If ever a person was born to play a role then Phil Silvers was that man -and that role was of the fast talking, quick thinking, ever scheming Master Sergeant Ernest Bilko - one of the greatest sitcom characters of all time, and arguably the template for every comedic wheeler dealer that followed.
Created in 1955 by Nat Hiken and apparently based on compulsive gambler Silvers himself, the original title for the series was You'll Never Get Rich for the first two months, after which this was demoted to permanent subtitle with the show's re-christening to The Phil Silvers Show and eventually becoming known the world over as simply Bilko. The cunning, work-shy Bilko ran the Motor Pool at Fort Baxter, Kansas - and arguably most of the camp. The master of the money making scam, Ernie would bet on anything and everything whilst keeping an eagle-eye open for his next fortune-making opportunity, be it at the expense of some poor unfortunate, or a talented individual who would be temporarily assigned to his platoon. However, his plans nearly always ended up with him being thwarted at the last moment when the genuinely kind -hearted Ernie would have an attack of conscience.
Corporals Barbella and Henshaw and his company of men ably assisted Bilko in his doomed-to-failure schemes, although it was the quick-thinking and smooth-talking sergeant who provided the highlights of the show as he managed to extricate himself from many a tight corner with his quick wit and razor sharp tongue and a fast line in 'schmaltz' whenever it was needed: "Hello, Miss - oh I'm sorry, the Colonel didn't tell me his daughter was visiting...why! -it's Mrs. Hall!" Silvers wasn't just a master of script delivery and when called for could ad-lib his way round any unforeseen situation or script deviation such as in the show in which Bilko is defending Private Harry Speakup, who is facing a court martial. The joke is that Speakup is a monkey who Bilko has smuggled into Fort Baxter. During a courtroom scene the monkey wanders unrehearsed off to the back of the set. Silvers, without missing a beat, turns to the judge and says; "just a moment sir, I think he's calling for another lawyer" in the process not only bringing the house down but holding the whole scene together.
Love interest for Ernie in the first three seasons was provided by Elisabeth Fraser's WAC Sgt. Joan Hogan, a secretary in the camp commanders office, thereby giving Ernie another advantage over the rest of the camp as he would be forewarned of any new schemes that were about to be implemented, and could use this knowledge to dupe his victims, the most likeliest of which was Mess Sgt Rupert Ritzik.
An excellent supporting cast (Paul Ford as the bewildered Colonel Hall, always trying to catch Ernie out -never succeeding, and Maurice Gosfield as the quintessential slob -Private Duane Doberman), and guest artist appearances by the up and coming such as Dick Van Dyke and Alan Alda -or superstars of the time such as Bing Crosby, gave Silvers ample support, but in the end this was his show and he knew it. However, the indelible impression made upon the viewing consciousness of the world by the Bilko characterisation would ultimately prove to be a double-edged sword for Silvers. In later years whenever Silver's made guest appearances in feature films such as Carry On Follow That Camel (where he stood in for recovering heart-attack victim, Sid James) or TV shows such as Happy Days (in which he played the father of Jenny Piccalo, who was played by his real-life daughter, Cathy Silvers), it was always to portray a Bilko-esque type character.
The series also gave an opportunity to up and coming playwright Neil Simon and the casting director for the series was former World Boxing Champion Rocky Graziano, whose real name, Rocco Barbella, was used as one of Bilko's corporals, while the memorable name of the central character was supposedly adopted by creator Nat Hiken from his real-life sporting hero, baseball player Steve Bilko.
Four years after the series finished Bilko returned in the form of Harry Grafton, a factory foreman in The New Phil Silvers Show, but the show lasted only one season, overshadowed and ultimately haunted, like everything else Silvers ever did, by the runaway success of his greatest half-hours. Phil Silvers died in 1985 after years of clinical depression. A feature movie in 1996 with Steve Martin in the lead role hopelessly attempted to recapture the magic of one of the greatest (some say the greatest) sitcom characters of all time, proving once and for all that it was the unique combination of actor and character that elevated the show beyond the realms of 'ordinary sitcom.' Like Lennon and McCartney, each possessed its own definite talent...it was the combination that added the magic.
Although the show finished in 1959 it can still be seen today on television channels around the world as it continues to entertain generation after generation in endless re-runs, proving that good comedy...really good comedy, allied to the perfect actor for the perfect character, is ageless, enduring, and all too rare.
CBS cancelled the series in 1959 in order to sell the show into syndication while it was still hot property.
The last episode finishes with Bilko in jail, put there at last by Colonel Hall.
Unfortunately, few of the supporting cast were heard of again.
In 1961 Hanna-Barbera created the children's cartoon series 'Top Cat' which modelled its animated characters on some of the Bilko ones; in particular Top Cat himself and Benny The Ball-who was voiced by Maurice Gosfield-the actor who played Doberman in The Phil Slivers Show.
Published on January 18th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus & SRH (1999) for Television Heaven.