How did some of the characters get their names?

A quote from Phil Silvers' autobiography This Laugh is on me

"Since we (Nat Hiken, the creator of Bilko, and Phil Silvers) were both sports fans, especially baseball, we used familiar names. Nat came up with Bilko, after a minor league player, Steve Bilko. It also had the welcome connotation of a man 'bilking you'. Joe Paparella, an umpire, became Private Paparelli. Corporal Barbella was the real name of the boxer Rocky Graziano, who became our first casting director. He brought in Walter Cartier, a middleweight fighter who began as a stand-in and became a regular member of the platoon. Other ex-boxers we used - Lou Nova, once a heavyweight contender, Maxie Shapiro, a lightweight and Mike O'Dowd, a heavyweight. Jack Healy, who played occasional small parts, had been Graziano's Manager. Sometimes I felt Rocky was using our show as a training camp." 

Footnote: Another boxer who appeared was Tony Galento.

When Maurice Gosfield (Duane Doberman) appeared for auditions, he brought with him an enormous list of onscreen credits. According to his list he had over two thousand radio appearances and over one hundred TV appearances!


​Maurice Brenner (later Private Irving Fleischman) was originally Doberman in the audition show.
  1. Steve Bilko
    Steve Bilko
The cast and crew would run a betting pool to see how long it would take Maurice Gosfield to mess up his first line in a script 

Maurice asked Nat Hiken if he could go and study at the Actors Studio. Nat told him, in no uncertain words, that if he ever improved his acting he would get kicked out of the Bilko show.

The sponsors of the show were Camel cigarettes and then Amana refrigerators came in as cosponsors.

The sets were built on 57th Street, New York then trucked over to Dumont to be unloaded onto the stage.

When first contacted by the casting director, Kevin Pines, about auditioning for the show, Joe E. Ross (Rupert Ritzik) thought it was a wind-up and so he said down the phone, 'F*** You!' and then hung up.

It was Nat Hiken who suggested that Joe E. says ooh! ooh! if he was ever struggling to remember lines.


Film producer, Mike Todd is credited with revolutionizing the way the show was filmed. Mike appeared in the Bilko Goes Round the World episode but he refused to take rehearsals with any seriousness. Nat Hikens' patience was wearing thin, so he shot Todd's sequences at Hy Brown's studio soundstage without an audience. After that episode, Nat decided that they could do without an audience for the remainder of the series. Instead they filmed each show, then played it back to an army post on Governor's Island, recorded the response, then matched up the vision and laughter. Filming without an audience eased a lot of the tension on the set.

Phil Silvers was hydrophobic. Apparently he used to tremble with terror at the sight of water in his backyard pool.  He tried to overcome his fears so he could swim in the pool with his young daughters.


The show began in the United Kingdom in 1957, and what do you know, before too long 75% of fan mail to Phil Silvers, was coming from those shores.
  1. Gravestone: Situated in Forest Lawn cemetery, Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles a wonderful quote engraved on grave.
    Gravestone: Situated in Forest Lawn cemetery, Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles a wonderful quote engraved on grave.
Bernie Fein: Aka Private Gomez, after the Bilko series finished he tried his hand at scriptwriting. Later he sold a series to Bing Crosby Enterprises - that series? Hogan's Heroes.

In the show entitled Empty Store a brazen mistake can be seen on a newspaper headline. Instead of reading Ernest, as in Bilko, the word is spelt Earnst! In this same show Ernie Bilko calls Sergeant Grover, Jim. Jimmy Little takes the part of Grover.

Paul Ford didn't start acting until he was thirty-eight, before he'd even had jobs as a salesman and gas station attendant.

Actor Allan Melvin (Corporal Steve Henshaw) is listed on the closing credits as Allen.

To track all the scripts, so as not to repeat situations, Nat covered a whole wall, in his Madison Avenue office, with a huge chart to help him get organized.

Each show: In 1957 dollars, cost $65,000 to make.

When the series first started they used an orchestra in the studio to play musical bridges leading from one segment to another. This meant that cuts in the laboratory were impossible because they had already scored the show.  Eventually they scored after each show had been filmed, this also enabled the correction of mistakes before the opening night. 

Casting: Allan Melvin actually auditioned for the role of Private Honnergan (later played by Fred Gwynne) but wound up being cast as Corporal Steve Henshaw. The role of Corporal Rocco Barbella (which eventually went to Harvey Lembeck) was originally given to Buddy Hackett, who Phil had known since his days on the Catskills circuit. However Buddy pulled out when he was offered a role on Broadway in Lunatics & Lovers. During the first season, Paul Ford (Colonel Hall) was also appearing nightly on Broadway as Colonel Wainwright Purdy III in Teahouse of the August Moon. Paul also reprised the role in the 1956 film version.

Paul Ford: Paul was to appear in the movie version of Grease as Principal McGee but sadly died before filming.

Concerning the 1996 film Sergeant Bilko - Steve Martin stars as U.S. Army Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko in this rehash of The Phil Silvers Show – interestingly the role of Lieutenant Monday was given to Cathy Silvers, the daughter of the incomparable Phil. One thing this movie did was rejuvenate interest in the show in the United States. Cable TV station Nick at Nite screened the shows to perhaps three generations of Americans who had never before set eyes on their country's finest sitcom.

In an episode of the superb HBO drama The Sopranos, Tony when seeing his son in his military school uniform, exclaims "Sergeant Bilko"

The show was a big hit overseas. "I go to Italy, and they follow me around and sing under my hotel window," Phil said in 1975.


Bilko writer, Coleman Jacoby, said that The Phil Silvers Show was the first comedy to employ complicated plots.  "Most shows had one plot line for the whole 29 minutes; we had 10 ... turning and twisting, almost like a novel."  Coleman also remembers that unlike Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason and other stars of television's early years, Phil Silvers seldom had much contact with his writers. While the writers were working on one show at the CBS offices on Madison Ave., Phil was rehearsing another one in the studio. Of Nat Hiken, Coleman calls him a "genius" who "would lock himself in his office, and in three hours come up with an entire episode that didn't have one joke in it, but was hilarious. He didn't go for the obvious formula jokes."  Coleman and Arnie Rosen had worked for Jackie Gleason on the DuMont network's Cavalcade of Stars and got fed up when the "Great One" hogged all the credit.  When Phil Silvers tried to do the same thing during an Emmy telecast the audience almost heard a four-letter word that even the producers of the hit movie Scarface wouldn't allow.

Arnie, Coleman and the other writers had gone up to accept an award.  "Phil took the thing out of my hand," Coleman says, and announced that he deserved much of the writing credit for his ideas and ad libs!!

Though he loved the show, and the attention, Phil Silvers thought that by 1972 when he won a Tony for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum he'd be out of the sly sergeant's shadow.  No such luck. "I'll always be Bilko," he said. "Here I am in one of the biggest hits of my career, and ... people on the street yell, `Hi, Sarge!"'

1962 movie, The Manchurian Candidate has some very unusually named, but familiar characters in it........There was James Edwards as Corporal Allen Melvin, Thomas Lowell as Lembeck, Nicky Blair as Silvers, John Laurence as Gossfeld (sic), William Thourlby as Little, Irving Steinberg as Freeman and to cap it all John Francis as Hiken.........I take it John Frankenheimer, director/producer and co-writer of the film, was a huge fan of Bilko!!

  1. On the closing credits, the animated character of Bilko, has his military ribbons on the wrong side of his uniform. Ooooops!!
    On the closing credits, the animated character of Bilko, has his military ribbons on the wrong side of his uniform.  Ooooops!!
Unbelievably, in 1987, a Chinese soldier in Tibet tried to tear off a British woman's ​Bilko T-shirt as he thought the image on it was an insult to the Dalai Lama!​ Kris Tait was on vacation in the town of Gyangste when a soldier on a bicycle noticed her shirt and the likeness of the character Phil played to that of the esteemed religious leader.  She said that the soldier accosted her and tried to rip off the T-shirt, then a mob of Tibetans turned up and began pointing at the image and chanting "Dalai Lama!" Kris, from Seaton in southwest England, commented that she wrenched herself free, crossed her arms across her chest and fled to get a change of clothes.  "I really thought the soldier was going to hurt me or lock me up. It was terrifying." She said. None of the reports said whether the incident occurred during the recent anti-Chinese riots in Tibet.

Phil was of course bald and the Dalai Lama had his head shaven.  The secretary of the Tibetan Society in London, Ugyan Norbu said Tibetans would not have seen the Bilko TV show so they would not have known what the funnyman looked like.  Kris Tait, an avid fan of the show, commented, "Looking back on it, I suppose Phil does look a bit like that Dalai Lama."

  1. As my two pictures show, I don't think so Kris!!
    As my two pictures show, I don't think so Kris!!
  2. Bilko!
    Bilko!
​​Finally.......​

Source: Radio Times Guide to Comedy  

Phil Silvers is 'best sitcom'

The Phil Silvers Show
, starring the late actor Phil Silvers as Sgt Bilko, has been named the top TV sitcom in the Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy. It was one of nine American shows in the top 20 list, while 11 British sitcoms made the cut. 

The guide listed Seinfeld as number two and Fawlty Towers at three. 

"Sgt Bilko is sitcom's high-water mark. In 2005 it'll be 50 years old and yet it is still hilarious," said the guide's compiler, Mark Lewisohn. 

This is the second edition of the Radio Times Guide to Comedy, published on 2 October, bringing together details of more than 3,000 shows including sitcoms, satire, animation and stand-up. 

Top 10 sitcoms 

1. The Phil Silvers Show 
2. Seinfeld 
3. Fawlty Towers 
4. Porridge 
5. Yes Minister 
6. Frasier 
7. M*A*S*H 
8. Til Death Do Us Part 
9. Hancock's Half Hour/Hancock 
10. Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? 

Mr Lewisohn, a TV historian and writer, said he was surprised that the Phil Silvers Show has been "buried in America, while in Britain it is still revered". 

He added: "Seinfeld, second only to Bilko, was also outstanding for most of its 176 half-hours, and though the 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers were sublime, to sustain such excellence week after week, year after year, gives it the nod over the John Cleese Torquay-Hotel-based masterpiece".