Sunday, 20 September 2015

The 60th Anniversary of The Phil Silvers Show

Sixty years ago today saw the debut of one of the most legendary television comedies of all time; The Phil Silvers Show (originally titled You'll Never Get Rich and perhaps better known by its name in syndication, Sgt. Bilko). The Phil Silvers Show would prove to be one of the most influential sitcoms in television history. In its first season it did what many at the time may have thought improbable--it beat The Milton Berle Show in the ratings. During its run it would win 8 Emmy Awards and it would be nominated for 9 more. In 1999 TV Guide placed Sgt. Ernie 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, beating out such classic Britcoms as Fawlty Towers and Yes, Minister. So great was the impact of The Phil Silvers Show that it not only influenced TV shows in the United States for years, but in the United Kingdom as well.

The Phil Silvers Show centred on Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko (played by Phil Silvers), in charge of the motor pool at placid U. S. Army base Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas, at least for the first three seasons. Having very little to do, , Sgt. Bilko actually spent most of his time coming up with money making schemes, more often than not dishonest. Fort Baxter's commander was Colonel John T. Hall (Paul Ford), who always suspected that Bilko was up to no good, but could never quite catch him in the act. Bilko was usually aided in his schemes by Coporals Steve Henshaw and Rocco Barbella (played by Allan Melvin and Harvey Lembeck respectively).

The Phil Silvers Show emerged as a collaboration between comedian Phil Silvers and writer Nat Hiken. Phil Silvers's career had been established long before 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 (1950). Phil Silvers had a somewhat successful 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.

Nat Hiken was also already well established in his career as a writer. In 1940 he was hired as a writer for 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 for and directed such programmes as The Colgate Comedy Hour, Four Star Revue, and The Martha Raye Show. By the mid-Fifties Nat Hiken had established a reputation for writing and directing quality programmes.

The genesis of The Phil Silvers Show can be traced back to Phil Silver's appearance at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. on February 6 1954. 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 Nat Hiken would be attached to the project.

For the next several months Phil Silvers and Nat Hiken looked for an idea that would suit the comedian. It was very early in the process that Mr. Hiken suggested that Mr. Silvers play a conniving sergeant in the Army. Phil Silvers rejected the idea. In the end Mr. Hiken and Phil Silvers came up with eight different ideas, including Nat Hiken's idea of a scheming master sergeant. When they pitched their eight different ideas to CBS, it was Nat Hiken's initial idea of Phil Silvers as an Army sergeant that the network liked. The Phil Silvers Show was born.

The Phil Silvers Show debuted on September 20 1955 at 8:30 Eastern/7:30 Central under its original title You'll Never Get Rich. It would be on November 1 1955 that the show was officially retitled The Phil Silvers Show. You'll Never Get Rich received largely positive reviews from critics from the very beginning, but it did not fare particularly well in the ratings. You'll Never Get Rich was scheduled against The Martha Raye Show and The Milton Berle Show (the two show rotated each week) on NBC. Both shows regularly beat it in the ratings. After about a month CBS decided to move You'll Never Get Rich to 8:00 Eastern/7:00 Central 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 started improving. By November 29 1955, after two months on the air, it actually matched the ratings for The Milton Berle Show. By December The Phil Silvers Show regularly bested both The Milton Berle Show and The Martha Raye Show.

The Phil Silvers Show was one of the last great shows to be filmed in New York City. In its early days it was also filmed live before a studio audience. It was film producer Mike Todd's guest appearance on an episode in 1958 that changed the way The Phil Silvers Show was shot. Mr. Todd insisted that the episode be shot like a movie, using the techniques of a feature film. The cast and crew found they preferred this style of shooting, as it was much more relaxed and less stressful. Of course, this meant that there would no longer be a studio audience. To make up for the lack of a studio audience, the 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).

The Phil Silvers Show would not only prove to be a hit in the United States, but it would prove to be a hit in the United Kingdom as well. In fact, if anything it was even bigger in the UK than in the U.S. The show debuted in the United Kingdom in 1957 and it was not long before 75% of all Phil Silvers's fan mail came from Great Britain. The Phil Silvers Show would be rerun 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 well. 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, when The Phil Silvers Show first aired,  the character of Private Duane Doberman (played by Maurice Gosfield), proved to be an outright phenomenon. Private Doberman was the overweight, slovenly numbskull of the motor pool, always falling for Sgt. Bilko's various scams.  Sluggish, none too bright, and a total innocent, Private Doberman made the comic strip character Sad Sack look like General Patton. With the success of The Phil Silvers Show the character developed a cult following, easily the most popular member of Sgt. Bilko's motor pool. Eventually Maurice Gosfield was recognised anywhere he went. CBS received almost 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 even nominated for the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor (Continuing Character) in a Comedy Series. 

Maurice Gosfield's nomination for an Emmy was in some ways 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.

Beyond being a hit in the ratings that was adored by critics and won several Emmy Awards, The Phil Silvers Show would be historic in another way. It was one of the first shows on American television to feature African Americans in roles that were not 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 a lot of lines in any given episode, the fact that they were present at all and were treated as equals by the other characters was revolutionary for the era. 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 requested that the African American characters on The Phil Silvers Show be dropped. Nat Hiken refused and the African American characters remained on the show.

As popular The Phil Silvers Show was, the show as able to attract some very 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 Crosby (playing himself), Tom Poston, and many others appeared on the show. 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.

Among those who worked on The Phil Silvers Show who would soon become famous was one who started working on the show behind the camera rather than in front of it. The technical advisor on The Phil Silvers Show was none other than George Kennedy. Before World War II he had acted both on stage and on the radio. With the war Mr. Kennedy enlisted in the United States Army, where he stayed for 16 years. He served with General Patton and would play a role in the opening of the Army Information Office. His military career ended 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 marked his return to what would become a very successful acting career.

Sadly the success of The Phil Silvers Show placed a great deal of strain on Nat Hiken. Mr. Hiken often worked twelve hour days while with the show. Eventually the stress of working on The Phil Silvers Show would have an impact on his health. After two seasons Mr. Hiken was simply exhausted. It was then in 1957 that he left the show. 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.

Nat Hiken's departure from The Phil Silvers Show would result in a very big change for the TV series beginning with 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.

Unfortunately the fourth season of The Phil Silvers Show would also be its last. The Phil Silvers Show was a very expensive programme, with a cast of 22 recurring characters and several regular characters. It was then in spring 1959 that CBS announced the cancellation of  The Phil Silvers Show. The reason for the network's decision was simply to take advantage of its potential for syndication while the show was still very popular.

The Phil Silvers Show did 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 entire run of The Phil Silvers Show has been released on DVD on both Region 1 and Region 2.


The Phil Silvers Show also proved to have a lasting impact on pop culture. Hanna-Barbera's prime time cartoon Top Cat was clearly inspired by The Phil Silvers Show. Not only was the character of Top Cat clearly patterned after Sgt. Ernie Bilko, but the character of Benny the Ball was both based on Private Doberman and 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." Even the Western parody F Troop drew upon The Phil Silvers Show for inspiration. The money making schemes of Sergeant O'Rourke and Colonel Agarn owed a good deal to Sgt. Bilko.  In 1996 a film loosely based on the series, Sgt. Bilko, was released.

The Phil Silvers Show, alongside its British contemporary The Army Game, would also have a lasting influence in Britain. It seems likely that the classic British service comedy Dad's Army was influenced to some degree or another by both The Phil Silvers Show and The Army Game. The characters of  Norman Stanley Fletcher on Porridge, "Del Boy" Trottter on Only Fools and Horses, and Arthur Daley on Minder would all appear to owe something to Master Sgt. Ernie Bilko.

Since its debut The Phil Silvers Show has been referenced many times in Anglophonic popular culture. In the film The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the 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.

There can be little doubt that the success of The Phil Silvers owes a great deal to its creator Nat Hiken. Quite simply, Nat Hiken was one of the greatest television writers of all time. It was because of Mr. Hiken that The Phil Silvers Show was very much a character driven show. All of the plots on the series emerged from either Sgt. Bilko or his men. What is more, The Phil Silvers Show featured some very complicated plots 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.

Besides being a great writer, Nat Hiken also possessed a great eye for casting. Arguably, The Phil Silvers Show had one of the best casts for a TV show in the history of the medium. 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 that suited him perfectly. 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. While he was not a household name when You'll Never Get Rich debuted, he had already a well established career 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 honed 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 suited to the role of Sgt. Bilko, but his particular talents would prove useful on the set as well. After years in burlesque and in vaudeville, Phil Silvers was fully capable of extemporising 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).  Trying to hide this error so that it does not show up on record, they decided to court martial Private Speakup and assigned 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's 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 create the classic sitcom Car 54, Where Are You?. While it only ran for two seasons, like The Phil Silvers Show it would also go onto a highly successful run in syndication. He would also go on to write the screenplay for the Don Knotts comedy The Love God? (1969).  Phil Silvers would never again attain the heights of success that he had with The Phil Silvers Show, but he continued to have a long and prolific career following the show's cancellation. He would have another sitcom, the short-lived New Phil Silvers Show that aired during the 1963-1964 season. He made regular guest appearances on television, appearing on such shows as The Jack Benny Programme, Gilligan's Island, The Lucy Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Kolchak the Night Stalker, and Happy Days. He also appeared in several films, 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).

The Phil Silvers Show proved to be one of the most lasting successes to emerge from American television in the Fifties. In fact, it is quite possible that it the most successful American sitcom of the Fifties short of I Love Lucy. To this day it is still aired on TV stations and cable channels in the United States, as well as throughout the world. It seems very likely that 60 years from now people will still recognise the name "Sgt. Bilko". While it seems likely that neither Nat Hiken nor Phil Silvers realised it when The Phil Silvers Show first entered production, the two men created a high quality television show that became a phenomenon in its day and remains one the medium's most enduring classics.

No comments: