If you had to name the top three sitcom stars of the 1950s, they’d have to be Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers. That’s even though Gleason’s “Honeymooners,” as a half-hour show, lasted a mere 39 episodes.
You can’t help but think of Silvers as a fast-talking conman. That describes his character as Sgt. Ernie Bilko on “The Phil Silvers Show,” elsewhere on television (such as “The Beverly Hillbillies”) and in that old comedians’ romp “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” But, of course, Silvers had roles long before that in film and on the stage. And after four years (1955 to 1959), he was anxious to try something else. So he came up with a TV special, written by Bilko’s creator, Nat Hiken, where he’d play a western not-quite-hero. And a special role was found for a man whose shows had just come off winning Emmys two years in a row—Jack Benny. Jack, of course, had his firmly established character that followed him to the grave. But he had some western parody experience as Buck Bunny, first on his radio show in the ‘30s, and then in a feature-length movie.
The special aired May 7, 1960 and was re-run on July 29, 1963. After the first showing, Cynthia Lower of the Associated Press called the sketch’s climax “the nicest thing that happened on TV in months.”
Here’s a feature article by syndicated newspaper writer Charles Witbeck, from the Troy Record of April 30, 1960. It gives a nice behind-the-scenes look and deals with Silvers’ frustrations with the film industry.
Phil Silvers Returns To Stage In Western
HOLLYWOOD — Phil Silvers, decked out in a black Stetson, black leather jacket and pants, walked up the street of a western set at Universal Revue Studios, and his spurs kicked up a little dust.
Silvers was Sheriff Bissell, the Silver Dollar Kid. His cuff links were silver dollars and dollars were strung around his hat band. He was the most cowardly sheriff in the wild west and he was about to have a shootout with Chicken Finsterwald, another coward played by Jack Benny.
The two comedians were filming a scene for the Silvers’ Special, “The Slowest Gun in the West,” CBS, Saturday, May 7. Silvers walked about 40 paces from Benny and then turned. Benny peered up the road.
“Where are ya, I can’t see you?” he said.
The camera began grinding and Silvers said, “you four-flushing coyote, you draw.”
Benny replied, “No, you draw.”
The “you-draw” dialogue went on for quite a while and then the scene was shot from another angle as the two cowards threatened each other for hours in the script.
In the next shot, with most of Hollywood’s top TV villains standing aghast in the background, Silvers shouts threats at Benny and Jack comes out of a barn, takes a big pause and says: “I’m calling you, B-Bustle.” He meant to say “Bissell” and Silvers laughed so hard at the miscue he almost tripped on his spurs.
“That’s thirty dollars you cost me, Jack,” he yelled. “Learn your lines, learn your lines.”
High On the Show
Silvers is putting up his own money for this show and says he won’t let anyone dog it on his dough. He has Nat Hiken, the man who first wrote the Bilko shows, doing the script, a take-off on all westerns.
“You don’t know me very well,” said Silvers during a break. A crew man took Phil’s fake glasses, the ones he uses during the film shows, but I’m high on this. It’s funn-ie. It’s not just kidding westerns. We go further. Now when I see a killer going for his guns, I use a little Freud. I say: ‘Look at those hands! Those hands were meant for love, not to kill. You want your mother.’”
The script is pretty funny. Author Hiken has the yellow bellied, four-eyed sheriff ducking all gun fights, even giving up his girl when a tough gunman wants her. The Silver
Dollar Kid is more interested in organizing needlework classes and picking up needle skills from a plump Indian squaw. Most of the laughs go to Silvers, who is the most vocal western hero ever seen on TV. Jack Benny has a relatively small part, coming on in the last part as the only gunman more cowardly than the Kid. Benny, as Chicken Finsterwald, shot an old lady in the back to become a legend.
While Benny and Hollywood villains complete the cast, not a single member of the Bilko group turns up. Doberman is strangely missing from this show.
“Doberman’s living like people think I live,” said Silvers. “He has the yachts, drinks the wine, chases the girls. I miss all his excuses. He had better excuses for blowing lines than anyone I ever bumped into. He was El Top.”
.Next Silvers and Benny were out on the street again for another “you-draw” sequence. Phil was within eyesight range. While the cameras were being reloaded, Silvers said to Benny: “Hold up a piece of wood.” Benny, whose holster strings tied around his pants accented his thin legs, held out a piece of wood. Silvers drew his gun and shot twice vocally. Benny dropped the wood and then as an afterthought, said, “I should have grabbed my hand in pain, you poor shot.”
“Now take two pieces of wood Jack,” called Phil, “I’ll show you how deadly I am with a gun.” Benny just looked at him. The two men seemed to enjoy playing kids again.
Then there was a sequence in which Silvers was to ride a horse. Now Phil had never been on a horse, or so he said. A photographer thought of having Phil stand on a chair in an effort to get on the nag, but a wrangler wouldn’t have it. He felt the horse would be nervous about the chair.
Back to Earth
Silvers finally mounted the animal. He looked around and blinked. “The air is different up here. Let me down.”
Back in a chair, Silvers talked about working in Hollywood. He made movies years ago at 20th and was never a big hit. He should be one now in the cinema.
“I don’t know,” Phil said. “Mervyn Le Roy let me read ‘Wake Me When It’s Over’ and I wanted to do it before someone else grabbed it (turned out Ernie Kovacs did). You know why I lost out? When the producer heard, about me, he said, ‘we don’t want him. He’s in TV. Remember what happened to Liberace.’”
With that Silvers rolled his eyes and shrugged. “It’s different out here. You get out in the warm sun, you sit back in one of these chairs and you don’t care much what happens.”
Silvers was busy with his own production company in the ‘60s (it produced “Gilligan’s Island”) and failed in a new sitcom where he played, well, you can guess, but he returned Jack’s appearance on his special by popping up on the Benny TV show in 1962. You can watch a portion of it below.