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.
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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
1955-59 You'll Never Get Rich (became The Phil Silvers Show,
1963-64 The New Phil Silvers Show
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
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.
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.
Laugh Is on Me: The Phil Silvers Story, with Robert Saffron.
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1973.
David. "Kingmaker of Comedy." Television Quarterly (New York),
"The Man Behind the Chutzpah of Master Sgt. Ernest Bilko." New
York Times, 14 April 1996.
Darrell Y. Nervous Laughter: Television Situation Comedy and
Liberal Democratic Ideology. New York: Praeger, 1989.
John. The Best of TV Sitcoms: Burns and Allen to the Cosby Show,
The Munsters to Mary Tyler Moore. New York: Harmony Books, 1988.
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.
Silvers Show; Workplace