Daily Express
16 April 1973

After that secret sick parade, Bilko is bouncing back

By Ivor Davis
California, Sunday

“LISTEN,” yelled Phil Silvers with that unmistakable Sergeant Bilko braggadocio: “It’s awful tough to die when it isn’t your time.”

The voice was slightly wavery, but undeniably that of one of showbusiness’s top comedians.

“See, my voice is coming back . . . I’m starting to walk again. I’ll tell ya one thing, I’m not about to roll over and play dead.”

Old Bilko, the con-man supreme, television’s most loveable rogue, the all-time bamboozler, for once wasn’t joking. He was recovering from a stroke that had almost killed him, and talking frankly about his brush with death and about his future hopes.

Silvers, whose hilarious Bilko TV shows are now being rerun by the B.B.C., couldn’t resist chattering about the stroke in that flippant Bilko fashion, so that all along you think he’s kidding. But he wasn’t, of course.


Last August he felt ill in his New York hotel room during the successful run of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” a role in which he won a Tony—Broadway’s Oscar.

“I was about to take a shower and the whole place started spinning. I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what,” he recalls. “So I thought I’d better get some help.” (Some time earlier he had come over sweaty and dizzy during the show but put it down to stage nerves.)

Numb and scared he frantically phoned for help. His own physician was having an operation, but he went to a nearby hospital and was actually being examined when the savage attack came.

“I guess I was lucky to be where I was when I was, otherwise I’d have been a gonner,” he says.

News of the crippling attack was kept fairly quiet, although Silvers lost the use of his voice and his limbs for many months. But he’s got it back.

“I’ve had a little help,” he said. “I’m walking again and working hard lifting weights every day. I can go up and down stairs now and they tie weights to my legs for exercise. The stroke is a real bad thing, but I’m going to lick it. Believe me. Mind you I’m not quite ready for the Olympics . . . not this week anyway.”

At 61 Silvers has had a trouble-plagued past decade. Like many clowns, he is bubbly on the outside and sad inside.

A couple of years ago his sight began going. “I thought I was going blind.” He had a cataract operation and his sight improved. The former burlesque, stand-up comic is also divorced from his second wife Evelyn. He started his family when he was 46 and has five young daughters—including twin girls.

He was also a wild gambler, losing thousands in his lifetime. “It was a compulsive disease,” he admitted. The marriage break-up also hurt badly.

“Listen,” he says, picking up his old bounce, “this illness thing is a nuisance. I’m not ready to die.

“I enjoy life. This is no malarky, please believe me, but if I’ve got to go, I would like to finish my life in Britain. I love London. I’m a hopeless Anglophile.”

He’s also writing his autobiography.

“I don’t want to do a namby-pamby book. I don’t want to hurt anybody in it, but there’s a lot of intimate stuff I’m writing. The title so far is ‘I call tall men Shorty’. . . .

“Let me explain. That’s been my philosophy in my professional life. I’m always going against the grain. In ‘Bilko’ it was me against the Pentagon.”

I asked him what he thought about the revival of the “Bilko” show of the late ’fifties, a programme that brought him a small fortune.

“The Vietnam war is over so it’s funny again. But in the past few years a show like Bilko wasn’t funny. It wouldn’t go. There was nothing funny about a sergeant in an army camp, although when the show was on in America the Pentagon loved it. It did wonders for enlistment. But for me it’s in the past.”