SILVERS, PHIL

U.S. Actor/Comedian

Phil Silvers was one of the great stars for CBS television during the late 1950s. Already a minor star on the vaudeville stage and in motion pictures, Silvers created, with writer-producer Nat Hiken, a pioneering television situation comedy, You'll Never Get Rich. In this satirical look at life in the United States Army Silvers played Sergeant Ernest Bilko, the con-man with a heart of gold.

You'll Never Get Rich premiered on CBS-TV at the beginning of the 1955-56 TV season, and soon became a hit. For three years, as CBS took command of the primetime ratings race, You'll Never Get Rich was a fixture in the 8:00 P.M. Tuesday night time slot. Between 1955 and 1958 the show was highly rated, and its success spelled the end of Milton Berle's Tuesday night reign on rival NBC.

As played by Silvers, Bilko was an Army lifer, a motor pool master sergeant at isolated Fort Baxter located near the fictional Army small town Roseville, Kansas. The show was a send up of Army life (or of any existence within any confined and rigid society) and loved by ex-GIs of World War II and the Korean conflict, a generation still close to its own military experiences, and willing to laugh at them. With little to do in the U.S. Army of the Cold War era and stuck in the wide open spaces of rural Kansas, Ernest "Ernie" Bilko spent most of his time planning and trying one elaborate scam after another. Always, but predictably always, they failed. Bilko was never able to make that one big score. But the comedy came in the trying.

His platoon, played by a cast of wonderful ex-burlesque comics and aspiring New York actors, reluctantly assisted him. His right hand henchmen, the corporals Barbella and Henshaw, were ever by his side. The remainder of the group, following the pattern of numerous World War II films, seemed to have a man from every ethnic group: the brassy New Yorker, Private Fender, the Italian city boy, Private Paparelli, the high strung country lad, Private Zimmerman, and the loveable slob, Private Doberman. Others who manned the platoon included black actors in a rare, racially integrated TV situation comedy telecast in the 1950s.

If Silvers was the show's star, Nat Hiken, one of television's first writer-producers, was its creator-auteur. Hiken had first written for Fred Allen's hit radio show, then moved to television to help pen Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater. His scripts provided a mine of comic gems for Bilko and company. Possibly the funniest was "The Case of Harry Speakup," in which a Bilko scheme backfires and he is forced to help induct a chimpanzee into the Army. Only Bilko could run such a recruit past Army doctors and psychiatrists, have him pass an IQ test and receive a uniform, be formally sworn in as a private, and then moments later honorably discharged. No bureaucracy has ever been spoofed better than was the Cold War U.S. Army in this 26-minute comic masterpiece.

Nat Hiken did more than write wonderfully funny scripts. As a producer he had an eye for talent. Guests on You'll Never Get Rich included a young Fred Gwynne in "The Eating Contest" (first telecast on 15 November 1955), a youthful Dick Van Dyke in "Bilko's Cousin" (first telecast on 28 January 1958), and Alan Alda in his first significant TV role in "Bilko, the Art Lover" (first telecast on 7 March 1958).

You'll Never Get Rich shot up in the ratings, and less than two months after the premiere was renamed--not surprisingly, The Phil Silvers Show, with "You'll Never Get Rich" thereafter relegated to the subtitle. So popular was this show that in September 1957, as it started its second season, it inspired one of television's first paperback collections of published scripts.

Yet as would be the case for television since the 1950s, the Bilko magic fell out of primetime favor almost as swiftly as it had seized the public's fascination. The end began in 1958 when CBS switched The Phil Silvers Show to Friday nights and moved Bilko and company to Camp Fremont in California. A year later the show was off the schedule, and since then has functioned as staple in syndication around the world. Phil Silvers had had his four year run in television's spotlight.

He would find it again--briefly--in the 1963-64 television season CBS tried The New Phil Silvers Show, a knockoff of the earlier program. Here, Silvers played Harry Grafton, a plant foreman, trying (unsuccessfully) to get rich. It lasted but a single season and thereafter Silvers filled out his career doing occasional TV specials.

But Silvers--and Nat Hiken--should always be remembered for their pioneering work with You'll Never Get Rich. This show hardly dates at all; its comic speed, invention, and ensemble performances rank it among television's greatest comic masterworks.

-Douglas Gomery

 


Phil Silvers

PHIL SILVERS. Born Phillip Silversmith in Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A., 11 May 1912. Married: 1) Jo Carroll Dennison (divorced); 2) Evelyn Patrick (divorced); five daughters. Started career as vaudeville singer; became comedian in burlesque, then on Broadway; made screen debut in The Hit Parade, 1940; gained fame for television show The Phil Silvers Show, CBS, 1955-59. Recipient: Tony Awards, 1952 and 1972; Emmy Awards, 1955 and 1956. Died, in Los Angeles, 1 November 1985.

TELEVISION SERIES

1955-59 You'll Never Get Rich (became The Phil Silvers              Show, 1955)
1963-64 The New Phil Silvers Show

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1975 The Deadly Tide
1975 All Trails Lead to Las Vegas
1977 The New Love Boat
1978 The Night They Took Miss Beautiful
1979 'Hey Abbott!'
1979 Goldie and the Boxer

FILMS

The Hit Parade, 1940; Strike Up the Band, 1940; Pride and Prejudice, 1940; Ball of Fire, 1941; The Penalty, 1941; The Wild Man of Borneo, 1941; Ice Capades, 1941; Tom, Dick and Harry, 1941; Lady Be Good, 1941; You're in the Army Now, 1941; Roxie Hart, 1942; All Through the Night, 1942; Tales of the Night, 1942; My Gal Sal, 1942; Footlight Serenade, 1942; Just Off Broadway, 1942; Coney Island, 1943; A Lady Takes a Chance, 1943; Cover Girl, 1944; Four Jills in a Jeep, 1944; Something for the Boys, 1944; Take It or Leave It, 1944; Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe, 1945; A Thousand and One Nights, 1945; If I'm Lucky, 1946; Summer Stock, 1950; Top Banana, 1952; Lucky Me; 1956; 40 Pounds of Trouble, 1962; It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, 1963; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1966; Follow that Camel, 1967; Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, 1968; The Boatniks, 1970; The Strongest Man in the World, 1975; Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood, 1975; Murder By Death, 1976; The Chicken Chronicles, 1976; Racquet, 1978; The Cheap Detective, 1979; The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington, 1980; Hollywood Blue, 1980; A Guide for the Married Man, 1967; There Goes the Bride, 1979.

STAGE (selection)

Yokel Boy, 1939; High Button Shoes, 1947; Top Banana, 1952; Do Re Mi, 1960, 1962; How the Other Half Lives, 1971; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1971-72.

PUBLICATION

This Laugh Is on Me: The Phil Silvers Story, with Robert Saffron. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

FURTHER READING

Everitt, David. "Kingmaker of Comedy." Television Quarterly (New York), Summer 1990.

_______________. "The Man Behind the Chutzpah of Master Sgt. Ernest Bilko." New York Times, 14 April 1996.

Hamamoto, Darrell Y. Nervous Laughter: Television Situation Comedy and Liberal Democratic Ideology. New York: Praeger, 1989.

Javna, John. The Best of TV Sitcoms: Burns and Allen to the Cosby Show, The Munsters to Mary Tyler Moore. New York: Harmony Books, 1988.

Marc, David. Demographic Vistas: Television in American Culture. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.

____________. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. Boston, Massachusetts: Unwin-Hyman, 1989.

 

See also Comedy, Workplace; Phil Silvers Show; Workplace Programs