The Phil Silvers Show
The Phil Silvers Show: Sgt. Bilko – The Twitch
The Phil Silvers Show, originally titled You’ll Never Get Rich, was a sitcom which ran on CBS from 1955 to 1959 for 142 episodes, plus a 1959 special. The series starred Phil Silvers as Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko of the United States Army.
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.
By 1955, the American television business was already moving westward to Los Angeles, but Nat Hiken insisted on filming the series in New York City, 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-TV – with later episodes shot at the CBS “Hi Brown” Studios in Chelsea, Manhattan.
Most of the series was filmed to simulate a live performance. The actors memorized their lines, 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.
The series was originally set in Fort Baxter, a sleepy, unremarkable U.S. Army post in the fictional town of Roseville, Kansas, and centered on the soldiers of the Fort Baxter motor pool under Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko. However, Bilko and his men seemed to spend very little time actually performing their duties—Bilko in particular spent most of his time trying to wheedle money through various get-rich-quick scams and promotions, or to find ways to get others to do his work for him.
While Bilko’s soldiers regularly helped him with his schemes, they were just as likely to become “pigeons” in one of his schemes. Nevertheless, 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 generally loyal to Bilko despite their wariness of his crafty nature, and would depend on him to get them out of any military misfortune or outside mistreatment. In such circumstances, Bilko would employ the same psychological guile and chicanery he always used to outwit his suckers, but for good purposes.
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.
Bilko and Hall were not always adversaries. In a famous 1956 episode, “The Case of Private Harry Speakup”, Bilko tries to help the Colonel set a speed record for inducting new recruits, which accidentally results in a recruit’s pet chimpanzee (whose failure to answer when addressed, “Hurry! Speak Up!” gets mistaken for his name) passing the medical and psychiatric exams, receiving a uniform, being formally sworn in, then honorably discharged minutes later to cover up the mistake.
The show’s setting changed with the fourth season, when the men of Fort Baxter were reassigned to Camp Fremont in California. This mass transfer was explained in storyline as being orchestrated by Bilko, who had discovered a map showing a gold deposit near the abandoned army post. One reason for the change from Kansas was so that the series could more plausibly bring in guest stars from nearby Hollywood, such as Dean Martin, Mickey Rooney, Diana Dors and Lucille Ball. Silvers even played himself in an hourlong episode.
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 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, and Mickey Freeman as diminutive Pvt. Fielding Zimmerman. Other characters included Jack Healy as the tough-talking Pvt. Mullen, 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 more than any notable decline in ratings which led to the show’s demise in 1959. Though The Phil Silvers Show was never a huge ratings magnet, it was considered the top television comedy of its time. The show was Emmy Award-nominated for both Comedy Writing and Best Series in all four of its seasons, winning both awards in 1956, 1957, and 1958. The series received nine other nominations during its run, with Silvers winning one individual Emmy for his performance, and Nat Hiken winning one for direction. As Silvers later recalled, “We went out at our height.”
Guest stars included Dick Van Dyke, Eric Fleming, Fred Gwynne, Alan Alda, Paul Reed, Suzanne Storrs, Darry Richard, 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.
George Kennedy was the show’s US Army technical adviser; he had roles as a military policeman in several episodes.
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.
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 follow-up 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 The Beverly Hillbillies as a character called Honest John. He also played unscrupulous Broadway producer Harold Hecuba on an episode of Gilligan’s Island, stealing 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, in which Ford had a supporting role, interestingly enough as a colonel, though they shared no scenes, 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 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 in the late 1980’s on the fledgling cable channel Comedy Central, then again on Nick at Nite for a short time during the 1990s (serving as charter programming for TV Land in 1996). Currently, it can be seen on Me-TV (a network broadcast on secondary television channels in many markets).