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The Phil Silvers Show (originally titled You'll Never Get Rich) was a comedy television series which ran on CBS from 1955 to 1959 for a total of 143 episodes (including a 1959 special). The series starred Phil Silvers as master sergeant Ernest G. Bilko of the United States Army, service number 15042699.

The series was created and largely written by Nat Hiken, and won three consecutive Emmy Awards for Best Comedy Series. The show is sometimes titled Sergeant Bilko or simply Bilko in reruns, and is very often referred to by these names, both on-screen and by viewers. The show's success transformed Silvers from a journeyman comedian into a star, and writer-producer Hiken from a highly-regarded behind-the-scenes comedy writer into a publicly recognized creator.

Production

By 1955, the American television business was already moving westward to Los Angelesmarker, but Nat Hiken insisted on filming the series in New York Citymarker, believing it to be more conducive to the creativity and humor. Early episodes were filmed at Dumont's television center in New York City (now home to WNYW-5), with later episodes shot at the CBS "Hi Brown" Studios in Chelsea, Manhattanmarker.

Most of the series was photographed to simulate a live performance. The actors memorized their lines, as in a play, and performed the scenes in sequence before a studio audience. Thus, there are occasional flubs and awkward pauses. Actor Paul Ford, playing Bilko's commanding officer, was notorious for forgetting his lines; when he would get a blank expression on his face, Silvers and the rest of the cast would improvise something to save the scene, like "Oh, you remember, Colonel, the top brass is coming..." At that point, Ford would pick up where he left off, and the audience would respond by laughing.

This method of filming changed when impresario Mike Todd made a guest appearance and refused to memorize the script. He insisted on the episode being filmed like a Hollywood movie, one scene at a time, and out of sequence. Silvers and the crew found Todd's way was faster, cheaper and less demanding for the actors, so the series changed over to this new policy. The finished films were screened for live audiences, whose responses were recorded and added to the soundtracks.

Cast

Bilko's right-hand men were Cpl. Rocco Barbella (Harvey Lembeck) and Cpl. Steve Henshaw (Allan Melvin), and his long-suffering superior was Col. John T. Hall (Paul Ford). The large supporting cast included Herbie Faye (a former burlesque crony of Silvers') as Pvt. Sam Fender, Maurice Gosfield as the slovenly Pvt. Duane Doberman, Joe E. Ross as camp cook Sgt. Rupert Ritzik, Beatrice Pons as loud-mouthed Mrs. Ritzik, Billy Sands as Pvt. Dino Paparelli, Jimmy Little as Sgt. Francis Grover, Mickey Freeman as diminutive Pvt. Fielding Zimmerman, Jack Healy as the tough-talking Pvt. Mullin, Ned Glass as quartermaster Sgt. Andy Pendleton, and former boxer Walter Cartier as botany fiend Pvt. Claude Dillingham. Some episodes gave Bilko a romantic interest (Elisabeth Fraser as Sgt. Joan Hogan). The series frequently featured so many secondary cast members, with so many speaking parts, that the show ultimately became too expensive to sustain. It was this factor, and not any decline in ratings, that led to the show's demise in 1959. As Silvers later recalled, "We went out at our height."

Guest stars included Dick Van Dyke, Eric Fleming, Fred Gwynne, Alan Alda, Paul Reed and Paul Lynde, then near the beginning of their careers. Later episodes used a wealth of veteran Hollywood character actors, including Harold Huber, Marjorie Gateson, and Frank Albertson, to name a few.

Plot

The series was originally set in Fort Baxter, a sleepy, unremarkable U.S. Army base in the fictional town of Roseville, Kansasmarker. Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko spends most of his time trying to wheedle money through various get-rich-quick scams and promotions, his soldiers regularly helped Bilko with his schemes, but were just as often Bilko's "pigeons" ripe for the plucking. Bilko exhibited an odd paternalism toward his victims, and would doggedly shield them from all outside antagonists. The sergeant's attitude toward his men has been described thus: "They were his men and if anyone was going to take them, it was going to be him and only him." Through it all, the platoon was fiercely loyal to Bilko, and would depend on him to get them out of any military misfortune.

Bilko's swindles were usually directed toward (or behind the back of) Col. John T. Hall, the overmatched and beleaguered post commander who had early in his career been nicknamed "Melon Head." Despite his flaws and weaknesses, Col. Hall would get the best of Bilko just enough to establish his credentials as a wary and vigilant adversary. The colonel would often be shown looking fretfully out his window, worried without explanation or evidence, simply because he knew that Bilko was out there somewhere, planning something. The colonel's wife, Nell (Hope Sansberry), had only the kindest thoughts toward Bilko, who would shamelessly flatter her whenever he saw her.

The show's setting changed with the fourth season, when the men of Fort Baxter were reassigned to Camp Fremont in Californiamarker. This mass transfer was explained in storyline as being the inadvertent result of a Bilko con gone wrong. In reality, creator Hiken had departed, and it was an easy excuse to move the production to California and fill the episodes with celebrity guest appearances from nearby Hollywood.

The earlier episodes depicted Ernie Bilko as an easygoing "operator" angered by any injustice to someone he knows. Using guile and mind games against the villains, he steps in to defend the injured party and right the wrong. Later episodes (significantly, by different writers) overlooked Bilko's righteous side, and painted the character as strictly mercenary, willing to swindle anyone for a fast buck.

Finale

In the series finale, "Weekend Colonel," Bilko discovers a short-order cook who is the exact double of Colonel Hall. Bilko hires the cook to impersonate the colonel, so he can cheat the other officers in a bogus charity effort. The real Colonel Hall learns of the scam, and Bilko, Henshaw, and Barbella end up being locked away in the guardhouse. As Colonel Hall looks at his prisoners on a newly installed closed-circuit TV system, he quips: "It's a wonderful show, and as long as I'm the sponsor, it will never be cancelled." The camera cuts to Bilko and his henchmen finally behind bars. Bilko waves to the camera and says, "Th-th-that's all, folks!" So ended the series.

Aftermath

Following the show's cancellation, CBS shortsightedly sold the films to NBC, which immediately aired reruns five days a week to great financial returns. Some of the show's other actors were recruited by "Bilko" producer Edward J. Montagne to appear in Nat Hiken's followup sitcom Car 54, Where Are You?, and in McHale's Navy.

Silvers was able to play off his durable Bilko persona for the rest of his career. In 1963, he starred in The New Phil Silvers Show, which attempted to transplant his mercenary character to a factory setting, but the result proved unpopular. Silvers frequently guest-starred on Buddy Ebsen's The Beverly Hillbillies as a character called Honest John. He also played an unscrupulous Broadway producer on an episode of Gilligan's Island who stole the castaways' concept for a musical version of Hamlet. In an episode of The Lucy Show, Silvers was a demanding efficiency expert; at one point, Lucy's boss Mr. Mooney (Gale Gordon), remarks that Silvers reminds him of a sergeant he used to know. Silvers also portrayed greedy connivers in various movies, notably It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The British film Follow That Camel cast him as a scheming sergeant (this time in the French Foreign Legion).

The Bilko persona was borrowed by the Hanna-Barbera animation studio for its television cartoon series Top Cat, which drew on elements from The Phil Silvers Show. Maurice Gosfield from the original platoon voiced one of the cats. The episode of The Flintstones that introduced Dino gave the pet dinosaur a Sgt. Bilko-styled voice and character. After this atypical debut, Dino never spoke again. Another episode recruited Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble into the army, where they were conned by an unnamed Bilko-like character into becoming astronaut test pilots.

The original You'll Never Get Rich program, which was filmed in black-and-white, was widely rerun into the 1970s. The advent of color television rendered it and many similar programs less marketable than they had been previously. The series reemerged on Nick at Nite for a short time during the 1990s. Its popularity has been especially enduring in Britainmarker, where it is still shown occasionally by the BBC. The series was rerun on late Sunday nights in Britain around the early 80's, just before BBC1's signoff; despite this, the viewing audience was as large as 8 million. An interesting side note to the show's popularity in Britain is an incident that occurred in China the 1980s. A British tourist was nearly arrested when a Chinese soldier thought the man depicted on her Sgt. Bilko T-shirt was the Dalai Lama.

In May 2006, 18 of the show's 143 episodes were compiled into a three DVD 50th anniversary collection.

Adaptations

Film

In 1996, The Phil Silvers Show was the basis of a critically and commercially unsuccessful movie, Sgt. Bilko, starring Steve Martin as Bilko, Dan Aykroyd as Colonel Hall, Max Casella as Paparelli, and Eric Edwards as Doberman. The plot centers around an investigation into wrongdoings in Fort Baxter by Major Thorn, an old rival of Bilko's, who will stop at nothing to best Bilko.

Ratings

Season Position
1955-1956 #30
1956-1957 #23
1957-1958 not in the top 30
1958-1959 not in the top 30


References

  1. Museum.TV article
  2. New York: The Movie Lover's Guide: The Ultimate Insider Tour of Movie New York - Richard Alleman - Broadway (February 1, 2005) ISBN 0767916344
  3. 50th anniversary collection at Amazon.com


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