Sunday 25 September 2022

Phil Harris: Not Thinking or Drinking

Phil Harris would stroll onto the stage and tell Jack Benny’s radio audience that now that he was here, things were going to liven up.

And he was right.

The other characters on the Benny show were fairly sedate. Phil wasn’t. And when Harris was let go from the show in 1952, it was never really the same. He was replaced with Bob Crosby who was, well, sedate.

Harris was dealing from a position of strength in 1950 when his contract was coming up for renewal. CBS had been grabbing big names from the NBC roster and General Sarnoff's network finally made a move to keep the ones that were left. Fred Allen stayed, though he had no show any more. So did Harris, even though his sponsor was about to dump him for a less-costly program. The New York Times caught up with him and published this story on February 5, 1950.

This is the first place I’ve seen that Jack Benny thought the Harris-Faye show would fail. Also, Phil fails to acknowledge his show came out of the dumps when Ray Singer and Dick Chevillat replaced the original writers. They made Phil less of a party animal like he was on the Benny show, and a little more of a not-always-on-the-ball guy kind of caught in the middle of off-the-wall schemes.


If there is any difference in Phil Harris on and off the air, the one on the radio is the real man. There are a few exceptions, of course, such as his insistence that “I never did drink that much, though.”
It is only natural to wonder if Harris away from the microphone is an intellectual giant, given to deep meditation. His confession paints no such picture.
“I don’t like to have nothing to do with thinking,” he says. “I don’t even like to talk business.”
The matter of business, however, is one of the major reasons why Harris and his wife, Alice Faye, now are visiting New York. If Phil can survive a little business talk for a while, he is expected to come out of it with a long term contract which would make his show an exclusive property of the National Broadcasting Company. Such a deal would present him with more money than he ever made shooting dice.
The Harris-Faye show is now in its fourth season on NBC as a Sunday feature at 7:30 p.m. When he went out on his own in 1946, both the experts on Radio Row and Jack Benny were extremely skeptical that Phil could last, although the Waukegan wit offered his blessing. “But even today,” says Phil, “one of the biggest mysteries in Jack’s life is how I’ve been able to survive. Jack said to me: ‘You were built up as a booze hound and a woman chaser, a guy in the gutter. How could a character like that get anywhere with his own show? It’s true you did a switch to being a family man with a wife and kids, but you’re still the same guy you always were. How that can last in radio I don’t know.’”
“Even a Seal”
Whatever the mystery, the show has survived in the face of many obstacles. It got off to a pretty horrible start, although Phil insists there has been little change in the original idea. Although crisis arose when Benny switched to CBS, leaving the Harris-Faye team no coat tail on which to rise. “Even a seal could pull a Hooper behind Benny,” comments Phil. “We were glad to see what we could do without the help of his show and against terrific competition like ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ on the Columbia network.”
A central character on the show is Frankie Remley, a guitar player and long time bosom buddy of Phil’s, a part played on the air by Elliott Lewis. The character is lifted straight out of Phil’s life, for there is a real Frankie Remley, a guitar player, who has been with Harris since 1922.
Soon after the show began, Phil wanted to work the real Remley into the series. At rehearsal one day he handed Frankie a page of script and told him to read it.
“It was terrible,” Harris recalls. “I told him to relax, just take it easy, and read it again. The second time was worse than the first. Later I found out the reason. About six months before, Remley had eye trouble and bought glasses. But he was embarrassed and didn’t tell anybody. . . . only wore them at home. When I gave him the script he could hardly see the page, much less read the words. He got sore about it and hasn’t forgiven me to this day.”
After that, the role was assigned to Lewis, who, incidentally, had never played comedy before. Many of the incidents involving Phil and the radio Frankie have been built from real life experiences encountered over the last twenty-five years. In private life, the actual Remley refers to Phil as “Curly,” just as the radio character does.
Corn Bread
Harris was born in Linton, Ind., forty-eight years ago, but was bought up in Nashville, Tenn., where he graduated from high school. When he talks or sings enthusiastically of black-eyed peas, turnip greens of corn bread, he is being legitimate. Such a diet turns up regularly at the Harris home, and even Alice has been won over.
Phil started out in the band business as a drummer. The first orchestra he ever led was known as the “Dixie Syncopators.” It is doubtful that any of Phil’s bands were any great shakes as musical organizations, but the personality of their leader kept them in business.
“My band was never on top,” Phil admits. “I never made any money in the band business and on some dates I only got scale or the minimum union rates. When Alice and I got married in 1941 I quit playing any more dates and she left pictures for a while. We wanted to settle down and have a family.”
The Harrises have two children—Alice, 7, and Phyllis, 4, who, according to their father, run the house and break up any fights between him and Alice. The youngsters are television enthusiasts, just as Phil is, and he had to buy a second TV set so he and the children could watch different programs at the same time. As for Western movies on video, the children’s favorite is “Hopalong Cassidy,” over all other stars, a matter that had Phil puzzled for days and caused him to go into one of his rare thinking spells.
“I couldn’t understand,” he comments, “why the kids are so crazy about Hopalong Cassidy over all the other cowboys on television. I studied and studied and finally I figured it out. Hoppy rides a white horse and they can always spot him. Bill Boyd ought to put that horse away in camphor.”


  1. The article is dead wrong about Elliott Lewis never having played comedy before the Harris-Faye Show. He'd played many comedy roles, starting as soon as he turned professional, in 1937.

    He had recurring roles on "Burns and Allen", "The Jack Benny Program" (on which he appeared over 50 times), "Arch Oboler's Plays", "Columbia Workshop", "Silver Theatre", and various syndicated series (starting with "The Cinnamon Bear").

    Though he was effortlessly talented at both drama and comedy, he said that, if he could be anything, he'd be a baggy-pants comic. And that playing Remley was his very favourite role.

  2. Dick Chevillat, a Harris-Faye writer, was ALSO a principal writer on Green Acres, and I find a lot of similarities in the humor of the two shows.
    I also give a LOT of credit to the addition of Walter Tetley as Julius Abrouzio, a perfect foil for Harris/Remley, for the success of the show.
    And as Patte says above, Lewis was great on TJBP, especially the Christmas shopping episodes where he plays the guy who cuts limburger cheese in the store deli, who gets sent to work the perfume counter to 'neutralize him'!