In the history of TV con-men, no one was con-nier or cannier (but never corny) than Phil Silvers’ Sgt. Bilko. Silvers invested staff sergeant Ernie Bilko with the sort of snappy, cynical, quick New York humor that hadn’t been seen before. Pre-Bilko, it was as though the TV sitcom was folksy and a bit sleepy; after Bilko, the bar was raised to a new level of manic intensity and wordplay. Now you can see the series’ terrific first 1955-56 season in its entirety on DVD, released today.
Silvers had been a successful vaudeville and nightclub comedian; he’d won a 1952 Tony for his Broadway performance in Top Banana, which was also made into a movie. But he didn’t come into his own until this TV series. (It was launched under the title You’ll Never Get Rich, was changed to The Phil Silvers Show, but a lot of people know it simply as Sgt. Bilko.)
As the ring-leader of a group of lazy, scheming, but lovable enlisted men stationed at Ft. Baxter in Kansas, Bilko was always looking for a card game, a horse race, or a stunt he could make money on. Nowadays, no one would cast a man like Silvers in a lead role like this: His heavy black horn-rimmed glasses and thick Brooklyn accent didn’t, on paper, make Bilko a believable character — how did this middle-aged, near-sighted city-boy end up leading a group of misfits?
But Silver and the creative genius behind Bilko, creator-writer-producer Nat Hiken, knew they could throw common sense out the window as long as the jokes were solid and the pace was revved up to an exciting level. (Hiken’s other, equally great TV show, Car 54, Where Are You?, is one of those TV shows that is on everyone’s list begging to be released on DVD. Let me know if you hear anything about that; I’ve nearly given up hope.)
The Phil Silvers Show had a superb supporting cast of co-conspirators, bumblers, rubes, and yes-men, including Harvey Lembeck, Allan Melvin, Maurice Gosfield, and the great straight-man Paul Ford. The guest cast included before-they-were-stars notables such as Dick Van Dyke, Fred Gwynne, and Alan Alda. (Indeed, if there’s one clear role-model for M*A*S*H‘s Hawkeye Pierce, it’s Bilko.)
Maybe Phil Silvers and his merry men mean nothing to you. If so, do yourself a favor and get The Phil Silvers Show (Sgt. Bilko): Season One, five discs of pure, raucous pleasure.