Friday, 11 May 2012

The Phil Silvers Show

Today it was 101 years ago that Phil Silvers was born. Of course, the comedian would be best known for The Phil Silvers Show, also known as Sgt. Bilko. In its first season it would surpass the seemingly unstoppable Milton Berle Show. Throughout its run it would win 8 Emmy Awards and it would be nominated for 9 more. In 1999 TV Guide placed Sgt. Bilko at #16 on its list of the 50 Greatest TV Characters. In 2003 The Radio Times named The Phil Silvers Show the best sitcom of all time. It beat out such native British shows as Fawlty Towers, and Yes, Minister.

The Phil Silvers Show centred around Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko (played by Phil Silvers), in charge of the motor pool, at least for the first three seasons, at the sleepy U. S. Army base  Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas. With very little to do, Sgt. Bilko actually spent most of his time in money making schemes, more often than not dishonest. The commander of Fort Baxter was Colonel John T. Hall (Paul Ford), who always suspects that Bilko is up to something, but never can catch him in the act. Bilko was usually assisted in his schemes by Coporals Steve Henshaw and Rocco Barbella (played by Allan Melvin and Harvey Lembeck respectively).

The Phil Silvers Show would emerge as a collaboration between comedian Phil Silvers and writer Nat Hiken. Phil Silvers had actually been a stand up comic and comedic actor for years by the time he received the starring role in The Phil Silvers Show. He had first appeared on screen in the Vitaphone short subject "Ups and Downs" in 1937. He would go on to appear in such films as You're in the Army Now (1941), Cover Girl (1944), and Summer Stock. Phil Silver also had a thriving career on Broadway. He appeared in such productions as High Kickers (1941-1942) and High Button Shoes (1947-1949). His biggest success on Broadway would come with Top Banana (1951-1952), for which he won the Tony Award. A film adaptation of Top Banana, with Phil Silvers in the lead role, would be released in 1954.

As a writer Nat Hiken had gotten his start in radio. It was in 1940 that he was hired by popular radio comedian Fred Allen. He would go on to write for Milton Berle on the radio version of Texaco Star Theatre. In the Fifties Mr. Hiken moved into television. He both wrote and for The Colgate Comedy Hour, Four Star Revue, and Your Show of Shows, and The Martha Raye Show. By the mid-Fifties Nat Hiken had a reputation for being able to write and direct quality programmes.

It was on 6 February 1954 that Phil Silvers appeared at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. It would prove to be one of the most important gigs of his career. In the audience was Hubbell Robinson, then vice president in charge of programming at CBS. Hubbell Robinson was impressed enough with Mr. Silvers that he offered him a contract with the network for a situation comedy. Mr. Robinson also told him that the writer, director, and producer on the project would be Nat Hiken.

For the next several months Nat Hiken and Phil Silvers tried to find a concept that would suit the comedian. Mr. Hiken had initially wanted Mr. Silvers to play a conniving Army sergeant. Mr. Silvers dismissed the idea. At last Nat Hiken and Phil Silvers came up with eight different ideas, including Nat Hiken's idea of a conniving master sergeant. When they offered their eight different ideas to CBS, it was Mr. Hiken's initial idea of Phil Silvers as a master sergeant that the network liked. The Phil Silvers Show was born.

Of course in the beginning it was not called The Phil Silvers Show. Its original title was You'll Never Get Rich. The series' title would be changed after its first few months on to the air to The Phil Silvers Show. It was also not an immediate hit. You'll Never Get Rich was scheduled at 8:30 EST against The Martha Raye Show and The Milton Berle Show (the two show rotated each week) on Tuesday night. For its first month You'll Never Get Rich performed miserably in the ratings. CBS then decided to move You'll Never Get Rich to 8:00 CST on Tuesday night, so that it would begin at the same time as NBC's two rotating variety shows. The ratings for The Phil Silvers Show began to improve. By 29 November 1955, after two months on the air, it actually matched the ratings for The Milton Berle Show. By December The Phil Silvers Show was regularly beating both The Milton Berle Show and The Martha Raye Show. Of course, while You'll Never Get Rich opened to poor ratings, it received sterling reviews. From the very beginning critics loved the show.

The Phil Silvers Show would be one of the last great shows to be filmed in New York City. In its early days it was also filmed live, as it was performed before a studio audience. It was when film producer Mike Todd guest starred in a 1958 episode that changed the way The Phil Silvers Show was shot. Mr. Todd insisted that it be shot as a movie, using the techniques of a feature film. The cast and crew actually found they preferred this style of shooting, as it was much more relaxed and less stressful. This meant that there would no longer be a studio audience. To make up for the lack of a studio audience, finished episode would be screened and then the audience's laughter would be recorded and added later (sort of a more honest version of the laugh track).

While The Phil Silvers Show proved to be a hit in the United States, it may have been even more popular in the United Kingdom. The show debuted there in 1957 and it was not long before 75% of all fan mail sent to Phil Silvers came from Great Britain. The show would be repeated frequently on BBC One as part of its late night line up in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties. In the Nineties it moved to BBC Two, where it was run not only late at night, but during the daytime and early evening. As mentioned earlier, in 2003 The Radio Times named The Phil Silvers Show the best sitcom of all time. The Phil Silvers Show would also prove to be a hit elsewhere in the world. In 1975 Mr. Silvers joked, "I go to Italy, and they follow me around and sing under my hotel window."

Curiously, during the initial success of The Phil Silvers Show, the character of Private Duane Doberman (played by Maurice Gosfield), became an outright phenomenon. Private Doberman was the overweight, slovenly dimwit of the motor pool, often falling for Sgt. Bilko's various scams.  Sluggish, naive, and none too bright, Private Doberman made the comic strip character Sad Sack look like General Patton. With the success of The Phil Silvers Show the character would become a cult figure, easily the most popular member of Sgt. Bilko's motor pool. It came to the point that Maurice Gosfield was recognised anywhere he went. CBS received very nearly as much fan mail for Maurice Gosfield as they did Phil Silvers himself. Nation Periodical Publications (now DC Comics) would not only publish Sgt Bilko comic books, but eleven issues of Private Doberman from 1957 to 1960 as well! For the 1958-1959 season Maurice Gosfield was nominated for the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor (Continuing Character) in a Comedy Series!
Maurice Gosfield's nomination for an Emmy was perhaps ironic in that in playing Doberman he was to some degree playing himself. Mr. Gosfield was so famous for blowing his lines that the cast and crew had a running betting pool on how soon Mr. Gosfield would botch his lines on any specific day. More often than not he would miss his mark in front of the camera.

While The Phil Silvers Show was the darling of critics and won several Emmy awards, it would also enjoy another place in television history. It was one of the first shows on American television to feature African Americans in roles that were something other than stereotypes.  P. Jay Sidney and Terry Carter played Private Palmer and Private Sugarman respectively, both soldiers in Bilko's motor pool. Billie Allen played one of the WACs. While none of these characters would necessarily have very many lines in any given episode, the fact that they appeared at all and were treated as equals to the other characters was at the time revolutionary. In fact, a few stations in the South were offended enough by the presence of African Americans on the show that one of the sponsors' advertising agencies asked that the African American characters on The Phil Silvers Show be dropped. Nat Hiken refused and the African American characters remained on the show.

A little known fact is that the technical advisor on The Phil Silvers Show was George Kennedy. Prior to World War II he acted both on stage and on the radio. With the war Mr. Kennedy joined  the United States Army, where he would remain for 16 years. He served with General Patton and would play a role in the opening of the Army Information Office. His military career would end because of a back injury. George Kennedy would make his first on screen appearance on The Phil Silvers Show, usually playing such small parts as an MP. It would mark his return to what would become a very successful acting career.

As a hit series The Phil Silvers Show would be able to attract some big name guest stars. Dick Van Dyke, film producer Mike Todd (playing himself), Ed Sullivan (playing himself), Professor Iwin Corey, Dagmar (playing herself), Lucille Ball, Bing Crosy (playing himself), Tom Poston, and many others. The show also featured several actors who would soon become famous, including Fred Gwynne, Alan Alda, Larry Storch, Al Lewis, Paul Lynde, Tina Louise, Pat Hingle, and many others.

Unfortunately the success of The Phil Silvers Show would prove to be a strain on Nat Hiken. It was not unusual for him to work twelve hour days. Eventually the stress of working on the show would even affect his health. After two seasons Mr. Hiken was simply exhausted. It was then in 1957 that he left the show. Regardless, The Phil Silvers Show would continue for two more seasons without him. Although no longer working regularly on the show, Nat Hiken would continue writing episodes for it into its final season.

It would be the departure of Nat Hiken from The Phil Silvers Show that would result in a very big change in the series starting in its fourth season. Everyone at Fort Baxter was reassigned to  Camp Fremont in Grover City, California. While such a mass transfer is unlikely, if not downright improbable in the real life United States Army, on the show it was explained as being the result of one of Bilko's scams having gone horribly wrong. In reality for the fourth season the show's production was moved to Los Angeles.

The fourth season would the last for The Phil Silvers Show. While highly successful, with a cast of 22 recurring characters and several regular characters, it was also an expensive show. It was then in spring 1959 that CBS announced that it has cancelled The Phil Silvers Show. The reason the network did so was simply to take advantage of its potential for syndication while the show was still extremely popular. The Phil Silvers Show would prove very successful in syndication. After The Phil Silvers Show left the air, NBC aired repeats of the show five days a week. It would continue to be popular on local stations until the Seventies, when black and white series fell out of favour with local station managers. It would once more prove highly popular when it aired on such cable channels as Comedy Central and as part of Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite line up in the Eighties. Since then it has aired on cable channels and networks ranging from TV Land to ME-TV. Here it must be noted that while the show was informally known as Sgt. Bilko in its first run, it was in syndication that Sgt. Bilko would become one of the official names of The Phil Silvers Show.

The Phil Silvers Show would prove to have a lasting impact on pop culture. Hanna-Barbera's prime time cartoon Top Cat. Not only was the character of Top Cat clearly based on Sgt. Ernie Bilko, but the character of Benny the Ball was not only based on Private Doberman, but voiced by Maurice Gosfield as well. Like Top Cat, the hit sitcom McHale's Navy also owed a great deal to The Phil Silvers Show. McHale's Navy starred Ernest Borgnine as Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale who, like Sgt. Bilko, was a fast talking con man. While the series was set U.S. Navy PT boat, PT-73, it resembled The Phil Silvers Show a good deal. This should come as no surprise. The show's producer was Edward J. Montagne, who had also produced The Phil Silvers Show. Mr. Montagne would even recruit writers from The Phil Silvers Show. McHale's Navy was essentially "Sgt. Bilko in the Navy." In 1996 a film loosely based on the series, Sgt. Bilko, was released.

Over the years The Phil Silvers Show would be referenced in various ways in movies and TV shows. In The Manchurian Candidate (1962), members of Major Marco's platoon are named for cast and crew from The Phil Silvers Show: Corporal Allen Melvin (named for Allan Melvin, who played Corporal Henshaw), Lembeck (named for Harvey Lemeck, who played Corporal Barbella), Silvers (named for Phil Silvers), Gossfeld (although the name was altered, clearly named for Maurice Gossfield), Little (named for Jimmy Little, who played Sgt. Grover), Freeman (named for Mickey Freeman, who played Private Zimmerman), and Hiken (named, of course, for Nat Hiken himself).  The series itself would be mentioned on such diverse TV shows as The Patty Duke Show, The Goodies, Cheers, Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Red Dwarf, The Simpsons, and Ballykissangel.

To a large degree the success of The Phil Silvers Show was largely due to Nat Hiken. Nat Hiken was, quite simply, one of the greatest television writers of all time. It was because of Mr. Hiken that The Phil Silvers Show was character driven. All of the plots emerged from Sgt. Bilko or his men. What is more, The Phil Silvers Show featured plots that were very complex for the time. In fact, Coleman Jacoby, one of the writers on the show, pointed out that, "Most shows had one plot line for the whole 29 minutes; we had 10 ... turning and twisting, almost like a novel." The show was also very fast paced for the era. More happened in one episode of The Phil Silvers Show than three episodes of any other sitcom at the time.

In addition to being a great writer, Nat Hiken also had a great eye for casting. Arguably, The Phil Silvers Show had one of the greatest casts of all time. If Private Doberman became a phenomenon, it was not necessarily because of any talent on Maurice Gosfield's part, but because Nat Hiken had the wisdom to cast him in a role perfectly suited to him. There can be no doubt that the reason The Phil Silvers Show featured so many soon to be famous guest stars was because of Nat Hiken's eye for talent.

Of course, much of the show's success also rested with its star, Phil Silvers himself. Although he was not a household name when You'll Never Get Rich debuted, he had already established his credentials as a performer. As classic film buffs know, even before The Phil Silvers Show, Mr. Silvers had an impressive array of credits playing bit parts in movies. He excelled at playing fast talking wiseguys (a prime example being in Cover Girl), precisely the same sort of character as Sgt. Bilko. Having polished his craft for years in burlesque, vaudeville, and on film, Phil Silvers was able to take the fasting talking con man Sgt. Ernie Bilko and not only make him three dimensional, but to make him likeable as well.

Not only was Phil Silvers perfectly for the role of Sgt. Bilko, but his talents would come to good use on the set as well. After years in burlesque and in vaudeville, Phil Silvers was fully capable of ad libbing lines on the spot. In the episode "The Court Martial," Fort Baxter inadvertently drafts a chimpanzee whom they named Private Harry Speakup (played by Zippo the Chimp). In an effort to hide this error so that it does not show up on record, they decided to court martial Private Speakup and assign Sgt. Bilko as his defence. While filming the court martial Zippo unexpectedly lead up and grabbed a telephone. Phil Silvers swiftly extemporised and said to the officer presiding over the trial, "Just a moment, sir, I think he's calling for another lawyer." Not only did Phil Silvers save the scene, but his ad lib was actually better than what had been written in the script.

The fast paced style of comedy that Phil Silvers had developed over the years also suited Nat Hiken's fast paced writing as well. Television and film director and producer Garry Marshall once said that sitcoms before The Phil Silvers Show "...were like the hum of an air conditioner--hmmmmm--they were nice and smooth. Then in came Phil Silvers like gangbusters and really turned it around. He would get the audience's attention and make them pay attention and he was quick and fast." Between Nat Hiken's fast moving plots and Phil Silvers' fast paced style of comedy, The Phil Silvers Show may have been the first fast paced sitcom, easily matching the screwball comedies and farces Hollywood had produced in the Thirties and Forties.

Nat Hiken would go onto further success after The Phil Silvers Show. He would create the classic sitcom Car 54, Where Are You?. While it would only run for two seasons, it would have a very successful run in syndication and is today regarded as a classic. He would go onto write the screenplay for the Don Knotts comedy The Love God? (1969). Sadly, he would die of a heart attack on 7 December 1968.

Sadly, Phil Silvers would never again have success on the level of The Phil Silvers Show. He would make an attempt at another sitcom, The New Phil Silvers Show, but it would only last for the 1963-1964 season. He would make several guest appearances on various television shows throughout the years, including Gilligan's Island (which his company Gladsaya Productions co-produced), The Jack Benny Programme, The Lucy Show, Kolchak the Night Stalker, and Happy Days. He had a recurring role on The Beverly Hilbillies as con man Shifty Shafer (AKA Honest John). Mr. Silvers would also appear in various feature films over the years, including 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), Something's Got to Give (1962),  It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) , A Guide for the Married Man (1967), Carry on in the Legion (1967), The Boatniks (1970), The Strongest Man in the World (1975),  The Cheap Detective (1978), and There Goes the Bride (1980).  Phil Silvers died on 1 November 1985 at the age of 74.

Today The Phil Silvers Show remains one of the best known comedies of its era. In 2010 the first season of The Phil Silvers Show was released on DVD in both Region 1 and Region 2,  a rarity for most sitcoms from the Fifties. To this day it continues to be rerun on TV stations and cable channels in the United States, as well as throughout the world. It is still counted as one of the greatest comedies of all time. Quite simply, the talents of Phil Silvers and Nat Hiken produced a high quality television show that became a phenomenon in its day and remains one of the most popular shows of all time.


Hal said...

BILKO certainly lost something without Hiken. The 'batting average' was astoundingly high the first two seasons; without him, it became a little more hit and miss but still had a number of shows that hit the heights of the first two seasons.

It was Fred Gwynne's appearance ("The Eating Contest") that led to him being cast alongside fellow BILKO alumni Joe E. Ross in CAR 54, which still looks great (working my way through the S. 2 DVD now). Hiken continued to cast African-American performers regularly on CAR 54, with Mel Stewart, Frederick O'Neal, Nipsey Russell and the great Ossie Davis being among the semi-regulars.

So what are your favorite BILKO episodes? Mine: "Centennial", "Empty Store", "The Secret Life of Sergeant Bilko" and "Bilko Goes to Monte Carlo".

K. A. Laity said...

Excellent write up; refreshing to see the writer recognised for the show's success, something the industry seems to have forgotten in recent years.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Hal, I have to agree. I think the first two seasons were by far the best. It was still a good show, but it does seem the high points it had hit during the first two seasons were fewer!

I've been watching Car 54 on ME-TV and it holds up remarkably well. Nat Hiken clearly hadn't lost his touch!

It's hard to pick my favourite episodes (so many to choose from), but I think I'd go with "The Court Martial," "Mardi Gras," The Centennial," "Bivouac," and "The Secret Life of Sgt. Bilko."

Mick Clews said...

Fans of Phil and The Phil Silvers Show might like to check out the website run by Phil's official UK-based fan club The British PHIL SILVERS Appreciation Society (formed in 1984 with the permission of Phil himself)....