Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Western Boom on American Television in the Fifties

In Billy Wilder's classic film The Apartment (1960) there is a scene in which C. C. Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon) settles down to watch television. With the exception of one TV station showing Grand Hotel (1932), Baxter finds that every single channel is showing a Western. While the scene is played for comedy, there is a good deal of truth in it. In 1960 American broadcast network television was filled with Westerns, so much so that there was at least one on every single night of the week.

It was sixty years ago in September that three Western shows debuted on the American broadcast networks. What set these three Westerns apart from earlier Westerns that had aired on American television is that they were made primarily for adults rather than children. While The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, and Cheyenne only received moderate ratings in their first seasons (none of them ranked in the top thirty shows for the year), all three shows would become hits soon enough. The three shows precipitated a boom in Westerns that would last for the next five years and produce around forty different shows. It was probably the largest single cycle in television history.

Today it might seem curious that three "adult Westerns" TV shows debuted in a single season in the mid-Fifties. After all, for much of the Thirties and Forties many, if not most Westerns were made for children. It was the era of the B Western and such singing cowboys as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. The B Westerns would fill the television schedules of both local stations and networks in the late Forties and early Fifties. In fact, the earliest Western TV shows aired on the networks were made for children, such shows as The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, The Gene Autry Show, Buffalo Bill Jr., and The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok. By the early Fifties, however, it would seem that the "adult Western" was an idea whose time had come.

Of course, adult Westerns were nothing new even in the early Fifties. In fact, the novel that is considered the first true Western, The Virginian, was written for adults, and most of its adaptations (such as the 1929 and 1946 film adaptations) were made for adults. Even as B Westerns and Western serials were being churned out for children in the Thirties and Forties, adult Western movies were being made. Cimarron (1931), Destry Rides Again (1939), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and any Western made by John Ford number among the many examples of Westerns that were made for an adult audience.

While the idea of the adult Western was nothing new, it appears to have gained more prominence in the early Fifties. In fact, the year 1952 would appear to be a pivotal one for the adult Western. It was that year that the radio show Gunsmoke debuted on CBS Radio and that year that the movie High Noon was released. The radio show Gunsmoke and High Noon would be followed almost immediately by more high profile adult Westerns. The movie Shane was released in 1953. It was during the 1953-1954 season that television even ventured into the territory of adult Westerns. The U.S. Steel Hour aired the episode "Last Notch", which was about a gunfighter who did not particularly care for gunfighting. Given the relatively high profiles of adult Westerns in various media during the early Fifties, it should perhaps be no surprise that television would debut three different adult Western TV shows during the 1955-1956 season.

Here it should also be pointed out that the rise of the adult Western on American television was probably helped by the rise of filmed, episodic series in the early to mid-Fifties. In the late Forties and early Fifties, at least with regards to drama, American television was dominated by anthology shows, shows that presented a different story, usually with a different cast, each week. The anthology shows were usually broadcast live. By the mid-Fifties, these live anthology shows had started to run their course. Both Kraft Television Theatre and Philco Television Playhouse ended their runs in 1955. Increasingly their place was taken by filmed, episodic shows--that is, filmed series with continuing characters. With episodic series increasingly dominating American television, it was perhaps natural for the networks to turn to the familiar genre of the Western for new shows.

While the adult Western seems to have been an idea whose time had come in the mid-Fifties, the three Westerns that debuted in the fall of 1955 (The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, and Cheyenne) were not immediately hits. All three received only moderate ratings and none of them ranked in the top thirty shows for the year. It was perhaps because of the success of High Noon, Shane, and the radio show Gunsmoke, as well as the newfound prominence of the adult Western, that three more Westerns debuted in the 1955-1957 season. That same season both Gunsmoke and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp ranked in the top twenty--Gunsmoke at no. 7 and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp at no. 18. The boom in television Westerns was on.

Indeed, nine different Westerns debuted in the fall of 1957. What is more, there was at least one Western on every night of the week. While some of these Westerns have long since been forgotten, three would prove to be highly successful and are still seen today. The semi-anthology Wagon Train debuted on NBC, while Have Gun--Will Travel debuted on CBS and Maverick debuted on ABC.

Given the number of Westerns that debuted in the 1957-1958 season one would think that the cycle had peaked that year, but ten more Westerns debuted during the 1958-1959 season. In fact, there were whole blocks of Westerns on certain nights of the week. On Sunday night ABC had a full two hours worth of Westerns with the hour long Maverick and half hour shows Lawman and Colt .45. On Tuesday ABC had another two hours worth of Westerns with the rotating hour long shows Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, and Bronco, and the half hour shows The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and The Rifleman. CBS had ninety minutes worth of Westerns on Saturday night with Wanted Dead or Alive, Have Gun-Will Travel, and Gunsmoke.

Given the number of Westerns that debuted in the 1958-1959, it should come as no surprise that some would have lasting success. The Rifleman proved to be a huge success in the ratings upon its debut and would go on to have a highly successful syndication run. Rawhide debuted as a mid-season replacement and also saw some success in the ratings. It would also have a good deal of success in syndication. Two other shows would develop cult followings: Wanted Dead or Alive, the show that made Steve McQueen a star, and Bat Masterson.

The 1959-1960 season may have been the height of the cycle towards Westerns on American television in the late Fifties. Ten Western shows debuted on the three networks in the fall of 1959 alone. In fact, as of that fall twenty eight different Westerns were on the air. Not surprisingly, like the 1958-1959 season, there were entire blocks of Westerns on the schedule. Perhaps the most notable Western to debut during the season was Bonanza. Contrary to popular belief Bonanza was not the first TV series broadcast in colour from its very beginning,  but it was definitely first TV show broadcast in colour from its beginning to have any success. In fact, it may well be the highest rated show of the Sixties. It was also the second longest running Western, ending its run after 14 seasons (Gunsmoke beat it with 20). Another Western debuting on NBC, Laramie, would develop a cult following.

The 1960-1961 season marked the end of the Western boom on television. Only six new Westerns debuted that fall. None of them met with any success and the longest any of them lasted was two seasons. If there was any doubt that the 1960-1961 marked the end of the cycle towards Westerns in the late Fifties, it could be dismissed with the 1961-1962 season. Only one Western debuted on the broadcast networks in the fall of 1960: Frontier Circus.

In all the cycle towards Westerns on American broadcast television lasted about five years, longer than many cycles on television (most do well to last two or three years). It produced around forty different shows, which may well be more than any other cycle in the history of television. Surprisingly given the sheer number of Westerns that aired during the decade, there tended to be a sameness about many of the shows. Many centred on drifters and gunslingers (in the Western TV shows the two seemed to only differ in that the gunslingers were professionals...) or lawmen (sheriffs, city marshals, U.S. Marshals, and so on).

Perhaps because of the similarities between many Westerns, producers sometimes tried to make their shows different with the use of a "gimmick". This was true of even of some of the best Western shows on television. Lucas McCain on The Rifleman stood out from other Western heroes in that he preferred his specially modified rifle to the use of six guns. Bat Masterson centred on a hero who preferred to knock people out with his cane to using his gun. With some of the lesser Westerns the gimmicks could at times be far-fetched. On Hotel de Paree Sundance had a black Stetson lined with polished silver discs with which he could blind opponents.

It is notable that the Westerns that would see the most success were those that strayed from the drifter/gunslinger/lawmen tropes, those with very different premises. Wagon Train was a semi-anthology set around a wagon train. Maverick centred on Bart, Bret, and later Beau Maverick, gamblers who preferred to get out of situations with their wits and charm to the point that they almost never used guns. Have Gun--Will Travel centred on an intellectual hero who acted as a combination private detective and troubleshooter.  Rawhide centred on a cattle drive.

It was perhaps because so many of the Westerns earlier in the cycle were more or less the same that the Western eventually began to evolve away from the drifter/gunfighter/lawman tropes. In the 1958-1959 season The Rifleman debuted. The show did not centre on a gunslinger or lawman, but instead on a widowed homesteader with a young son. While he was good with a rifle, there would be entire episodes where he didn't even use it. Debuting the following season, Laramie focused on a stage stop and small ranch. That same season saw the debut of Bonanza, the first of the ranch Westerns. There could be so little gunplay on Bonanza at times that it might be considered a period piece that happens to be set in 1860s Virginia City, Nevada as much as a Western.

It would be The Rifleman, Laramie, and Bonanza that would signal the path Westerns would take in the Sixties. Some of the most successful Westerns of the Sixties would be ranch Westerns akin to Bonanza: The Virginian, The Big Valley, and The High Chaparral. Those that weren't ranch Westerns sometimes departed significantly from the drifter/gunslinger/lawman tropes. The Wild Wild West was about two Secret Service agents and could be considered a forerunner of steampunk. Laredo did centre on Texas Rangers, but it was played largely as a comedy. Here it must be pointed out that while the Western boom of the Fifties ended in the 1960-1961 season, the success of Bonanza and The Virginian (which debuted in 1962) led to a new, but significantly smaller cycle towards Westerns in the mid-Sixties.

Not surprisingly given the sheer number of Westerns on the air in the late Fifties, there were studios that very nearly specialised in the genre during the boom. Among the first three TV shows ever produced by Warner Brothers was the Western Cheyenne. They would follow it up with several more Westerns, including Sugarfoot, Maverick, Colt .45, Bronco, and Lawman. Four Star Television produced the popular Western anthology show Dick Powell's Zane Gray Theatre. They went on to produce such Westerns as Trackdown, Black Saddle, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, Johnny Ringo, Law of the Plainsman, and The Westerner. Revue, MCA's television production arm that would later become Universal Television, also produced a number of Westerns. In fact, even before the Western boom Revue had produced the children's Western The Adventures of Kit Carson. During the Western boom Revue produced several Western series, including Tales of Wells Fargo, The Restless Gun, Wagon Train, and Laramie.

 The Western boom in the Fifties was not American broadcast television's first cycle. The late Forties had seen a cycle towards anthology shows and the late Forties to early Fifties had seen cycles towards suspense/horror anthologies and children's sci-fi shows. That having been said, at the time it was the largest single cycle television had seen and it seems likely that it remains the largest cycle in television history. With enough Westerns airing at any given time that there was at least one every night and lasting around five years, it would be hard to find any cycle in TV history that was bigger. Even the spy craze of the Sixties and the police procedural boom of the Naughts would appear to be dwarfed by the Western cycle of the Fifties. While many of the shows that emerged from the cycle are now forgotten, the Western boom of the Fifties produced a remarkable number of classic TV shows.

Friday, 25 September 2015

The 50th Anniversary of The Beatles Cartoon

It was fifty years ago today, on September 25 1965, that The Beatles cartoon debuted on Saturday morning on ABC in the United States. At the time The Beatles themselves hated the cartoon, not the least of which was because King Features did not even try approximating The Beatles' voices except for Ringo. Regardless, the show would prove to be very successful and would be the introduction to The Beatles for many youngsters. Indeed, my earliest memories of The Beatles in any form is from the cartoon.

Many years ago I wrote a post on The Beatles cartoon, as well as a guest post for The Black Maria (now The Retro-Set) in 2014. Rather than revisit old territory, I will simply recommend reading my old post here.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The American 1965-1966 Television Season

There are a few people today who seem convinced that we are currently living in the Golden Age of Television. While it is true that there are a number of high quality shows on the air today, what they overlook is the fact that these shows are spread out over a number of broadcast networks, cable channels, and streaming services. That we are not living in the Golden Age of Television can easily be proven by looking at television schedules from Fifty and Sixty years ago. At a time when there were only three major networks on the air (counting DuMont, four in the early Fifties), as many quality shows were produced then as are produced now with all the cable channels and streaming services. Indeed, a look at the 1965-1966 season shows that there were then as many good shows on the air as there are now, if not more.

A number of shows debuted during the 1965-1966 season that would persist in reruns to this day, nearly all of them considered classics. In fact, many of these shows often debuted on the same night on the same network. Although many might debate its quality as a science fiction series, Lost in Space has a cult following and remains a camp classic. The show debuted the same night as the classic, surrealist rural comedy Green Acres, on September 15 1965 on CBS.

Indeed, some of the classic shows from the 1965-1966 even debuted back to back on the same network. On Friday, September 17 1965 the classic spy-fi/Western The Wild Wild West debuted on CBS. It was immediately followed on that network by the classic spoof of prisoner-of-war movies Hogan's Heroes. The following night, Saturday, September 18 1965, I Dream of Jeannie and Get Smart debuted back to back on NBC.

The fall of 1965 would see several classic shows debut that have persisted in syndication ever since. In addition to the aforementioned shows, the long running crime drama The F.B.I., the wildly popular Western spoof F Troop, I Spy, The Big Valley, and the cult favourite Honey West all premiered that fall. It is safe to say that on some nights many people had difficulty deciding what to watch.

Of course, there were many shows from previous seasons that returned for the 1965-1966 season. Such long time favourite sitcoms as My Favourite Martian, The Lucy Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, McHale's Navy, and The Donna Reed Show all returned. Hit sitcoms new during the 1964-1965 season, such as Bewitched, The Munsters, and The Addams Family, came back for second seasons. There were also several returning classic dramas, including Perry Mason, Bonanza, Combat!, The Fugitive, Dr. Kildare, and The Virginian. Hit dramas from the 1964-1965 season were also back. Daniel Boone continued to be strong, while The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had blossomed into a full scale phenomenon. There were also such classic variety shows and anthology shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour, and The Andy Williams Show. The popular and long running Dean Martin Show made its debut that season.

Of course,  it must be pointed out that the 1965-1966 season was the first in which the majority of shows were broadcast in colour.  Of the networks NBC was far in the lead with regards to colour programming. As of fall 1965 only two of their primetime shows were broadcast in black and white: Convoy and I Dream of Jeannie (which would become the last primetime show on NBC to be regularly shown in black and white). CBS lagged somewhat behind, with a little over half of their shows broadcast in colour. ABC, the smallest and historically lowest rated network, lagged far behind with regards to colour programming, with only about 36% of all their shows aired in colour as of fall 1965.

Beyond being the first season in which the majority of shows on primetime were in colour, the 1965-1966 season was also the first season in which the three networks premiered all of their shows during the same week--September 13 to September 19. ABC had pioneered the idea of a "premiere week", a week when every new show would premiere, during the 1963-1964 season. Prior to that the networks would spread the premieres of news shows throughout September and sometimes even into early October. It's for that reason that in the 1955-1956 season Gunsmoke debuted on September 10 on CBS, but The Phil Silvers Show didn't premiere until ten days later on September 20 on that same network. CBS followed ABC in adopting the practice of "premire week" in the 1964-1965 season, although that season they chose the week following that of ABC's premiere week. With the 1965-1966 season all three networks adopted the practice of premiere week. They also happened to choose the exact same week for their premieres.

Looking at the schedule for the fall of 1965, today one would think all three networks would have done remarkably well that autumn. Sadly, this was not the case for ABC, the smallest network that was perennially third in the ratings. The fall 1965 lineup for ABC literally proved to be catastrophic for the network, who received their worst ratings in years. In fact, of the 11 shows that debuted on ABC in the fall, only three would survive to a second season. To save the season as a whole, ABC then decided upon what was then a drastic course of action. Quite simply, in January they not only rearranged their schedule, but they cancelled several shows and replaced them with mid-season replacements.

Contrary to popular belief, mid-season replacements had existed well before the 1965-1966 season and ABC did not invent them. Such popular shows as Dragnet, The Bob Cummings Show, and Rawhide had all debuted as mid-season replacements. That having been said, none of the networks had ever debuted as many mid-season replacements in January as ABC did during the 1965-1966 season, nor did they rearrange their schedules quite so dramatically. So big were the changes that ABC made to their schedule that they hired Grey Advertising to promote those changes. It was copywriter Irwin Fredman who came up with the slogan "the Second Season", deciding that so great were the changes ABC had made to its schedule that it constituted a whole new television season.

The lynchpin of ABC's so-called "Second Season" was Batman, a superhero spoof based on the then 27 year old comic book character. Originally ABC had planned to debut Batman in the fall of 1966, but as disastrous as the fall of 1965 had proven for the network, it was decided to move its debut up to January 1966. ABC launched a promotional campaign for the show, centred around the slogan "Batman is Coming". Promos for the show appeared on ABC nearly every hour on the hour. There were a number of newspaper ads and billboards for the show. ABC even hired a skywriter to emblazon the slogan "Batman is Coming" above the Rose Bowl. When Batman debuted in January 12 1966, it received phenomenal ratings. In the end it became the centre of possibly the biggest fad in the history of television and ABC's second most successful show of the Sixties after Bewitched.

None of ABC's other mid-season replacements proved nearly as successful as Batman. Shows such as The Double Life of Henry Phyfe and The Baron (an import from Britain) barely lasted the season. ABC had set a precedent, however, so that since January 1966 the networks have relied upon mid-seasons replacements more frequently than they had before. While ABC saw little success with most of their mid-season replacements beyond Batman, they would see a good deal of success with a show that made its debut on the network on March 28 1966. The Avengers had debuted in the United Kingdom in 1961 and had proven phenomenally successful there. While The Avengers would not prove to be quite as successful in the United States (it never ranked in the top thirty shows for the season), it did develop a large and loyal cult following and remained on ABC for the next three years.

ABC was not the only network to utilise mid-season replacements during the 1965-1966 season, although in one instance for CBS it was simply a case of bringing back a show that had aired earlier on the network. Secret Agent (as the hour long version of the British show Danger Man was known in the United States) had debuted on CBS on April 3 1965 as a summer replacement series. Secret Agent returned to CBS as a mid-season replacement on December 4 1965. Another mid-season replacement on CBS was a brand new show. To replace the ageing Western Rawhide, CBS debuted the popular children's drama Daktari on January 11 1966.

So far I have only discussed primetime television, but the 1965-1966 season would be a good one for Saturday morning cartoons as well. Depending upon whom you ask, either the 1963-1964 season or the 1964-1965 season was the first Saturday morning on broadcast networks as many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers would know it. For the 1965-1966 the networks continued to expand their blocks of animated cartoons on Saturday mornings. NBC, who had only aired an hour of cartoons in the 1964-1965 season, expanded to a whole two and a half hours. ABC, who had only aired two hours of cartoons in the previous season, expanded their block of cartoons to three hours. Oddly enough, CBS, who had pioneered the scheduling of cartoons on Saturday morning with Mighty Mouse Playhouse in 1955, remained steady at three hours of cartoons, the same as the previous season.

There were several notable cartoons that debuted on Saturday morning in the fall of 1965. Perhaps the most notable was The Beatles, a cartoon based on the band of the same name. The cartoon was the first to be based on actual people (beating out the syndicated Three Stooges cartoon by a few weeks) and proved to be very successful. It was the highest rated cartoon for the 1964-1965 season. It aired on ABC. Also of note was the debut of Tom and Jerry, an anthology of old MGM theatrical animated shorts featuring Tom and Jerry, as well as Droopy. While rival Warner Brothers had embraced television years ago, MGM had resisted releasing their Tom and Jerry shorts and their Droopy shorts until 1965. It debuted on CBS. Also debuting on Saturday morning in the fall of 1965 were The Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show on NBC and Milton the Monster on ABC.

The 1965-1966 season saw a number of classic shows debut, everything from The Wild Wild West to Batman. It also saw a number of developments that would continue to impact television for years. ABC's so-called "Second Season"s solidified the use of mid-season replacements. NBC and ABC both expanded their lineups of Saturday morning cartoons. By the end of the decade Saturday morning cartoons blocks would be eight hours in length. Most importantly it was the first season in which the majority of prime time shows were aired in colour. The following season, the 1966-1967 season, would be the first in which nearly all primetime network TV shows were aired in colour. The 1965-1966 season was a pivotal one for American broadcast network television. It was also one that would seem to put to rest any claims that today is the Golden Age of Television.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Jack Larson R.I.P.

Jack Larson, best known for playing Jimmy Olsen in the Fifties TV series, The Adventures of Superman, died on September 20 2015 at the age of 87.

Jack Larson was born on February 8 1928 in Los Angeles, California. He grew up in Montebello, California. It was in junior high that he began writing and acting in his own plays. He attended Montebello High School, but dropped out with plans of becoming a professional bowler. It was while he was earning a high school diploma in a programme at Pasadena Junior College that a Warner Bros. scout saw him in a play and signed him to the studio.

Jack Larson made his film debut in Fighter Squadron in 1948. Over the next few years he appeared in the films Flame of Youth (1949), Trial Without Jury (1950), A Wonderful Life (1950), Redwood Forest Trail (1950), Fighting Coast Guard (1951), On the Loose (1951), and Starlift (1951). It was in 1951 that he was offered the role of Jimmy Olsen in the TV series The Adventures of Superman. He was hesitant to take the role for fear of being typecast. His agent informed him that the show had no sponsor as of yet and would not last. He then signed to appear in 26 episodes of the new show. As it turned out, The Adventures of Superman ran for six season and 104 episodes.

While Jack Larson was playing Jimmy Olsen in The Adventures of Superman he continued to appear in films. In the Fifties he appeared in such films as Battle Zone (1952), Star of Texas (1953), Man Crazy (1953), About Mrs. Leslie (1954), and Johnny Trouble (1957). He also guest starred on the TV show Navy Log. Sadly, following his stint as Jimmy Olsen on The Adventures of Superman, Jack Larson found himself typecast. He guest starred on episodes of Tales of the Vikings, The Millionaire, and Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. before giving up on acting.

No longer acting, Jack Larson found a new career as playwright and a librettist . Over the years he wrote such plays as The Candied House (1966),  Chuck (1968), The Hyacinth From Apollo (1997), and The Astronaut’s Tale (1998). He wrote the  the libretto for Virgil Thomson’s opera Lord Byron, which made its debut in 1972 at the Juilliard Theatre in New York City.

Jack Larson eventually returned to acting. He guest starred in a 1991 episode of Superboy and a 1996 episode of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (once more playing Jimmy Olsen, who had been unnaturally aged). He appeared in a role in Superman Returns (2006). In 2006 he guest starred in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. His last appearance on screen was is in the 2011 feature Bob's New Suit.

Jack Larson was perfect as Jimmy Olsen, the cub reporter for the Daily Planet who was constantly finding himself in trouble. Mr. Larson's Jimmy Olsen was good natured and well intentioned, but also slightly naive and at times foolish. More often than not Jimmy would start working on a story only to find himself captured by criminals in the process. Serving primarily as comic relief on the show, Jimmy Olson proved to a very popular character. In fact, it was largely because of the success of Jack Larson's portrayal of Jimmy Olsen that National Periodical Publications (as DC Comics was officially known at the time) gave Jimmy his own title in 1954, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen.

Given the strength of Jack Larson's performance as Jimmy Olsen, it seems quite likely that he was capable of playing many other roles. It is a shame that he found himself typecast due to the role. I could have easily seen Jack Larson being very successful in sitcoms in the Sixties if he had only been given a chance. I could  see him as the befuddled father of a family or the room mate to some supernatural entity (a very popular format during the decade). From The Adventures of Superman it would appear he had a gift for comedy. He was also quite capable at drama, as his guest shot on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit proved.

While he was typecast as Jimmy Olsen, Jack Larson held no ill will for the character or The Adventures of Superman. He was always eager to talk about the show and in later years became one of the best sources for history on the programme. He appeared more than once in retrospectives on the series. While Jack Larson may not have had the acting career he wanted (or his fans, for that matter), he will always be remembered for his great work as Jimmy Olsen.

Monday, 21 September 2015

The 60th Anniversary of Cheyenne

It was sixty years ago yesterday that the Western Cheyenne debuted, on September 20 1955 at 7:30 PM Eastern/6:30 PM Central. Although today it is probably only remembered by those alive at the time, fans of Western TV shows, classic TV buffs, and television historians, Cheyenne proved to be a very influential show. It was the first hour long Western TV series on American television. It was also the first television show produced by a major film studio that was not based on existing film properties (Disneyland, which debuted in 1954, did draw from Disney's library of short films). It was also the first original television show not based on an existing property produced by Warner Brothers and among the first in a number of collaborations between Hollywood studio Warner Brothers and the television network ABC, collaborations that would last into the Sixties. Alongside The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Gunsmoke, it would be responsible for a cycle towards Westerns that would dominate American television for the entirety of the late Fifties.

The origins of Cheyenne can be traced back to the merger between the American Broadcasting Company and United Paramount Theatres in 1953. In 1948 the the Supreme Court decision United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. forced the studios to divest themselves of the theatres they owned. Paramount's former chain then became United Paramount Theatres. The head of the new company, American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres, Inc., was Leonard Goldenson. Mr. Goldenson had started his work in the entertainment industry in 1933 as an attorney for Paramount Pictures. Eventually he was appointed by Barney Balaban, the head of Paramount, to manage the theatre chain. Having worked in Hollywood for twenty years, Leonard Goldenson had a good number of connections in the film industry. As might be expected, among those contacts were Jack L. Warner, the head of Warner Brothers, and Ben Kalmenson, then president of Warner Brothers Distribution in New York City. In 1954 Warner Brothers and ABC then began to work out a deal whereby the studio would enter into television production.

Negotiations between Warner Brothers and ABC did not begin smoothly, as the motion picture studio and the broadcast network were to some degree at cross-purposes. Warner Brothers essentially wanted publicity for its films while devoting as little of the studio's resources to television as possible.  ABC wanted filmed television shows that would draw desperately needed viewers to the struggling network. Negotiations between Warner Brothers and ABC initially fell apart when ABC not only offered Warner Brothers the same amount they had paid Disney in a deal with that studio ($2 million), but requested the rights to show recent Warner Brothers films and not so recent hits (such as Casablanca).

Fortunately Leonard Goldenson did not give up on Warner Brothers so easily. In January 1955 he made a trip to Warner Brothers in Los Angeles where he was able to get a gentleman's agreement as to what the conditions of the proposed deal between the studio and the network would be. In March 1955 Leonard Goldenson met with Jack L. Warner in New York City and Warner Brothers agreed to produce a television series titled Warner Brothers Presents for ABC. Of course, here it must be pointed out that ABC's deal with Warner Brothers was not the network's first deal with a Hollywood studio. In 1954 ABC had entered into a seven year deal with ABC that resulted in the shows Disneyland in 1954, The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955, and Zorro in 1957.

While Warner Brothers Presents was given as the title of the studio's new TV series in publicity releases at the time Warner Brothers and ABC entered their agreement,  in reality it was an umbrella title for what would be three different series. Two of the series were based on existing Warner Brothers titles. Kings Row was based on the 1942 film of the same name, which was in turn based on the 1940 novel by Henry Bellamann. It starred Jack Kelly as  Dr. Parris Mitchell (the role played by Bob Cummings in the film) and Robert Horton as Drake McHugh (the role played by Ronald Reagan in the film). It debuted on September 13 1955. The other series based on a Warner Brothers film was Casablanca, which starred Charles McGraw as Rick Blaine and Marcel Dalio as Captain Renaud.  It debuted on September 27 1955. Of course, there was a good deal of promotion for Warner Brothers films on Warner Brothers Presents. Each edition of the show ended with a ten to fifteen minute segment entitled "Behind the Camera", hosted by Gig Young, that promoted such films as The Searchers (1956) and Giant (1956).

While Kings Row and Casablanca were based on existing Warner Brothers properties, Cheyenne would be an original series. It owed its name to the 1947 Warner Brothers film Cheyenne, but nothing else. As originally conceived by Warner Brothers' writers, Cheyenne centred around mapmaker Cheyenne Bodie (played by Clint Walker), whose parents were killed by Cheyenne Indians who then raised him. Cheyenne was accompanied in his travels by his sidekick Smitty (played L. Q. Jones). While Cheyenne was an original television series, particularly in its early days it did draw upon old Warner Brothers feature films for plots. Its first episode "Mountain Fortress" drew heavily upon the 1950 film Rocky Mountain, starring Errol Flynn.

Cast in the lead role in Cheyenne was Clint Walker, who was a relative unknown at the time. In fact prior to Cheyenne he had appeared in two roles: an uncredited, bit part in the "Bowery Boys" movie Jungle Gents (1954) and an appearance in the yet to be released The Ten Commandments (1956) as a Sardinian Captain. Despite his lack of experience, he appeared perfectly suited to the role. He stands 6 foot 6 and has an equally impressive voice.

Unfortunately for Warner Brothers and ABC, Warner Brothers Presents and its series would not be well received. All three shows on Warner Brothers Presents (Kings Row, Cheyenne,and Casablanca) received largely negative reviews and many saw the "Behind the Camera" segments as commercialism at its crassest. Audiences were apparently not very impressed with Warner Brothers Presents either. Ratings for the umbrella title were low even by ABC's standards.

Not even the sponsors (which included such giants as Monsanto, General Electric, and Liggett & Myers) for Warner Brothers Presents were happy with the programme. They thought the episodes of the shows themselves were poorly made and they viewed the "Behind the Camera" segments as little more than a ten to fifteen minute commercial for Warner Brothers. The sponsors threatened to pull their advertising from the show if changes were not made immediately.

As a result from the sponsors' complaints, Kings Row, Cheyenne, and Casablanca all three were overhauled. In the case of Cheyenne, the series was revamped after only three episodes. To overhaul Cheyenne Warner Brothers brought in writer Roy Huggins. Roy Huggins was a published novelist who had written screenplays for such films as The Lady Gambles (1949) and Gun Fury (1953). His novel The Double Take had been adapted as the film I Love Trouble (1948).  Mr Huggins dropped Cheyenne's sidekick Smitty and also dropped the idea of Cheyenne as a map maker. While it was established that Cheyenne was a former cavalry scout, he would have no regular occupation. Instead, Cheyenne would simply drift from place to place. At times he might be a lawman, at other times he might be a scout, at yet other times he might be working on a ranch. Following Cheyenne Roy Huggins would have a highly successful career in television. Indeed, he created the shows Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip (which drew, in part, from his novel Double Take for inspiration), The Fugitive, Run for Your Life, and The Rockford Files.

Despite the changes made to the show, both Kings Row and Casablanca continued to struggle in the ratings. Kings Row did not even make it the whole season; its last episode aired on January 17 1956. Casablana managed to last the whole season, but was cancelled at the season's end. Cheyenne would be the only show from Warner Brothers Presents that would survive. In fact, it not only survived, but following Roy Huggins's revamp of the show it was thriving. It proved to be the only hit to emerge from Warner Brothers Presents.

For the second season of Cheyenne the whole idea of Warner Brothers Presents was scrapped. That having been said, Cheyenne would still rotate with another series. For the 1956-1957 season it rotated with an anthology series entitled Conflict (the title having been chosen by ABC rather than Warner Brothers). Conflict proved to be a failure, but  Cheyenne continued to be a success.Conflict was cancelled at the end of the 1956-1957 season.

The success of Cheyenne led to an offer from ABC to Warner Brothers to buy thirty nine, hour long episodes of the show, a full season. Unfortunately it took Warner Brothers a full six days of principle photography to produce each episode of Cheyenne. This was complicated by the fact that its star Clint Walker appeared in every single episode. Since Warner Brothers could not produce 39 episodes of Cheyenne, then, they gave ABC another Western, Sugarfoot. During the 1957-1958 season, then, Cheyenne rotated with  Sugarfoot.
 
Sugarfoot centred on Tom "Sugarfoot" Brewster. Sugarfoot was a drifter much like Cheyenne, but unlike Cheyenne he was a lawyer by trade who preferred to settle things using his wits and words rather a gun. Sugarfoot would not be the only Western to debut in the 1956-1957 season. The success of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, and Cheyennei had led to a boom in Westerns that season. Also debuting that season were such Westerns as The Restless Gun, Wagon Train, and, the most successful Western TV show produced by Warner Brothers, Maverick.

During the 1957-1958 season Cheyenne did very well in the ratings, ranking no. 12 in the ratings. Sugarfoot also did very well in the ratings, ranking no 16 in the ratings. Unfortunately for Warner Brothers, there would be trouble ahead for Cheyenne.

Particularly by today's standards, Clint Walker's contract with Warner Brothers was not exactly desirable for an actor. The studio demanded 50% of any money he made from personal appearances. It also restricted him to recording only for Warner Brothers' record label. In addition to increased residuals, Clint Walker demanded a reduction in the amount of money from personal appearances that he had to give to Warner Brothers, as well as the freedom to record with any recording company he chose. The actor and the studio soon found themselves at an impasse and as a result Mr. Walker walked out on the show in protest.

Amazingly enough, Warner Brothers went forward with Cheyenne anyway. For the 1958-1959 season Cheyenne centred on Confederate veteran Bronco Layne (played by Ty Hardin). Clint Walker eventually returned to Cheyenne, at which point Cheyenne Bodie once more became the main character on the show. As to Bronco Layne, he was given his own show, Bronco. In syndication the episodes of Cheyenne featuring Bronco Layne would be included with the series Bronco rather than Cheyenne, even though they had originally aired under that title.

Despite Clint Walker's absence from Cheyenne, the series continued to do well in the ratings. It ranked no. 18 for the season. Sugarfoot ranked no. 21.

For part of the 1959-1960 season the time slot of Cheyenne was filled with reruns of  Shirley Temple's Storybook. It was the first time the show did not rotate with another show produced by Warner Brothers (Shirley Temple's Storybook was produced by Screen Gems).  The show continued to do well in the ratings, ranking no. 17 for the year.

With the 1960-1961 Cheyenne would once more become part of an umbrella title, in this case The Cheyenne Show. The Cheyenne Show consisted of rotating episodes of Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, and Bronco. Of the three shows, only Cheyenne ranked in the top thirty of the year, although it had dropped considerably. It only ranked no. 28 out of all of the shows on the air.

By the 1961-1962 season, like many Westerns, the heyday of Cheyenne was over. Sugarfoot had been cancelled at the end of the 1960-1961 season, but Cheyenne still rotated with Bronco for the 1961-1962 season. Neither show ranked in the top thirty shows for the season and Cheyenne would never again rank in the top thirty shows for the year. As to Bronco, it ended its run at the end of the 1961-1962 season. 

For the 1962-1963 season Cheyenne aired thirteen consecutive episodes from September 24 1962 to December 17 1962. Its time slot afterwards was filled by another Warner Brothers Western, The Dakotas. The Dakota was ostensibly a spinoff of Cheyenne, its pilot having aired as an episode of the show ("A Man Called Ragan", airing in April 1962). That having been said, Cheyenne Bodie did not even appear in "A Man Called Ragan", making claims that it was a spinoff dubious at best. While The Dakotas finished out the season, it was perhaps doomed by the controversial episode "Sanctuary at Crystal Springs", in which violence was actually committed in a church. Neither Cheyenne nor The Dakotas would return for the 1963-1964 season.

While Cheyenne ran for seven seasons, having spent its entire run rotating with other shows it only produced 108 episodes. Despite having spurred the cycle towards Westerns in the late Fifties (along with The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Gunsmoke), its run in syndication would not be as good as that of other classic Westerns, such as Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, or Bonanza. Despite this it has remained popular with fans of classic Western TV shows. It currently airs on Encore Westerns. The Warner Archive has released the entire run of the show on DVD.

Today it seems likely that Cheyenne is largely unknown save for those over 60, fans of TV Westerns, classic television buffs, and television historians. Despite this Cheyenne was a very influential show. While it was not the first hour long series with continuing characters as often claimed (that was actually Kings Row, which debuted the week before), it was the first hour long series with continuing characters to see any success. It was also the first hour long series not based on an existing property (Kings Row having been based on the movie of the same name) and the first hour long Western. Within a few years more hour long dramas would debut, including such classic hour long shows as Maverick, Perry Mason, Wagon Train, Rawhide, and Bonanza. By the early Sixties the hour long format would be the one preferred for dramas.

Cheyenne  was also be the first show produced by a major studio that was not based on an existing property. Along with Disneyland and the two other shows that comprised Warner Brothers Presents, it represented Hollywood's entry into television. By the Sixties many of the major studios, including MGM, 20th Century Fox, and Universal were responsible for providing much of the programming for the broadcast networks. In the case of Warner Brothers, it marked the beginning of a long collaboration with ABC that would result in such shows as Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, F Troop, and The F.B.I.

Along with The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Gunsmoke, Cheyenne would also be responsible for the boom in Westerns on the broadcast networks in the late Fifties. The networks began adding more Westerns as early as the 1956-1957 season and yet more with the 1957-1958 season. By the 1958-1959 season there was at least one Western on every night of the week, sometimes more. Following the success of Cheyenne, Warner Brothers would produce their share of Westerns, including Sugarfoot, Maverick, Colt .45, Bronco, Lawman, and The Alaskans. Had it not been for Cheyenne, none of these shows might have ever come into being.

Cheyenne would also be responsible for starting Roy Huggins's career in television. It was because of the work he did in revamping Cheyenne that he was able to create Maverick, the most successful Warner Brothers Western of them all. He went onto to create the shows 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive, Run for Your Life, and The Rockford Files, and wrote several hours worth of television for yet other shows.

While Cheyenne may be largely forgotten now, it long ago secured its place in television history. It is arguably one of the most influential shows of all time and, of the three Westerns that debuted in 1955, its influence may only be exceeded by Gunsmoke. As the second hour long show with continuing characters (and the first to see any success) and the first entirely original show produced by Warner Brothers, it paved the way for practically every hour long drama produced by a major studio to come.

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.