A comedian it is said, is only as good as his stooge. Most funnymen --- those who work the music halls, nightclubs and variety circuits -- can usually find an ace foil in the audience and stick with him for the rest of his act. But that wasn't the case with Phil Silvers. He needed a new foil every week for the classic Bilko comedy show -- as a result the show's casting was probably the most bizarre ever!
The premise behind this is that the action of each script revolved around some offbeat character, the top featured part, the character that Sergeant Bilko bounced his fractured lines off. One of the major problems of the programme was to fill these roles. The new actor must fit like a glove. The usual run-of-the-mill professional did not seem to be distinctive enough. What was needed was the relatively obscure performer - a one in a million - who would fit the bill. The job then was to find him or her.
This assignment was welcomed by Phil and the man in charge of casting, Kevin Pines. Mr Pines would interview around 100 actors and actresses every week. He'd make journeys all over the place to look for people, Off-Broadway theatres, Greenwich Village, dodgy agents' offices in Upper East Side of New York and scanning the theatrical news press for "different" types at parties. His friends sometimes tipped him off too.
Phil received a photograph of a sailor from an ardent fan of the show. The ex-navy man in question was Jim White.......and with the picture was a hand-written letter describing how he looked like Duane Doberman. Nat Hiken and Kevin Pines immediately saw an opportunity for a show and went in pursuit of the ex-sailor. They tracked him down in Florida state and brought him back to the Big Apple. They got him to play a small cameo as a general on a show The Face on the Recruiting Poster - which turned out to be a barrell of laughs when they paired him next to his Doppelgänger, Maurice Gosfield.
In 1952, Fred Gwynne was appearing as Stinker - a slow-thinking oaf - in the Broadway play, Mrs McThing. Phil Silvers saw his performance and made a mental note of the lanky fellow that he had watched perform. A few years later, whilst preparing production on the show called The Eating Contest, Kevin Pines was sent out to track down Fred. All inquiries initially failed. Kevin then went through all of the New York Times and the CBS research department's archives. He phoned people on Madison Avenue and finally located the would-be actor who was then working as a copyrighter in an advertising agency. He was that good as The Stomach that Phil Silvers wanted him back for a second time, in a parody of the $64,000 Question, in a show called; It's for the Birds. After his Bilko appearance Fred went from strength to strength he never went back to his humdrum agency work.
After Harry Clark (Sergeant Stanley Sowici) tragically died, Nat Hiken had to bring in another character to play a mess sergeant. He remembered a stand-up comic he and Phil had once met who was last seen in various Miami hovels, his name was Joe E. Ross. Hiken liked the gravelly voice and general look of the man, even though casting this toilet-mouthed comedian, as cook Sergeant Rupert Ritzik, would seem like a gamble. Kevin Pines was asked to locate Joey He phoned him up whilst he was performing in Hawaii. "Hi Kevin Pines here from The Phil Silvers Show." Immediately Joey shouted down the phone, "F**K YOU" - and then hung up!! He thought it was a wind up. Eventually they got their man but during rehearsals he kept fluffing his lines.
Nat Hiken came up with a master plan, he told him to play for time by saying "Ooh! Ooh!"- and give himself that bit longer to remember his part. The rest is history, the catchphrase would stick with Joe E. forever.
Legendary crooner, Bing Crosby, appeared on the show during its season two run, he starred in Sergeant Bilko Presents Bing Crosby. This all came about through a booking which had Bing and Phil on the same Ed Sullivan Show. Nat Hiken visited the Ed Sullivan studio to watch the rehearsal and when he saw Crosby he whispered to Phil that he had a programme idea which fitted Bing perfectly.
Phil knew that Bing enjoyed the show and so he asked him if he'd do a bit for him. He never dreamed that Bing would have the time or the inclination but the man was full of surprises - he said okay - but it had to be done that very next morning!! In a panic, the alarm was sounded and hurriedly the camera crew were alerted and the studio was engaged. There was one major complication though. All that Nat and Phil had was a basic idea -- and no plot line whatsoever, no beginning and no ending. So the intrepid pair locked themselves in a room that night and came out still with no story, but with a story ending.
The following day a TV precedent was set. They shot a television show ending for which there was no beginning. But they had one thing going for them - Bing Crosby playing himself. From there, they worked backwards and came out with one of the best Bilko shows that was ever made.
Other notables have also appeared on the show. Baseball star, Yogi Berra, for instance. The day he appeared on the programme the New York Yankees were also playing a night game. At the finish of the show Phil gave him a medallion that he'd been carrying around for good luck. Yogi went out and hit a home run and a triple. Whitey Ford, who had appeared on the same show, pitched a shutout on the evening that the show played a rerun.
Phil Silvers had complete sway over the show but he seldom exercised it. As he said, "They can't hire a pageboy without my okay but I can't do it that way. I can't edit films. I don't know anything about lighting -- beyond saying; That light's too bright. I do stay on scripts though. Sometimes I don't see the scripts until the last minute but I still change them. I always respect the writers but you've got to know the medium. All the shows can't be great when you're working week by week. But I can promise you that every show will have five minutes in it that are good."
Most of the shows, in my humble opinion, had more than that. The show, week in week out, hit an awfully high peak of real, fast paced comedy. It was one of the few things on television, in the 1950s, that the boffins spoke of with ultimate respect and affection. Much of that was due to Phils' own great groundbreaking techniques, honed to perfection after years of burlesque and vaudeville. He kept the ball spinning in mid-air even when there wasn't much of a ball to keep spinning.
At the time Phil said: "I don't know really anything about the army. I was in the USO. I don't know really the proper commands or the protocol of the army. But I'm an impatient comedian. I can't stand a void. So whenever one comes I yell - hip rop gloop up - anything to fill the void. And it works. I look under the carpet all the time to keep things moving, to make the show better. We have guest stars from time to time -- but we are not tyrannized by them. We don't have to have them. Guests come as themselves -- and they have a ball on our show."