Bilko's baby on parade
The Mail on Sunday 7th April 1985
Bilko still has millions of followers though Phil Silvers is now in semi-retirement. His daughter, actress Cathy Silvers, talks to Douglas Thompson about life with Sarge.
Although she was born three years after the last episode of the TV series which established her father as one of the world's best-loved comic actors, Cathy Silver can't escape the legacy of US Master Sergeant Ernest Bilko.
It is a disquieting 30 years since audiences first began laughing at the antics of Bilko and his crazy gang of a platoon. The same situations, gags and characters are still bringing smiles today in that Peter Pan quirk of television which puts time on hold - the re-run.
Sadly, Phil Silvers isn't holding up as well as the shows which made his wily, at-the-double-bark of a sergeant a favourite for ongoing generations. At 72, there is a lot of melancholy and scarcely concealed bitterness about the man who could never repeat the worldwide popularity of Bilko.
'Much as you might want to you can't stop time,' says his daughter. She was born 23 years ago to Silvers and his second wife, TV actress Evelyn Patrick. Dad was world famous. When she turned five years old her parents were in the divorce courts, A 'sense of family' was maintained and she and her father would - and still do - have dinner every Sunday night.
Tonight it will be served in the veteran actor's Century City apartment with its meandering view down from Hollywood, through Beverly Hills and out to the Pacific. He likes to sit on his balcony, play the clarinet and watch the horizon. Behind him is a clutter of his yesterdays: awards he received on his way from burlesque to Broadway and Bilko; framed photographs of him with Sinatra and Katharine Hepburn and with his daughter Cathy, who was named after Hepburn.
There are five Silvers girls - Cathy, her twin Candy, Laury, Tracey and Nancy - but it's Cathy who is establishing herself as Bilko's baby.
She was an 18-year-old amateur actress when Dudley Moore saw her in a college production. He sent her to his agent. The agent sent her for two TV series interviews the same week. One was for Happy Days. She got the part which gave her three years as tough-talking Jenny Piccolo who came across like a character from the past.
'I get my timing from my Dad. It's in the genes. Jenny Piccolo reminded me of Bilko. She'd have played cards if she was a guy. I don't know how it happened that the first character I'd get to play would be so much like Bilko.'
The other day over a salad lunch at a bistro near her neat, modern art-decorated Hollywood apartment she had her fingers crossed that her next assignment would be altogether different – a dramatic role in Dark Mansions, a new evening TV saga being developed by producer Aaron Spelling. She admits she could live without the 'Bilko's daughter' tag but is bright enough to know that will never happen. The curse of the re-run?
'I'm not complaining about re-runs . . . I'm still getting money from Happy Days in syndication. Anyway, when people hear Cathy Silvers they don't immediately think of Phil Silvers's daughter.'
But they did on a special episode of Happy Days when Phil Silvers appeared as Jenny Piccolo's father. 'That was the hardest show I did, working with him.'
Around that time when the attention was on him Silvers said: 'The best years are when you are looking at the horizon. When you reach it is when all the trouble starts. I was never a stage father but when Cathy asked for advice I told her: "Learn your lines and say them real loud."
'He gave me a lot of advice,' says Cathy, adding, 'He always says: "Take your money, go home and make your home the most important thing. Don't let the business eat you up. If it's not working, leave it because too many people are unhappy in it and it's not worth it." I didn't listen to that part.'
Today at his Century City apartment Phil Silvers has decided he no longer wants to talk publicly. But when his series - it was called You'll Never Get Rich and then The Phil Silvers Show is re-run it often creates more fan mail than current programming. 'People only ever want to talk about Bilko,' said Phil Silvers.
Which, of course, is true. Cathy Silvers also lives with that: 'They say: “Oh your Phil Silvers’ daughter? What's he like?” They love him. I'm not going to get upset about that. People want to talk to me just to hear how he is.'
But although she tries to hide it, a little bounce goes out of her voice as she talks of her father's attempt to escape what we would now simply call the typecasting of Bilko. He was hugely successful on stage – hit shows like A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum - but how could theatre compete with television in audience numbers? Phil Silvers tried, according to his daughter.
'He was driven. My dad was married to his business, his work, his acting. He had a stroke when I was 14. Stage and movies and TV and Hollywood – that’s what did it. Oh, the whole world told him not to be sad. But it's almost like if you had a man who ran a business and ran it to the best and then you took the business away. How is he going to feel? So, he’s bitter.
'Nobody did it to him. He did it to his body by working too hard. In his 60s and doing seven shows a week, travelling all over the world. The doctors told him to come home, at least take the summer off. He was driven. He had the stroke. '
And being one of the most loved characters on television is no help now .The public love him so much. The letters they write to him. But it doesn’t seem to ease his pain at all.
'Little kids write letters, little eight-year-olds.
"I love you. You're my idol. I want to be like you." I’m sure it helps to a certain degree but it doesn’t change his lifestyle. It doesn’t take him out of his physical situation.
Cathy says it depends on ‘how he's feeling’ whether her father is housebound or not. But the shopkeepers around his apartment t know him and when they see the familiar figure in his black rimmed glasses they shout: ‘Hi sarge.’
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