One of the cold war's hottest television shows, wasn't a taught drama about the delicate balance of military might between nuclear superpowers, but a raucus, khaki clad, comedy about the Army's most dangerous weapon : a cunning, non-com, con man who could liberate all of the cash that any unsuspecting target had in his wallet.
On September 20, 1955, at 8:30pm Eastern Time,CBS-TV introduced America to quick witted, fast talking, Army M/Sgt, Ernie Bilko,and his company of comic co-conspirators.
In a military sitcom called YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH , the was almost instantly retitled,THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW, the balding , bespectacled comedian found the role of a lifetime, playing Bilko. He was the scheming head of the motor pool unit at the fictional , Fort Baxter in Roseville , Kansas.
A star in nightclubs, vaudeville, radio and on Broadway, Silvers had only moderate success in films, usually cast as a secondary character who provided comic relief in a musical or drama. The role of Ernie Bilko on television made him a national sensation and the persona he crafted to portray the crafty, kinetic character was his trademark for the balance of his career.
The show, created and produced by Nat Hiken, always took Bilko's scheming right to the edge of a moral dilemma, but the con-artist's conscious always overpowered his greed. Hiken, who went on to produce NBC's CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU? , was supported behind the scenes, by two accomplished video veterans, Aaron Ruben (Your Show of Shows, The Andy Griffith Show) and Edward J. Montaigne ( McHale's Navy).
Young comedy writers were desperate to work on The Phil Silvers Show, vying for the chance to create high velocity laughs born of the intricate scams Bilko would perpetrate every week.Even though the series was set in Kansas, it was written and produced in Manhattan.Bilko offered All-American, Army Camp comedy with a New York accent.
The show had an agile,adept ensemble cast including, sitcom stalwarts, Harvey Lembeck and Allan Melvin, plus disheveled Maurice Gosfeld as bellicose Pvt. Wayne Doberman, a sad sack incarnate.Paul Ford played Bilko's Boss, the dour and dyspeptic,Col. Hall.There were early guest performances by Dick Van Dyke and George Kennedy.
The show, actually beat Milton Berle's Tuesday night, video variety show in the national ratings. Watching Berle ,an old friend of Silvers, on NBC-TV was ritual viewing for millions of Americans. Bilko ran until September 1959 on the Tiffany Network.
It wasn't a loss of audience that ended the run of EMMY award winning show, but the financial weight of a show with so-large a cast, plus the fatigue of Silvers and the producers, who had to maintain high quality, high energy comedy for 39 weeks, every TV season.
Below, we've posted three clips which constitute the debut episode of THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW. Keep scrolling down and you'll find bonus excerpts of two musical /variety specials Phil Silvers did for CBS-TV, in which he again portrayed Ernie Bilko. Enjoy!!!!!
THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW:YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH - CBS-TV - SEPTEMBER 20, 1955 - SERIES DEBUT - PART ONE
THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW:YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH - CBS-TV - SEPTEMBER 20, 1955 - SERIES DEBUT - PART TWO
THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW:YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH - CBS-TV - SEPTEMBER 20, 1955 - SERIES DEBUT - PART THREE
BILKO ON BROADWAY - CBS-TV - MAY 13, 1958
KEEP IN STEP - CBS-TV - JANUARY 23, 1959