and lyrics], said to me, ‘Phil, I always had you in mind. Now let’s do it the way I want it.’ I’m not putting Zero down or anything. We’re old friends. The main difference in the way we play the part is that I do the songs in triple tempo. It did sort of bother me to be doing a part that another man had made famous, but I just went out and did it my way. [Singing] I did it my-y-y-y way . . .”

With Mort Marshall (Senex). Circa May 1972.

ENLARGE

Advertisement, The New York Times, 3 April 1972.

26th Annual Tony Awards, 23 April 1972. Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical: Phil Silvers—A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Host Peter Ustinov had a seven-foot-tall hook, to threaten those who were overrunning. Hence Phil’s genuflection.

The biggest hits of Phil’s life, other than the Bilko TV series, were three Broadway musicals: “High Button Shoes” in 1947, “Top Banana” in 1951, and “Do Re Mi” in 1960, his last success. He also got good reviews last year in his first straight play on Broadway, “How the Other Half Loves,” with Sandy Dennis, but the show bombed.

His 32-year Hollywood career hasn’t fared much better. Although he has made two dozen movies (including “Cover Girl,” “Tom, Dick and Harry,” “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell”), he admits he hasn’t become a smashing cinematic success. “In many peoples’ opinions, I have made it in the movies,” he says. “But I know I haven’t. I was always cast as Blinky, the hero’s good friend, who told the girl, usually Betty Grable, in the last reel that the hero really loved her.

“You know,” he goes on, I’m the one guy in the world who misses Harry Cohn very much. That bestial man! He was a bastard, but at least he was honest, and man, he was a picture maker—as opposed to those college-educated men who say, ‘You’re too Jewish for pictures.’ With him, I knew where I stood. I could reach him. I could get into his office.”

Phil gets upset, however, when it is suggested that part of his appeal is ethnic. “I don’t go along those lines at all,” he says, huffily. “Not that I’m not a great lovely liberal. But jokes like, ‘Two Jews got off a trolley,’ I turn them right off. I’ve never told a racial or ethnic joke in my life. I hate the Polish jokes. Nobody calls me a Jewish comedian. If they do, I’ll tell them about the three Popes I’ve had audiences with.”

He gets up, walks into the bedroom for a cigarette, and returns with a smile on his face. “Hey, you wanna go to bed?” he asks. Three seconds of silence. “Oh, honey, don't take me so seriously, I do it for the shock value. I love to say the unexpected.”

He settles down on the couch again, this time to talk frankly about the two things that seem to be bugging him the most these days: Extreme frankness in celebrity interviews, and the “exploitation” of actors by politicians.

“I’m a hero worshipper yet,” he says, on the subject of frankness, “and I just think there should be a wall between the audience and the actor. Take Jack Nicholson. When he did that bawling out of Ann-Margret in ‘Carnal Knowledge,’ I got up and cheered. But I don’t like to read in Playboy that he masturbates. I deplore the fact that the wall has been brought down. They know all about us, they know that we’re frightened, and after they read this interview, they’ll know I'm depressed. Well, the grocery boy is depressed, too. It just isn’t right for an actor to say, ‘How do you do, I just came from a mental institution.’ I just want to shake them. When I talk about my cataracts, I want to help people.

“And Elliott Gould . . . this intense young actor who came backstage to shake my hand a few years ago. I saw a picture called ‘Getting Straight,’ and when Elliott kissed that obviously homosexual professor, it was the best five minutes I’ve ever seen on the screen. I wrote him a letter and told him how brilliant he was. And now, here he is upset. I see him on the talk shows, and I want to strangle the people who made him go on. He talks about smoking pot, and he’s so unkempt. I tell you, all the walls are down.”

That makes him mad, all right, but the so-called political exploitation of actors makes him even madder. “A lot of actors are being used!” he shouts, pounding his fist on the coffee table. “The candidates exploit us. I got a call from one and it was a man I’m not even for. I said, ‘How can you be so sure I’m for you?’ I don’t care about politics as much as I should. But I do have a certain envy of people who believe in something violently. Like the young Fonda girl. What she’s doing is better than staring at a wall.

“If there is a God,” he says, pounding on the table again, “he is going to look down and see that people are killing each other in Vietnam, and why? There is so much anger around. Millions and billions are being spent to go to the moon. Why not spend one-half to one-tenth to one-third of that to clean up the slums? I certainly don’t like what’s going on, but I don’t think I have the authority to go out and use my fame to try to influence people!”

Phil’s permanent home is an apartment in Los Angeles, the city where his two ex-wives also reside. No. 1 was Jo Carroll Dennison, Miss America of 1942. No. 2 was Evelyn Patrick, an actress who was the “Revlon girl” on the old “$64,000 Question” television quiz show. Phil and Evelyn had five daughters in seven years, including a set of twins.

Why did the marriages break up? “I wish the Christ I knew,” he says. “They didn’t break up with avarice or hatred. My first wife was so dear. You can’t be more beautiful than she was. I really love her now that I understand her, but we were too young and I was too busy trying to make it in Hollywood. We tried to have children and couldn’t. Then both of us got married again and bang, bang, we both had children. Jo Carroll is one of my closest friends now. She’s also my travel agent. She came to see me one day at a rehearsal of ‘Forum’ in Los Angeles and she said, ‘How dare you withdraw from people! Don’t you know how loved you are?’ ”

He picks up the photograph of his daughters from the coffee table and smiles. “My second wife was a different thing,” he says. “I would say hello to her and she was pregnant. It had nothing to do with virility or ego. Idiots have children. It was our genes. When we made the divorce settlement, she said, ‘This is the best father there is. He can see his daughters any time he wants.’ They’re being raised as Presbyterians because we had a deal that if we had boys, they would be brought up Jewish, and if they were girls, she could decide.”

Will there be a third Mrs. Silvers? “I don’t know who would want me,” he says sadly as he walks me to the door. “It’s certainly not good being alone. If you know of a wealthy young heiress . . . I love women. I love being with them, except if they’re eaten up with their careers. Then they’re half women.”

I push the “Down” button, and as Phil stands in his doorway waiting for the elevator to take me away, a wide Bilko grin breaks over his face. “Hey, you’ll make me look good to the elevator operator,” he says. “Can you smear your lipstick a little so he’ll think I’ve been with a girl?”