10 golden things you might not know about 'The Phil Silvers Show'
President Eisenhower, Seinfeld and the United Kingdom all love Sgt. Bilko.
The Phil Silvers Show had more aliases than a spy on Get Smart. When the sitcom premiered in 1955, it was titled You'll Never Get Rich. In reruns, it was often labeled Sgt. Bilko, a moniker often used by fans as well. Whatever you call it, The Phil Silvers Show was genius. Dense with dialogue, characters and complex plots, the series was ahead of its time.
Here are 10 intriguing tidbits that make The Phil Silvers Show pure gold.
1. IT WAS SHOT IN NEW YORK CITY, NOT HOLLYWOOD.
Though set in Fort Baxter, Kansas, the sitcom stayed close to Silvers' roots. The star was a Brooklyn native with experience in vaudeville and Broadway. The show was filmed in New York City at the insistence of creator/producer/writer Nat Hiken. The industry was moving to Los Angeles, but Hiken believed that the Big Apple was more fertile comic soil. Eventually, production moved to a studio in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, in a building that was formerly the armory of the Ninth Mounted Cavalry. So it was a military setting after all.
2. IT WAS FILMED LIVE — FOR BETTER AND WORSE.
At its start, the show was rehearsed and performed straight through, like a play, and recorded to film, not video, on three cameras. This environment allowed Silvers to ad-lib. However, other performers were not so adept at improv. Paul Ford (Col. Hall) and especially Maurice Gosfield (the adored Pvt. Doberman) were notorious for flubbing and forgetting lines. Silvers filled the gaps and cracks with his ace abilities.
3. IT INSPIRED A HANNA-BARBERA CARTOON, 'SEINFELD' AND 'THE OFFICE.'
Seinfeld is an example of a massive American show that never quite clicked with audiences in England. This is despite the fact that Seinfeld co-creator Larry David cites The Phil Silvers Show as his favorite. The scheming, deceptive character of Bilko and the complex plots would clearly trickle down into the concepts of Seinfeld. Here is David discussing the show with Ricky Gervais. Yet Hanna-Barbera was more than inspired by the black-and-white classic. The animation studio turned Phil Silvers into a cartoon called Top Cat. Maurice Gosfield (Pvt. Doberman) even voiced the character of Benny the Ball, the feline analogue to his original character.
Image: Hanna-Barbera Productions / Screen Gems
4. PRESIDENT EISENHOWER WAS A FAN.
Early in the show's run, White House Press Secretary James Hagerty sent a message to the network: "The Old Man missed last night's show." Naturally, a print of the episode was quickly shipped to the POTUS and war hero.
Image: AP Photo
5. IT WAS INCREDIBLY POPULAR IN THE U.K.
Not all American comedy translates to a British audience, and vice versa. Yet, The Phil Silvers Show clicked with the Brits. After its original run on BBC and reruns on ITV, the series became a late-night staple on BBC One in the '70s and '80s. It stayed on the BBC until 2004 — an amazing half-century run.
6. SGT. BILKO WAS NAMED AFTER A CUBS FIRST BASEMAN.
Hiken was a baseball fan. He borrowed the surname of Steve Bilko, a star of the Pacific Coast League and sometime Major Leaguer, for Staff Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko. In 1954, Bilko played for the Chicago Cubs, and was immortalized when announcer Bert Wilson called a double play involving Ernie Banks, Gene Baker and Bilko — "Bingo to Bango to Bilko."
7. THE SHOW WAS ALMOST ABOUT BASEBALL.
Speaking of America's Pastime, the sport almost became the premise of The Phil Silvers Show. A military setting was the first notion of Hiken and Silvers, but they instead grew enamored with the idea of having Bilko manage a minor league baseball team. Bilko was later also conceptualized as a stockbroker and a gym manager, before going back to square one on an Army base when the show was pitched to the network.
8. NAT HIKEN WAS A VISIONARY.
Hiken has already been mentioned, but he deserves special notice. The Chicago-born screenwriter initially wrote the entire scripts himself — though that lasted just a couple episodes before he realized he needed help to crank out a half hour of material each week. Still, his vision was crucial to the success of the show. Hiken was adamant on casting minorities, despite the protest of some Southern stations and sponsors. He was as stickler for detail, too. As the cast and crew were preparing to film the first episode, the costume uniforms arrived in pristine condition. Hiken was upset that the crisp look did not match the ragtag nature of the platoon, so he had the actors roll around on the floor, in uniforms, to achieve a properly scruffy look.
Image: AP Photo
9. THE SHOW CHANGED RADICALLY IN 1958.
Near the end of its run, in its fourth and final season, The Phil Silvers Show changed setting from Kansas to California. Part of the reason was to allow the plausibility of Hollywood guest stars. The look of the show became more Hollywood as well, as the standard three-camera sitcom format was replaced with a glossier single-camera approach, giving the show a more cinematic vibe. The sitcom industry in general wouldn't make that stylistic leap until the new millennium.
10. IT ENDED BECAUSE ITS CAST WAS MASSIVE.
Though the show was cut after its fourth season, it was not due to failure or sagging ratings. The principle reason was the show's deep cast. There were 22 regular cast members that would need new contracts. In the end, The Phil Silvers Show was too sprawling and rich for its own survival.