Phil Silvers Show, a half-hour comedy series, first ran on CBS
from September 1955 to September 1959. The show's original title
was You'll Never Get Rich, but this name was dropped shortly
after its debut. Since its inception the series has also been commonly
referred to as "Sergeant Bilko."
program's 138 episodes trace the minor victories and misfortunes
of the scheming, fast-talking Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko (Phil
Silvers), head of the motor pool at the mythical U.S. army station
of Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas. In his relentless pursuit of
personal gain and physical comfort, Bilko attempts to manipulate
those around him through the selective use of flattery, false na´vetÚ,
pulling rank, and a canny ability to identify and stimulate desires,
weaknesses and emotions in others. Although his reputation for masterful
chicanery is well known around the base, the other characters in
the show prove no match for Bilko's complex mental designs and are
ultimately unable to avoid following the course of action he desires.
In his attempts to buck the system, Bilko is aided by his platoon-members:
a motley collection of blue collar, "ethnic" Americans whose own
distaste for military discipline is displayed through their visible
admiration for their brilliant leader.
from money and favors won in poker games and elaborate rackets,
however, Bilko never benefits at the expense of others. Faced with
innocent victims, the Sergeant's conscience kicks in and he expends
every mental resource to resolve the problem. Bilko's one redeeming
moral quality, therefore, is his heart of gold, which prevents him
both from truly prospering or losing his humanity.
unforeseen obstacles to Bilko's strategies arise out of a misunderstanding
between the principal characters. Much of the program's humor derives
from Bilko's incomplete knowledge of a situation--the audience watches
as he unwittingly makes matters worse for himself, before realizing
his error and having to employ his quick thinking in order to make
amends. Sharp dialogue and tightly woven plot lines (involving absurd,
but believable, situations), combined with a heavy emphasis on visual
comedy, made The Phil Silvers Show one of the most popular
and critically-acclaimed sitcoms of the 1950s.
The series developed as a collaboration between Silvers, a Brooklyn-born
veteran of vaudeville, Broadway, and motion pictures, and Nat Hiken,
the show's unassuming head writer, producer, and stage director.
Hiken had already earned a reputation for superb radio and TV comedy
writing for such celebrities as Fred Allen and Martha Raye. Silvers
and Hiken were given tremendous creative license by CBS to devise
and cast the show. The two creators experimented with numerous settings
and narrative structures before deciding on a military location,
a Bilko-centered narrative trajectory, and a colorful coterie of
supporting characters. In the spring of 1955, filming began at the
DuMont studios in New York. CBS confidence in the production was
such that twenty episodes were in the can prior to the show's broadcast
debut in the fall. The network's magnanimity is understandable given
that Bilko neatly fit the successful formula upon which CBS had
built its television reputation: a half-hour situation comedy series
written as a vehicle for an established performer.
Phil Silvers Show was initially recorded live on film using
a three camera set-up. Post-production was minimal, giving the final
program a spontaneous, no-frills appeal despite its celluloid status.
As the series developed, the storylines often incorporated outside
characters who were portrayed by guest celebrities. Mike Todd appeared
in one 1958 episode, insisting that it be shot using a movie-style,
one camera production process. Cast and crew found appealing the
more relaxed shooting schedule this engendered, and the show subsequently
adopted this filming technique permanently. This meant that the
scenes would be shot throughout the week and later edited together
in order. Consequently, the studio audience disappeared, requiring
the recording of a laughtrack at a weekly screening of the final
being scheduled against NBC's Tuesday night powerhouse Milton Berle,
The Phil Silvers Show quickly attracted viewers and passed
Berle in the ratings within a few months. The show's popularity
was matched by great critical acclaim. Along with a bevy of other
awards, the series won five Emmies in its first season on the air,
and more were to follow over the next couple of years. Nevertheless,
the drain of weekly programming eventually began to take its toll.
Hiken's total commitment to the show proved physically and creatively
exhausting and he left the series in 1957 to pursue less hectic
projects. By the spring of 1959, when CBS announced its forthcoming
cancellation of the series, Silvers too was complaining of fatigue
induced by the show's grueling routine. Bending under the weight
of the twenty-two cast members' salaries, CBS canceled the still
popular series in order to maximize its syndication price and potential.
The Phil Silvers Show
Sergeant Bilko, Hiken and Silvers collaborated on several hour-long
musical specials for CBS at the end of the 1950s. While the actor
then returned to the stage and big screen, Hiken achieved another
TV comedy hit with Car 54, Where Are You? In 1963, attracted
by a lucrative financial offer from CBS, Silvers attempted to recapture
his earlier television success with The New Phil Silvers Show.
This series transferred the Bilko scenario to a civilian setting:
Silvers played Harry Grafton, a crafty, wheeling-dealing maintenance
superintendent at an industrial plant. Grafton lacked Bilko's magical
presence and any of his redeeming values; the series floundered
in the ratings and was canceled in its first season. The Bilko formula
was more successfully reinvoked in the early 1960s in the form of
the ABC cartoon Top Cat. This prime time animation featured
the voice of Maurice Gosfield--who had played the slothful audience
favorite Duane Doberman in The Phil Silvers Show--as Benny
Bilko" has proven instrumental in inspiring a whole genre of male-dominated,
uniformed, non-domestic sitcoms over the decades since its original
broadcast. Such series as McHale's Navy, Hennesey, M*A*S*H,
and At Ease (a banal, short-lived Eighties' imitation), to
name only few, have clearly attempted to emulate its successful
blend of distinctive, engaging characters and first-class writing.
A 1996 movie, Sergeant Bilko, starred Steve Martin in the title
Sergeant Ernie Bilko ..........................Phil Silvers
Corporal Rocco Barbella....................... Harvey Lembeck
Private Sam Fender.................................... Herbie
Faye Colonel John Hall...........................................
Paul Ford Private Duane Doberman...................... Maurice
Gosfleld Sergeant Rupert Ritzik................................
Joe E. Ross Corporal Henshaw.......................................
Allan Melvin Private Dino Paparelli...................................
Billy Sands Private Zimmerman ..............................Mickey
Freeman Nell Hall...............................................
Hope Sansberry Sergeant Grover.........................................
Jimmy Little Sergeant Joan Hogan (1956-1958)......... Elisabeth
Edward J. Montagne, Aaron Ruben, Nat Hiken
PROGRAMMING HISTORY 138 Episodes
September 1955-October 1955
Tuesday 8:30-9:00 November 1955-February 1958 Tuesday
8:00-8:30 February 1958-September 1959 Friday
Drury, Michael. "Backstage with Phil Silvers." Colliers (New
York), 11 May 1956.
Freeman, Mickey, and Sholom Rubinstein. "But Sarge... Behind the
Lines with Sgt. Bilko." Television Quarterly (New York) 1986.
Nat, Files, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison.
Phil, with Robert Saffron. This Laugh is on Me: The Phil Silvers
Story. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1973.
"Taps for Sergeant Bilko." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania)
16 May 1959.