The Brooklyn-born comedian, who is 45, with his wife, Evelyn, and their new baby daughter, Tracey, in the Silvers’ New York apartment. They were married last October.

“I’d better fill you in on my folks and where I came from and how I began in show business when I was thirteen,” he said. “You should be talking to my dad, God rest his soul. There was a character.”

“I've heard that he was a steeplejack,” I said.

“That’s not exactly true,” Silvers told me. “He was a tinsmith and sheet-metal worker who worked on New York skyscrapers. He escaped from Russia with my mother when they were both young. A Cossack made a pitch at mother, and dad clobbered him with a shovel. He wasn’t sure, but what if he had cooled him permanently, so he got out and came here. He knew no English, but he had relatives here and, when he was asked what his occupation was, he said ‘builder,’ so they put him to building skyscrapers. He went to night school as soon as he could, but he picked up most of his English from the Irish with whom he sweated on the tall buildings. To his dying day he was a religious Jew, but he spoke English with a Jewish accent and an Irish brogue. He’d start a sentence, ‘Vell, I’ll tell ye, begorra.’ What a combination!”

I must have made a coughing sound in my throat. I wasn’t aware of it, but Silvers heard it. “I’ll get on with my story,” he said. “As a kid I lived in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. It was also the home of an organization called Murder, Incorporated. When I joined the Gus Edwards vaudeville act as a boy soprano, I was following in the footsteps of Georgie Jessel and Walter Winchell. They had also worked in one of Edwards’ acts; I was in the generation immediately following them. When a gabby monster, called Radio, knocked off vaudeville, my stomach kept yelling for stuff to keep it full. So I did anything that came along to fill it. What came along was night clubs that smelled of formaldehyde wafted from the washrooms, jobs on the borsch circuit and working as a comic on the Minsky strip-tease wheel.

“Then, in 1939,” he went on, “I went from burlesque into Yokel Boy, where, as I’ve told you, L. B. Mayer saw me and signed me. After I’d gotten that Pride and Prejudice screen test off my back, I appeared in such films as You’re in the Army Now, Roxie Hart, My Gal Sal, Footlight Serenade, Just Off Broadway, Coney Island, Cover Girl, Four Jills in a Jeep, A Lady Takes a Chance, Something for the Boys, Take It or Leave It and Diamond Horseshoe.”

“How’d you get from Hollywood and Vine into a Broadway hit show like High Button Shoes?” I asked.

“Friends had a financial stake in it and they talked me into it,” he told me. “Also, it was to be directed by George Abbott. Abbott is a legendary figure in show business. He is acknowledged by one and all to be a genius. High Button Shoes opened in the late summer of 1947. It ran all through 1948 and it closed near the end of 1949. It was written by Stephen Longstreet. Longstreet’s a fine author, but it was his first musical comedy.

“We opened in Philadelphia, and at first I believed every word Abbott told me, but before long I realized that although he was a genius, he didn’t dig me or my comedy. I don’t understand my comedy myself, so I can’t explain it to anybody. If I’m asked to lecture at a college about what makes me funny, I can give no clue. I know instinctively what you’re doing wrong and I can tell you, but I don’t pretend to tell why and what I’m doing.

“For that matter, I’ve never met anyone who can. During my lean time in Hollywood I was playing Charlie Foy’s night club one night, and Charlie Chaplin, who was the idol of most comedians, walked in. I watched him, and he pounded his table and he screamed with laughter while I was doing my stuff, and I thought, I’m going to write my mother and tell her I made Charlie Chaplin laugh, but she won’t believe it; she’ll say I’m smoking reefers.

“The pay-off came when Chaplin called me to his table and said, ‘You don’t know this, but you’re a poet. Your comedy is not just comedy, it’s the masses crying for recognition.’ I looked at him and suddenly I saw a pompous old man ladling out malarkey. What’s all this about crying for recognition? I asked myself. All I’m trying to do is to be funny. It has no underlying social significance.”

“To get back to High Button Shoes,” I hinted.

“The critics really slapped it around in Philadelphia,” he told me. “People were tolerant with me because they were familiar with me in pictures, but although we were doing O.K. at the box office, we were headed for disaster unless somebody did something drastic. All the time we were rehearsing, I was trying to help make my contribution to the show better. After all, it said ‘comedian’ in my contract, didn’t it? So I figured I’d better get some laughs. But when I’d injected a line or a piece of business, Abbott asked, ‘What’s funny about that?’ and I couldn’t tell him. All I knew was that when I did it the people laughed.

“When we reached New York, somehow I did a fine performance. I hadn’t had time to make it the performance I wanted it to be, but in spite of the fact that the out-of-town buzz had it that we were bad, my write ups were OK. Actually we were a hit. You don’t run two and a half years if you’re not.

“I had worked like a dog helping put that show over, but I kept reading press releases which I assumed were being issued by Stephen Longstreet’s publicity man. I read: ‘Stephen Longstreet is hoping that Danny Kaye will be signed for the film version of his musical, High Button Shoes.’ I thought, Longstreet’s a nice fellow, but perhaps he doesn’t like the liberty I’ve taken with his lines. Maybe I’ve irritated him. If I had been nixed for the movie version of the show when the time came to make it, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Not that Longstreet would have the final say about the casting—but reading that he was hoping that somebody else would be starred burned me.”

“They’ll let Roz Russell do Auntie Mame in the film they’ll make of that, won’t they?” I asked.

“Roz’ husband owns that show,” Silvers told me, “so he’ll probably give her the nod; otherwise the role might be played by Tab Hunter—although they’d have to call it Uncle Mame. He’s hot. I know it was juvenile of me to get mad about those releases I was reading,” Silvers continued, “but I did. So I sent Longstreet a wire. In it I threatened, ‘If I read any more of these releases about who you hope will do High Button Shoes instead of me, in the picture version, I will play the show as you wrote it.’

“I’m not sure now that Longstreet had anything to do with those releases,” Silvers said. “In fact, I’m prepared to admit that he didn’t, but the word about my wire must have got through to the press agent who was using an easy way to get the show mentioned in a column and it must have been a potent threat, for it was the last I saw of those statements. As a matter of fact, it was all a lot of ado about nothing, for they never made a movie version of High Button Shoes, and the question of who’d play it on the screen never came up.

“I think that it was in between High Button Shoes and Top Banana that I did a semi-sleepwalking bit which made the papers,” he told me. “I was living in a suite in a hotel in New York, over the Copacabana. I had just been in the Colgate Comedy Hour TV show, with Martin and Lewis as my guest stars. I’d taken a shower and gone to bed, but I couldn’t black out. My nerves wouldn’t uncoil, so at two-thirty in the morning it occurred to me that Dean and Jerry, who were playing the Copa, must be in the middle of their late show and at their noisiest. I slipped on a tattered old bathrobe and beat-up slippers, took the elevator down to the Copa and walked out onto the floor. I’d never seen Jerry nonplussed before, but seeing me left him silent.

“ ‘Please, fellas,’ I said, ‘keep it down a little. I can’t sleep.’ Then I got back into the elevator and went back to bed.

“Dean and Jerry couldn’t get over it. During the rest of their run at the Copa, whenever Jerry seemed too loud, Dean pointed upward and said, 'Sh-h-h, Phil’s gone beddy-by.’ ”

In his stage hit Top Banana, Silvers played an ex-burlesque comic who fast-talked his way into television.

“Let’s get back to the opening of Top Banana in Los Angeles,” I said doggedly, “and Jack Benny advising you not to get mixed up with television. You promised to tell me about a couple of telegrams.”

“Oh, yes,” Silvers said. “There’s not much point of making a big thing of how Top Banana was born and what made it a success, for that’s recent history. In burlesque, ‘top banana’ means the comic who gets top billing. In the story, I was an ex-burley comic who had fast-talked himself into TV, but after I was in TV I had dreams of how great it would be to be back on the Minsky wheel, without the TV pressure that could give you a heart condition or could change you so you had no heart at all. Anyhow, Top Banana was a gasser. It started off as if it were going to run forever, and it almost did.”

“What’s a gasser?” I asked.

“It’s a word Frankie Sinatra uses a lot,” he explained. “It means a whopper. When Top Banana closed, I got a call to come to Washington, DC. The network employees stationed in the capital were giving their yearly dinner for President Eisenhower. I tell you this, for, in the final analysis, that was the reason why I went into television. The President enjoys that dinner because it’s non-political and he loves show business, although he allows no purple stuff, no spice.

“The show was a variety performance and, although I’m a plot comedian and don’t like standing up and telling jokes, I was asked to be one of the acts. I need a situation even if I have to make one out of pretending that the orchestra leader is annoying me.”

I asked, “You mean you can’t come on and say, ‘A funny thing happened to me on the way to the theater’; then offer a crackling one-line follow-up?”

“No”, he said, “I can’t, and I envy guys who can spout those one-liners. I went off to Washington to be in that show, and all of a sudden, before going on, I was nervous again. It wasn’t the Los Angeles Top Banana-opening-type nervousness. After all, Top Banana had a plot. This was a kind of nervousness that had happened to me before in variety appearances, and I had a trick to combat it. The trick is that I pretend to be above authority. That’s really what I’m doing in my Sergeant Bilko series. It runs the nerves out of me, and after that I’m fine.

“At the dinner for the President, which was held in the Presidential Ballroom of the Statler Hotel, everybody in the Government was there. The Cabinet, the Supreme Court, senators and congressmen, the works. Only one man, Mr. Dulles, was missing, and he was off trying to cope with a Russian delegation somewhere in Europe. The people who were putting on the show and who had asked me to come must have thought I’d blown my stack, for I just walked out and stood there for twenty seconds.

“Have you any idea how long twenty seconds is in front of an audience without saying a word?” Silvers asked me.

I said “no” and he said, “Try it sometime. I shielded my eyes from the spotlight and looked at the Supreme Court, the Cabinet, the President; then I finally said, ‘Who’s minding the store?’

“The President burst out laughing and everybody else laughed too. Then, in the middle of a number I was doing with a clarinet, a telephone rang offstage. To the Secret Service that was unforgivable. At such parties all phones are disconnected. There might be an infernal machine attached to one of them or something. I know it sounds silly, but they go that far in protecting the President. When that phone rang, two Secret Service men rushed out to find it and pulverize it, and in the excitement I lost my audience and I had to get it back.

“I didn’t know what that phone call was all about, of course, but I looked into the wings and pretended that I saw someone answering it, then I said, ‘Oh!’ as if I’d got the word from one of the Secret Service men. I turned toward the President and said, ‘There’s a long-distance call from a Mr. Dulles. He says he’ll talk to anybody.’ That broke the President up, for he knew far better than anyone else that the guy was having a rough time of it in Berlin all by himself.

“In all honesty,” Silvers said, “I have to admit that I was a hit. There were special circumstances involved, but that night I was good, and a couple of the major TV networks came after me. But, remembering what Jack Benny had told me, I said, ‘No, thanks.’

“I figured all I had to do was wait, and crowds of producers would break down my door with the books for Broadway shows in their hands. Nothing happened. I’d forgotten that you just don’t manufacture a stage musical out of fuzz and wishful thinking. You plan them solid so they’ll last and run for months; maybe even years if you’re struck blind with luck. They’re not like a television show. I do each TV performance the very best I can, but you can’t make a gem out of each one of them because, if you do, you won’t have time to put one on every week. What with five weeks’ rehearsal and four weeks on the road, with a Broadway show you have no excuse opening night if it’s not polished until it glitters.

“Hubbell Robinson, the program manager for CBS, kept calling me and saying, ‘I’ve been planning for you for years, but every time somebody comes in with a script and says, “This is a typical Phil Silvers script,” I throw it in his kisser. “Who knows what a typical Phil Silvers script is?” I ask. “You write a script that stands on its own legs and Phil will adapt himself to it.” ’

“Hubbell was a little off on that,” Silvers told me. “because all my life I’d been getting scripts with ‘Phil will say a funny thing here’ pencilled in on the margins, only the writers didn’t say what the funny things were. I didn’t want to have to think of any more funny things to say. I wanted the writers to do that. Then Nat Hiken, a writer I admire, became available. (I still admire him, although not long ago, after three years of writing and producing the Bilko show, he got tired and bowed out.) To me, he’s the comedy writer. Talent wise he’s far ahead of anybody else. Anyhow, what with Hubbell’s insistence and Hiken’s availability, I found myself in television in spite of Benny’s warning.

“The great thing was that Robinson left us alone. He put us on good salaries and never asked us, ‘What did you do today?’ We didn't have to clock in. Nat and I went to ball games and discussed what to do. We thought of ninety-five plots, but Nat kept coming back to his Bilko idea. I couldn’t warm up to it for a long time. I could see nothing in it but phony drills and flimsy facetiousness. But in the end we made a kinescope Bilko plot, and when Mr. Paley, the head of CBS, saw it he put it away so nobody else could see it. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is money in the bank,’ and he told us to put twenty Bilko shows on film. Have you any idea what it’s like to do that many films, not knowing whether they’re good or not?” he asked.

I shook my head. I figured it was what my books in school had called a rhetorical question. “As a showman,” he said, “I can tell you that it’s murder to walk down the street without anyone saying whether what you’re doing is good or bad. But Paley just kept us at work getting this secret reservoir of films together.

“When Paley was ready to show what we’d done, the Camel cigarette people bought it, and when it was ready to roll on the country’s screens, once more I had the dries, for we were on opposite Milton Berle. At that point he was Mr. Television himself, and he had a rating of twenty-eight or twenty-nine. Our first rating was about eight. It rose to eleven and sank to seven, and my heart sank with it. I had talked a lot about how ratings wouldn’t bother me, but ratingitis is a disease. It gets you. For six weeks I tried to pretend I didn’t care—while our ratings climbed a little each week. Then I called a man at CBS, Mr. Harry Ommerle, and, dropping my pretence of indifference, I asked eagerly, ‘How was our last Trendex?’

“ ‘I haven’t got the figures yet, Phil,’ he said, ‘but hang on and I’ll get them for you.’ I could hear him ask his girl for them; then Ommerle said, ‘There’s been a mistake here, Phil.’

“ ‘How do you mean, a mistake?’ I asked, and he said, ‘Don’t get upset. The girl has goofed. She reports twenty-seven for you and fifteen for Berle.’

“ ‘I agree, that can’t be right,’ I said, ‘and when I call you back I hope you have it straight’; but instead of calling him back I decided to walk up the street to the CBS office to check myself. The stenographers and secretaries there have outside desks in corridors, and as I walked in they applauded. Ommerle’s secretary hadn’t goofed, after all, and all those secretaries knew it. I must say it was dramatic. It kind of got me by the throat.

“From then on, that’s the way the cooky crumbled. I enjoyed having good ratings, but I didn’t enjoy the viciousness of the railbirds’ thrusts at Berle. They didn’t just say I beat him. They gave him nasty digs, and it was cruel and unwarranted. After all, for years Miltie had been the biggest personality TV had to offer.

“I went out of my way to do little jokes with Milton that seemed to appeal to him. However, he made cracks about the situation that, for his own sake, he shouldn’t have made. He’d say to an audience, ‘Remember me? I’m last year’s Phil Silvers.’ It was good for me, but I liked Milton and I didn’t think he rated what was happening to him or what he was doing to himself.

“If I may take time out for just a minute to say something—the same thing can happen to Bilko that happened to Milton—saturation. That’s why we’ll change our plot a little next year if I can.”

“You mean you’ll get away from Sergeant Bilko?” I asked.

“Not away from him, but maybe we can get him away from his old Army post long enough to have him travel to Europe with his motor pool or shipped out on detached service. I think it would be too jarring to build a whole new character for me. What I’d like is a variation on what I’m doing now, even if it means putting on civilian clothes now and then. If you’ll study our present show, although we’re in Army uniforms, you’ll be surprised how little there is in it about the Army.

A befuddled Sergeant Bilko faces the colonel (Paul Ford).

“Although I think we have an adult approach to our Bilko stories, the kids like us, too,” he said. “I know, because they give me the Bilko bark on the street.”

“What’s the ‘Bilko bark’?” I asked.

“It’s like the ‘halt’ in ‘one, two, three, halt!’ only it’s unrecognizable as any particular word. I didn’t have time to learn the conventional words of command, but I figured that the audience would know that when I bark it’s supposed to be a command. It’s loud and it’s part of my Bilko character, and when I bark, the GI’s with me snap into it. One writer tried to spell it, and the closest he could come was ‘Ha-yur-up!’ ”

He remembered something. “Oh, yes, the two telegrams I exchanged with Jack Benny. The first year I was on TV and the television awards came around, I hoped we might rate one Emmy, but actually we were tops in five categories. The next morning I got a wire from Jack. All it said was: ‘You wouldn’t listen to me!’ ”

“How about the second wire?” I asked him.

“I waited a long time to answer that properly,” he said, “and my chance came this year. Jack was given a great honor, one which is not thrown around carelessly. The Hollywood branch of the Friars threw a dinner to honor him as the Man of the Year, and everybody was there. As a close friend of his, I was asked, too, but I was up to my neck shooting Bilko films, so I sent him a wire instead. In it I said, ‘If I had listened to you two years ago, I’d be at your dinner tonight.’ That, I thought, evened things up.”

THE END