Phil Silvers, 73, a Brooklyn-born comedian and vaudeville veteran who delighted generations of television audiences as Ernie Bilko, a glibly cunning, enthusiastically devious Army sergeant and con man, died yesterday at his home in Los Angeles.
In the role of Bilko, a motor-pool commander, card sharp and engagingly likable swindler, the bald, bespectacled Mr. Silvers was one of the figures who dominated television in its so-called "Golden Era." After production stopped in 1959, his show lived on in endless reruns.
The cause of Mr. Silvers' death was not immediately known. A daughter, Tracy, said he died in his sleep about 1:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. Although he had suffered a stroke in 1972, she said her father had "really recuperated" from it and that his death "was completely a surprise."
Mr. Silvers' manager, Al Melnick, told United Press International that he had telephoned the comic actor before noon, "and he said 'I don't feel so good.' "
The son of a Russian immigrant sheet-metal worker, Mr. Silvers showed a bent for show business as a child, and was hired at the age of 11 to sing in a Brooklyn movie theater when the projector broke down.
As a teen-ager, he joined Gus Edwards' School Days Revue, a legendary vaudeville act, and sang in New York's famous Palace Theater.
When his voice changed, he became a comedian and comic actor in the major training grounds for members of his craft: vaudeville, the borscht belt, and burlesque, with the Minsky troupe. While still in his teens, he once said, his salary in burlesque "was $15 a week and all I could see."
As a comic, Mr. Silvers won coveted "top banana," or headliner, status while still in his twenties. His zany, wisecracking style took him to Broadway and soon after to Hollywood, where he made 23 pictures between 1942 and 1945.
Mostly, he said, he appeared in subsidiary roles, as "the hero's best friend, who told the girl, usually Betty Grable, in the last reel that he the hero really loves her."
After touring with the USO, he appeared in nightclubs and on Broadway as the lead in the musical "High Button Shoes" and then in "Top Banana." The frenzied vitality of his clowning in these roles and in the film version of "Top Banana," brought him a television contract with CBS in 1954.
Almost from his first appearance as Sgt. Bilko, the rascally, fast-talking, loud-voiced noncom, he stamped the role and the role stamped him.
The Emmy-winning show premiered Sept. 20, 1955 as "You'll Never Get Rich."
In reruns, the 30-minute black and white show appeared under the name of "Sgt. Bilko." It was also known as the "Phil Silvers Show."
In the television rating wars of the 1950s, "Sgt. Bilko" ultimately overcame Milton Berle, whose show had for years outdistanced all before it.
Long after the 138th and final episode had been shot, and the wily Bilko had concluded the last of his intricate and ingenious schemes for manipulating the military for his own benefit, New York cabdrivers would hail Mr. Silvers with a "Hey Sarge!"
Mr. Silvers also appeared in several films, including "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World," "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell," "The Boatniks" and "The Cheap Detective."
He played on Broadway in "Do Re Me" in 1960 and appeared in a 1972 Broadway revival of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," for which he won a Tony Award as best male actor in a musical. He had previously won the Tony for best male star for "Top Banana."
During the run of "A Funny Thing," Mr. Silvers suffered a stroke. It was a difficult time for him, he later recalled.
"Comedians are all tragic figures," he said " . . . All I could think of was, I closed the show, I closed the show."
After Mr. Silvers recovered from the stroke, he largely limited his work to guest appearances.
He said in the late 1960s that he had squandered much of his earnings in gambling. "Gambling just engulfed me," he said. "I just gambled to gamble. I've been gambling all my life."
Reflecting on his career in a late 1970s interview, he talked about the importance to him of dignity.
"Even in burlesque," he said, "I always had dignity.
"Dignity is never selling yourself short . . . . Dignity is not saying four-letter words -- but when you say 'em, say 'em good."
His survivors include five daughters and one granddaughter.