United Press International, syndicated
18 April 1974

Life Owes Comedian Silvers Some Laughs

He’s Reformed Gambler

By ROBERT MUSEL

LONDON (UPI)—Life owes Phil Silvers a few laughs and this would be a good time for whoever is in charge to start paying back some of the happiness he has given so many others in his long career as a comedian.

Phil was sitting in a chilly hotel suite on a recent spring day nursing a cold and trying hard not to think that he was almost surrounded by gambling clubs, all of them with enticing craps tables. What a place, he said, to put a compulsive gambler.

On the other hand it was a sort of test of whether he has really kicked the habit that cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars, his marriage and the five lovely daughters whose photographs adorned the living room.

Temptation: “Would you like to see one of the big London gambling clubs?”

Rejection: “No I wouldn’t. My contract forbids me to be taken anywhere near a gambling club. It’s like giving a reformed alcoholic a drink. But”—wistfully —“thanks for the offer.”

Doing “The Provinces”

Silvers was in Britain on a project that would never have crossed his mind in the days when he was Sergeant Bilko on television, or winning three Broadway Tonys as best actor, or playing the supporting film roles that enlivened so many Hollywood musicals.

“I was the guy who told John Payne that Betty Grable really loved him,” he said, “that is, when I wasn’t waiting for the fruit to fall off Carmen Miranda’s headdress.”

Silvers took on a provincial British tour as Pseudolus the slave in the American musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”—one of the shows that won him a Tony.

They don’t pamper the stars in the provinces here and the draughty dressing rooms carried him back in memory to the little burlesque theaters in which he started his career more than 40 years ago.

Oh! That British Weather

“I’m an Anglophile, and I love this country and I’ve seen parts of it I might never have seen otherwise, but I don’t dig this cold,” he said. “I came in from springlike California and we opened in a place called Billingham where I froze to death. I think,” he said, unconvincingly, “I’m getting used to the weather.”

Silvers graduated from a hard school—burlesque separated the men from the boys. And it is not long since he beat two physical setbacks that, combined with his domestic troubles, would have cracked lesser souls. Cataracts and a stroke are, in terminology he no longer uses, a rough parlay.

Those who journeyed to the provinces to catch him in Forum sent back word of brilliant performances and of good boxoffice business considering the state of the country. The plan had been for a short tour and then a London season. But the nation ran into an energy crisis and a three-day work week and it was decided to keep it away from the capital awhile longer.

“I hadn’t realized it had played here before,” Phil said. “I wouldn’t have taken it if I had. On the other hand I won a Tony in a revival of Forum on Broadway so I should do well here. No, I will do well here. I promise you.”

There came a string of anecdotes—of performances for Presidents Johnson and Kennedy, of being invited five times to British royal command performances and not being able to make any of them, of calculating he would have been a millionaire that very moment with his wife and children warm and loving around him if it hadn’t been for gambling.

Was Happy Once

Most comedians wear the mask of comedy in public, the downturned mouth of tragedy in private.

“I live in a terror of my own,” Phil said. “I have a fear of not showing up on stage. If you are the star you must show up. The stage is my cocoon. No one can hurt me there.

“We were happy once,” he said pointing to the pictures of his family. “Where did it go?”

He gave his own answer.

“I was bawling out my wife for spending $900 for a dress that she would wear maybe only a couple of times. And then I realized I had just blown $1,000 on a single horse race.”