Bilko, you’re a gambler, a sharpster, a promoter. You’re everything I’m here to prevent soldiers from becoming… I don’t know why I worry about your soul. You’ll probably talk your way into heaven.
— Fort Baxter Chaplin (John Gibson)
Phil Silver’s Master-Sergeant Ernest “Ernie” T. Bilko was a comic creation on par with John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty. A classic fast-talking schemester with a couple of endearingly fatal flaws, Bilko was either just a little too greedy or a little too decent for his own good. In 2003, when the BBC’s Radio Times published a definitive guide to television comedy, it named Bilko the greatest situation comedy of all time. It was a shame neither Phil Silvers nor Nat Hiken lived to see the day.
This wasn’t the first award for Bilko. Launched in 1955, it quickly became America’s number one comedy and during its four-season run, won three consecutive Emmy Awards for Best Comedy Series and many more for Silvers. In the decades since, however, this marvelous show seems to have been largely forgotten in the U.S., if not elsewhere in the world. Released a little late — Bilko premiered in September 1955 — Sergeant Bilko – 50th Anniversary Edition (The Phil Silvers Show) presents just 18 of the 143 Bilko episodes made for CBS in the late ’50s, including the first show and the last. It’s a remarkable tribute to the series. The additional features are genuinely watchable and, like the show itself, re-watchable.
We re-organised the entire layout of the post. Removed buildings. Blocked off streets. So that no rookie, even by accident could ever get near Bilko.
— Colonel J.T. Hall (Paul Ford)
The first episode, “New Recruits”, is a wonderful introduction, establishing not only characters and set-up, but also the series’ underlying morality. Cheated at poker by his fellow sergeants, Bilko plots to separate a bunch of new recruits from their cash in order to fund his revenge. But when they naïvely ask him to hold their money safe for them, he finds he cannot betray their trust. It turns out that the original Bilko audition show, which had been believed lost, is a full dry run through the script of “New Recruits”. Although it’s worth the entrance money just to learn than Private Doberman started life as Private Mulrooney, this show also allows provides a unique opportunity to compare and contrast two different performances of the same material by Phil Silvers. In his role as the doyen of the Fort Baxter motor pool, Silvers delivered physical and verbal comedy of the very highest standard, and in these two shows, you can see a master of his art exploring the possibilities of his script even as he performs it.
My acceptance comes from the Bible. First came the word. I wish to publicly acknowledge with gratefulness, Mr. Nat Hiken, who put these wonderful words in my mouth.
— Phil Silvers, accepting his third Emmy in 1956
Phil Silvers had been around for years before Bilko, in burlesque and vaudeville, on Broadway and in the movies. He’d even won a Tony Award for his performance in Top Banana, a Broadway play about a TV comic. But it wasn’t until he MC’d a CBS dinner in 1954, that he was given the chance to star in his own TV show. According to legend, CBS paid writer Ned Hiken to — essentially — “hang out” with the reluctant Silvers and develop that show for him. The two New York Jewish comedians combined perfectly to make Bilko an eternal pleasure. Silvers was sensational, his delivery, timing, and ad-libbing all sharp. Hiken provided the bullets. Lots of them. His scripts were jam-packed with words, ideas, and laughs. A Bilko show may have only been 30 minutes long, but even today, they seem to burst at the seams compared to other shows.
Hiken wrote and produced the first 71 episodes of Bilko, before withdrawing from the frantic pace of the production cycle. The conventional wisdom is that the show began to deteriorate from the moment he left, and Paramount seems to concur. Of the 18 episodes featured in this collection, all but four hail from the Hiken era, and it’s clear that his successors, including a young Neil Simon, were soon struggling for ideas. Would Hiken have fared any better? Perhaps not, but I suspect he would have avoided some of the unconvincing changes that were introduced in an effort to keep Bilko “fresh.”
You always know a sitcom is in trouble when it abandons its sit. Or when it drags in big name guest stars by the boatload. After Hiken departed, Bilko showed all the signs, as three of the four non-Hiken shows here demonstrate. “Bilko the Art Lover” sends the Master-Sergeant to savour the Manhattan high life, while “Bilko Joins the Navy” sees him mistakenly shipped off to Alaska on an aircraft carrier. In “Hillbilly Whiz”, Bilko tries to sell a new recruit (Dick Van Dyke) to the New York Yankees, and Yogi Berra makes a cameo appearance.
Having broken the cardinal rule of all sitcom by sending Bilko off into storylines that had nothing to do with army life or the motor pool, the new production team then moved the entire camp from Kansas to California. A show that seemed unbreakable in its original minimalist setting began to creak and groan. Before the whole thing came crashing down around their ears, CBS cancelled Bilko at the end of its fourth cycle. The final episode was “Weekend Colonel” and, with sad inevitability, it featured Paul Ford in two roles: Colonel Hall and his disreputable double, a short-order chef at a greasy spoon. If this tired doppelganger gambit was the best the writers could manage, then the network was obviously right. The last scene had the Colonel watching Bilko on closed circuit TV. Having finally been caught out, the Master-Sergeant was behind bars. The Colonel calls this his favorite TV show and comments, “As long as I’m the sponsor, it’ll never be cancelled.” The camera zooms in on Phil Silvers just in time for a Bugs Bunny impression, “Th-th-that’s all folks!”
At its peak, Bilko was a marvel. Even though the show slowly disintegrated under the pressure of producing 35 episodes a year, it still stands today as the best sitcom of all time. After all, Fawlty Towers produced just twelve episodes in total. Six in 1975. Six more in 1979.
After withdrawing from Bilko, Nat Hiken went on to write and produce Car 54, Where Are You?, which starred Fred Gwynne and Joe E. Ross. Gwynne had made his TV debut in the Bilko episode “The Eating Contest”, featured in this collection, and Ross had played Mess-Sergeant Rupert Ritzik in Bilko. Phil Silvers saw further success both in the movies and TV, but nothing, not even The New Phil Silvers Show, a flawed attempt to recreate the Bilko magic in Civvy Street, could bring back the glory days.
It’s said that Silvers died a bitter man in 1985. Ten years later, the British writer and director Jonathan Lynn directed a Hollywood movie of Bilko. Obviously a man who knows his way around great sitcoms, Lynn was the creator of Yes, Minister. His movie, which starred Steve Martin as Bilko, Dan Ackroyd as Colonel Hall, and Phil Hartman, may not have been the triumph its source material deserved, but it did trigger a renewal of American interest in Bilko and prompted Nick at Nite to air re-runs. Presumably Paramount is now using the release of Sergeant Bilko – 50th Anniversary Edition (The Phil Silvers Show) to test the market for a bumper release of the entire Bilko catalog. Let’s hope the company decides to follow through.