The Phil Silvers Show - also titled You'll Never Get Rich and, informally, Bilko and Sergeant Bilko - was born, destined to win plaudits by the score, including three consecutive Emmy Awards for Best Comedy Series, and become, unarguably, one of the all-time great sitcoms. Good judges consider it to be the best.
With his brilliant million-watt brain, his thickly bespectacled eyes able to zero in on an approaching sucker at any distance and his razor sharp patter that could get you to pick your own pocket and hand him the wallet, Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko wa TV's first, best and shrewdest con man. Where others saw Fort Baxter, Kansas, as nothing more than a forlorn, forgotten military outpost, Bilko saw a gold mine: an Uncle Sam-underwritten resort casino complete with a captive community of khaki-clad bumpkins with loose grips on their paypackets. Played, by Phil Silvers, like a hard-bopp jazz riff, Ernie Bilko was cunning, resourceful and relentless -- a noncommissioned officer and a scoundrel.
The Phil Silvers Show was a sitcom created by Nat Hiken which was originally broadcast on CBS from 1955 to 1959. Originally It centered on the lives of the United States Army serving at Fort Baxter in the wilds of Roseville, Kansas.
With Phil Silvers, working in collaboration with the great TV writer-producer Nat Hiken, created a classic 1950s comic character in Sergeant Ernie Bilko, an oil-slick fast-talking huckster who always had a card game, a con, or a bunko scheme working at top speed. A motormouth with the brain of a devious accountant and a coward's aversion to conventional army service.
The joke of the series was that Ernie and his platoon of amiable misfits ran Fort Baxter (in the last season, Camp Fremont) rather than its leader, the blustery sap Colonel Hall (played by the impeccable Paul Ford).
Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko (Phil Silvers) marched on to television in the aptly titled, You'll Never Get Rich (CBS TV) on September 20, 1955. The show was renamed The Phil Silvers Show on November 1, 1955. Bilko and his many "get rich quick" schemes completed four magical seasons until taps finally blew on June 19, 1959.
How it all began:
In 1954, Phil Silvers agreed to be an M.C. at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner - he knocked 'em dead, convulsing Eisenhower and catching the attention of another audience member, Hubbell Robinson Jr., the head of programming at CBS. A few days later, Hubbell, pictured below, called Phil to propose that he develop a new half-hour sitcom with the writer Nat Hiken.
It was an inspired pairing - Nat, if quieter than Phil, had the same shtetl blood cursing through his veins and, like Phil, felt insufficiently respected in middle age. Nat had laboured for years as the great unsung comedy writer of the broadcast industry, working first for the radio comic Fred Allen and then, in the early 1950s, for Martha Raye's variety programme on NBC. Though his fellow writers recognized him as a borderline genius, Nat was frustrated by the lack of credit accorded him, particularly by Allen, who was notorious for claiming he wrote his own material.
The very first concept that Nat came up with was to make Phil a sergeant in a U.S. Army camp, an idea Phil initially dismissed as too "Abbott and Costello ..... dumb drills, guys bumping into each other and their pants falling down." But Phil soon came around to the idea, recognizing the chance to continue the Punko Parks-Harrison Floy-Jerry Biffle line of connivers. He'd once again have a chance to incorporate all his old burlesque tricks, but, this time, within a framework of intricate, twisty plots, Nat's forte. Nat, for his part, wisely recognized that Phil, no matter what the role, always essentially played Phil Silvers. Though the show was more tightly plotted and ad-lib-averse than anything Phil had done before, Nat made a point of drawing upon Phil's own quirks and foibles to shape Ernie Bilko.
Terrific as Nat was at plotting, he was equally good at casting, he loved un-Hollywood faces and was adept at getting the most out of both seasoned character actors and nonperformers who just looked right. When he was working on Martha Raye's show, he'd successfully made use of the comic-sketch ability of the boxer Rocky Graziano. For The Phil Silvers Show; Rocky acted as a de facto casting assistant, bringing aboard the gnarled but handsome middleweight Walter Cartier to play one private, Dillingham, and enlisting his own former manager, a slab-featured pug-mug named Jack Healy, to play Private Mullen. Even the professionals in the Phil Silvers Show cast were humorously misshapen - the broken-nosed comic Billy Sands, who played Private Paparelli; stand-up comic Mickey Freeman played banty Private Zimmerman; the pudgy, bug-eyed character actor Maurice Brenner, who played Private Fleischman; and good old Herbie Faye, brought in by the ever loyal Phil for 'added protection' to play Corporal Fender.
Maurice Gosfield came from an open casting call, he looked like a Doberman Pinscher and that's what he became: Private Duane (for a touch of class) Doberman; Nat also recruited a few actors who'd done service in other military-themed shows. Before becoming Colonel Hall, Paul Ford was appearing as another colonel on Broadway in The Teahouse of the August Moon. Allan Melvin and Harvey Lembeck, the beanpole-fireplug combo who played Bilko's two henchmen, Corporals Henshaw and Barbella, were both plucked from the Broadway play Stalag 17, where they were also playing soldiers. Audaciously for the time, Nat, who wanted the platoon to look like a real army platoon, cast a couple of black actors, P. Jay Sidney and Terry Carter, as Privates Palmer and Sugarman, even though this didn't go down too well with some advertisers in the South. This platoon were buddies of malingerers, ragpickers, sharpers and enemies of any authority. Ernie Bilko was the eternal dreamer, the con man who dreamed up elaborate strategies to bamboozle the system.
Half a dozen episodes were made before a sponsor came forward. The William Esty Advertising Agency, which had the Camel cigarette account, pulled a sneaky ruse. They somehow got into the CBS film storage vault, borrowed the pilot film and flew with it to Winston-Salem, N.C., headquarters of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco complex. A coup worthy of Bilko! After viewing Camels insisted CBS let them into the show. Now the show had a sponsor but when will it go on air.
The Phil Silvers Show faced one major crisis on the way to its premiere on September 20,1955: CBS scheduled it for Tuesday night at 8:30 - opposite Milton Berle's blockbuster variety series on NBC, which was a television fixture, having been on the air for six years. Even Milton, pictured right, felt sorry for his great pal.
Milton: 'Why did you let CBS do this to you?'
Phil: 'It was a big secret. They never told me. I hate playing opposite you.'
Milton: 'And I hear you have a good show.' (Milton felt genuinely sorry for his great friend)
Phil: 'Well I'm a gambler you know.'
Milton: 'Somebody's trying to destroy you.'
Indeed, the Berle show walloped the Silvers show the first three weeks, winning in the ratings by an almost two-to-one ratio. But after a few weeks, as word of mouth spread, and after Phil made a guest appearance with the Fort Baxter platoon on The Ed Sullivan Show, the number started to shift, and soon Berle was the one getting trounced. Eventually the show reached 23 million viewers. At television centre, all hell broke loose as it was the first time that a CBSer had dumped Milton Berle of NBC in the ratings.
"It was bedlam, wires from Hollywood..........congratulations from people you wouldn't even suppose would know about Trendex." recalled Phil. Movie offers ....... talk of a new CBS contract ....... the realization that Phil was this season's Jackie Gleason ........ and consternation at NBC who now had a grave Tuesday night problem. "It was the most exciting day of my life, even surpassing the opening night of Top Banana. But the part I refuse to enjoy was belting Berle out, that gave me no kick." said Phil.
Bilko had knocked Berle off the air, Milton was no longer King of Tuesday nights. He was not bitter with his great friend, Phil instead he phoned him and said "You rat. You had to go on Tuesday?" Milton retired with a fantastic contract that paid him a large sum every year not to work on any other television network. The great thing about Phil and Milton was, at the Hillcrest Country Club, near Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, there would be a table of Phil, Milton andJack Benny, and they would sit around and help each other with their acts: a brotherhood of comedians.
After the first season of the show had finished, Phil and Nat had won five Emmy awards - Jack Benny sent a telegram, confirming his original advice for Phil not to accept the role of Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko it said simply: "You wouldn't listen to me!"..........Some two years later at the Friars Club, Hollywood, Jack was being honoured with a Gala dinner after he was chosen as Man of the Year......Phil was busy filming the Bilko show so he couldn't attend, but he sent Jack a return telegram: "If I'd listened to you two years ago, I'd be at your dinner tonight."