Friday, 11 May 2012
The Phil Silvers Show
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).
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.