June 11, 2022



(CBS, September 20, 1955-September 11, 1959)

The CBS Television Network



Created by Nat Hiken, the series centered on the adventures of Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko (Phil Silvers), the head of the motor pool of the unremarkable army post of Fort Baxter in the fictional town of Roseville Kansas. Bilko was a schemer who was always involved in some kind of swindle or get-rich-quick scam while trying to do as little actual work as possible. Under him were his right-hand men Captain Rocco Barbella (Harvey Lembeck) and Captain Steve Henshaw (Allan Melvin), as well as CaptaiN Sam Fender (Herbie Faye), Private Duane Doberman (Maurice Gosfield), Private Dino Paparelli (Billy Sands), Private Fielding Zimmerman (Mickey Freeman), Private Gander (Tige Andrews), Private Mullen (Jack Healy), Private Irving Fleishman (Maurice Brenner), Private Stash Kadowski (Karl Lukas), Private Claude Dillingham (Walter Cartier) and Private Sugarman (an African-American defying the segregation still prevalent at the time, played by Terry Carter). In charge of all of them was Bilko’s long-suffering commanding officer, Colonel John T. Hall (Paul Ford). Bilko’s men were fiercely loyal to him, despite the fact they were just as likely to be the target of his schemes as the participants. However, Bilko did have his own code of honor: only he got to fleece his men and would often turn his shady skills against anyone else that tried.

Bilko and his men.

Originally titled You’ll Never Get Rich during its first season, The Phil Silvers Show debuted on CBS on September 20, 1955, with a theme and music by John Strauss. Despite television production beginning to move from New York to California at the time, Hiken insisted on filming the show in New York and like a stage-play: in sequence in front of an audience (which often resulted in a lot of improvisations to cover for flubbed lines; particularly from Ford). When Hiken left the series after the third season, the show moved production to California and adopted an out-of-sequence format that everyone found easier. The setting was also moved to Camp Fremont in California to realistically allow Hollywood guest stars. Actor George Kennedy, who was a veteran, was the show’s technical advisor and got his acting start with a minor role as a military policeman. The series was nominated for several Primetime Emmys, winning a couple.

A face you can trust?

After four seasons and 143 episodes (not counting the original unaired pilot), CBS abruptly decided to end the show. It was too expensive to produce due to the large cast and they wanted to try and recoup some of the cost in rerun sales, which they felt couldn’t be done while a show was still airing. CBS sold the rights to NBC, who saw massive returns when they aired it five days a week. Silvers’ Bilko persona outlined the rest of his career; playing similar characters in various television shows and films. Hanna-Barbera would take inspiration from the character to churn out the titular character from Top Cat (which starred Gosfield) and Hokey Wolf, and even The Flintstones’ Dino had a Bilko-style voice for his debut episode (he just barked for the remainder of his appearances). The series would air in syndicated reruns off and on for the next several decades between network television and cable, sometimes under the titles Sergeant Bilko or Bilko. In 1996, a film adaptation starring Steve Martin was released to theaters by Universal Pictures called Sgt. Bilko. It was a critical and box office flop.

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