Another comedy gem from Nat Hiken, the man bought us The Phil Silvers Show (aka Bilko), arguably the best US sitcom of all time. Here Hiken switched the focus from army officers to police officers as they cruised the streets of the 53rd precinct, the Bronx, in their patrol car, with similar hilarious results.
The lead characters were played by Fred Gwynne as the tall and sombre Francis Muldoon, and his hopelessly dim-witted partner, Gunther Toody, was played by Joe E. Ross who had previously been seen as Bilko's regular foil, Rupert Ritzik. Hiken even retained some of the old Bilko chemistry by employing actress Beatrice Pons to appear as Ross's wife, as she had done back at Fort Baxter (Ross also retained the habit of saying 'Ooh, ooh' whenever an idea struck him). Fred Gwynne had been cast in a single first season episode of Bilko as Pvt. Honergan, a soldier who Bilko bets on to win an eating contest after he discovers that Honergan is a champion scoffer known as 'The Stomach'. Other Bilko regulars would appear in guest roles in Car 54 and the sharp eyed viewer could pick up on a number of Bilko references. One first season episode, 'The Paint Job' starred Al Lewis and Billy Sands who had starred in The Phil Silvers Show as Pvt. Dino Paparelli. In this story the two guest stars play a couple of crooked garage hands who do quick repaint jobs on stolen vehicles. The garage is called 'Fender' - a part of a car, but also conveniently the name of a regular character form Bilko.
Following on from his guest shots on the series Al Lewis would be given a regular part in Car 54. Nat Hiken created the role of officer Leo Schnauser for him and he played this part for the next two years. Lewis and Gwynne in particular seemed to have an on screen chemistry that worked really well and were later first choice castings for another US comedy classic, The Munsters. As a producer, Nat Hiken, known as the King of Comedy, had a wonderful eye for new talent. As well as discovering his lead stars on Car 54, Where Are You? he is also credited with discovering and advancing the TV careers of Alan Alda (who also made his TV debut on The Phil Silvers Show), and Dick Van Dyke. A television pioneer, Hiken worked with such major figures as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, wrote material for Milton Berle, Bette Davis, Carol Burnett, and Lucille Ball and along the way picked up eight Emmy Awards.
Trivia: Although the officers patrol cars looked identical to those used by real New York cops-it was in fact, painted red and white to avoid confusion with the public when being shot on location. The series was filmed in monochrome and so on television the cars appeared to be black and white.
Published on December 3rd, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.