Phil Silvers Show, The (CBS 1955-1959, Phil Silvers, Joe E. Ross)

This barracks comedy premiered on September 20, 1955 on CBS where it ran for four seasons until September 11, 1959. Originally titled ‘You’ll Never Get Rich,’ the series (which was always intended as a vehicle for comic actor Phil Silvers) was retitled ‘The Phil Silvers Show’ about two months into its run. Upon syndication in the 1960s, the reruns were titled ‘Sgt. Bilko,’ after the character Silvers portrayed, and this is the name which is most frequently used in referring to this legendary series.

Set at the fictional army base of Fort Baxter, situated in Roseville, Kansas (with the late episodes relocating to Camp Freemont in Grove City, California), the show was a raucous satire on the military, years before being anti-army was in vogue. Plot lines centered around the exploits of Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko, in charge of a motley unit of troops who worked in the motor pool. Bilko, a master con artist, card sharp and pool hustler, was perpetually scheming of ways to get rich quick while luxuriating in post-war army comfort (‘Not taking any military orders. Sleeping until noon. Revelling the night away.’) While Bilko was always luring his men into games of chance where he held the advantage, he was equally adept at manipulating his superior officer, Colonel Hall (Paul Ford). However exasperated the Colonel became thanks to Bilko’s outrageous conniving, he invariably realized that there was an advantage to holding onto a man whom nobody could ever outwit. Yet the charm of Bilko was that underneath the veneer of this vain trickster was the heart of a sentimental softie who, when push came to shove, always did the moral thing (even if that meant defying military bureaucracy).

Although it is no exaggeration to claim that Phil Silvers carried this series, many enduring character actors got their television start at Fort Baxter, either as regulars or guest stars. Among those who were frequently seen in Bilko’s troop were Herbie Faye, who later became Willie the Coffee Man on ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show,’ Allan Melvin, later known as Sam the Butcher on ‘The Brady Bunch,’ Billy Sands, who went on to play Harrison ‘Tinker’ Bell on ‘McHale’s Navy,’ and Joe E. Ross who immortalized the character of Gunther Toody on ‘Car 54, Where Are You?’ which, like ‘The Phil Silvers Show,’ was written and produced by Nat Hiken. That later series also starred Fred Gwynne who appeared on two ‘Bilko’ episodes. Other actors making their first sitcom appearances in this series were Dina Merrill, Dick Cavett, Dick Van Dyke, Charlotte Rae, Larry Storch, Paul Lynde and Alan Alda, (more than a decade before he would be a 1950s army officer in ‘MASH.’)

After the first season, Hiken relinquished many of his writing duties. Among the new writers brought on board was future playwright Neil Simon.

The show is also known as You’ll Never Get Rich and Sgt Bilko.

production details
USA | CBS | 142×25 minutes 1×60 minutes | Broadcast 20 September 1955 – 11 September 1959

Creator: Nat Hiken
Producers: Nat Hiken(1955-57), Edward J. Montague(57-59)

Phil Silvers as Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko
Allan Melvin as Cpl Steve Henshaw
Harvey Lembeck as Cpl Rocco Barbella
Maurice Gosfield as Pte Duane Doberman
Joe E. Ross as Sgt Rupert Ritzik(56-59)
Billy Sands as Pte Dinjo Paparelli
Paul Ford as Col. John T. Hall
Herbie Faye as Pte Sam Fender
Dick Van Dyke as Pvt. Hank Lumpkin
Alan Alda as Carlyle Thompson III
Julie Newmar as ‘Stacked’ Suzie
Paul Ford as Col John T. Hall
Elisabeth Fraser as Sgt Joan Hogan(55-58)
Jimmy Little as Sgt Francis Grover
Ned Glass as Sgt Andrew Pendleton(55-56)
Harry Clark as Sgt Stanley Sowici(55-56)
Beatrice Pons as Mrs Emma Ritzik(56-59)
Maurice Brenner as Pte Fleischman
Jack Healy as Pte Mullen
Mickey Freeman as Pte Fielding Zimmerman
Terry Carter as Pte Sugarman/Thompson

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.