Celebrating Beloved Bilko's Shenanigans Sergeant Bilko cheated and conned officers and underlings alike -- and TV audiences loved him. The producer of a new DVD set of The Phil Silvers Show, aka "Segeant Bilko," explains what made the 1950s show so beloved.
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Celebrating Beloved Bilko's Shenanigans

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Celebrating Beloved Bilko's Shenanigans

Celebrating Beloved Bilko's Shenanigans

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Some TV trivia now from 50 years ago. Can you guess what program won Emmys for Best Comedy Series, Best Actor, Best Comedian, Best Comedy Writer and Best Director in 1956? Well, here's a hint.


SEIGEL: The program was The Phil Silvers Show, also known as You'll Never Get Rich, and best remembered as the show with Sergeant Bilko.


PHIL SILVERS: This platoon, that's you, led by Sergeant E. Bilko, that's me, will leave at 0900 on foot carrying full packed tents, field equipment and proceed 20 miles to Bidwi (ph) Carrier B, known locally as Biloman Slop (ph). Dismissed. Put me on the sick list. I'll be in the hospital in 15 minutes.

SEIGEL: 50 years ago, American viewers fell in love with a sneaky character who cheated his fellow non-commissioned officers, roiled the brass and conned the men under him at Ft. Baxter, Kansas.


SILVERS: Hi, Mrs. Ritzik. Hi, Rupert.

BEATRICE PONS: Stay away from him, Rupert.

SILVERS: Well I just heard that he's leaving the army. I mean after all, we've been together 15 years.

PONS: 15 years and you're milking him out of every dime with those bets. Stay away from him, Rupert.

SILVERS: Now, Rupert, did you actually say you didn't want me at your farewell party?

PONS: Yes, that's exactly what he said.

SILVERS: Without a goodbye?

PONS: That's right. He's through making bets with you. He's got $400 saved up and you're not gonna get that on any bet with him because he's gonna keep every cent of it.

SILVERS: Ritzik, is this true?

JOE ROSS: You heard me.

SIEGEL: The show was filmed for CBS TV in New York. Its star was a comedian, a middle-aged balding loud man with thick glasses.

PAUL BROWNSTEIN: It was tailored for the talent of Phil Silvers, who came up through burlesque and vaudeville and was a major comedic talent.

SIEGEL: That's Paul Brownstein, who's produced a collection of Sergeant Bilko episodes that's being released this week.

BROWNSTEIN: CBS put him together with a man named Nat Hiken. And they spent about a year developing this program.

SIEGEL: I had just assumed incorrectly that a show from the mid-1950s that began at that time would be a very simple shot. There wouldn't be a lot of interesting angles on the, so not true, not true. It's actually directed quite sophisticatedly.

BROWNSTEIN: I was totally surprised at how well they held up. A lot of television from the 50s is frankly not very fast paced. Maybe it was the cadence of Phil's staccato talk, but the scripts work. It's just that it wasn't boring. That was the thing. I was surprised that the shows moved.


NORRIS: Attention, Sgt. Bilko, where is the colonel's staff court. Report at once.

Unidentified Woman #1: Sgt. Bilko, where are your daily workings? Report to the company clerk at once.

SILVERS: Now I ask you, how could a man think with that racquet going on? Private Roney (ph), fix it!

Unidentified Man #2: Sgt. Bilko, report at once to the--

Unidentified Man #3 (as Private Roney): All fixed.

Unidentified Man #4: All right, men, what do you got?

Unidentified Man #5: Two pair, jacks and nines.

NORRIS: I got three queens.

Man #4: What do you got, Sarge?

SILVERS: Well I got a full house.

Man #5: Most people take it. Now you're forging with cards. Bilko just takes them.

Man #4: Now, now, now, men, please. When you play cards with me, you don't lose money, you learn a trade.

SIEGEL: This is not an anthropological exercise, watching these to see what it was like in 1956. It's funny. It's funny stuff to look at now. When this show began in the mid-1950s, a huge number of the adult males in any case in the audience, had been in the armed services. Either in the Second World War in Korea. They were seeing an army that was supposed to in some way ring true to them. And I gather many people felt it did ring true to them.

BROWNSTEIN: There was a Bilko on every post or so we're told. But what they found when Bilko was on, enlistments went up in this country. And guys evidently signed up figuring that it would be like it was at Fort Baxter.

SIEGEL: They thought it'd be this one long card game?


SIEGEL: If there were one episode of the show that you would recommend to a viewer who hasn't seen it or who's totally forgotten it, which is the one show you would say?

BROWNSTEIN: It's called The Court Marshall. The Court Marshall of Harry Speakup is the full title. And what it is, they're trying to speed up the enlistment process and through a little twist of sitcom magic, they end up inducting a chimp into the Army.


Unidentified Man #7: Would you tell the court what happened at exactly 1400 hours on the 16th day of June?

NORRIS: Yes sir. I was going into the storeroom to get some apples for the Waldorf salad. I reached for an apple when all of the sudden this monkey comes in--

Unidentified Man #9: Objection!

Unidentified Man #10: Objection?

SILVERS: I object to the use of the derogatory word monkey when referring to my defendant.

Man #10: You object?

Man #9: Well really, sir, until this court rules otherwise, the defendant is a private in the United States Army.

SIEGEL: As a kid, that was the funniest thing I'd ever seen in my life when I saw that show.

BROWSTEIN: There's one that took me and it's called The Revolutionary War. And what it is, is they discover a journal and Bilko had an ancestor who was on General Washington's staff. And what you have is Bilko in costume flimflamming General George Washington.


NORRIS: When Washington decided to cross the Delaware and attack the Chechens (ph) of Trenton, I was in charge of all the boats.

SILVERS: All right men, get your tickets for that great crossing, friends. You wanna have some fun. You wanna have some gaiety across the river. Listen to that music. Wine, woman, Chechen girls. All right, men, there are only 30 hours. 30, 30, 30.

NORRIS: Major Bilko, I just must be in the first boat with the General. I told everybody.

SILVERS: Everybody wants to be in the General's boat. It's crowded I tell you. I can't put every — look, for $20 I can put you in one of the smaller boats. You'll like it. A lovely crowd. Very intimate group. Here, Benji, fix him up.

All right, friends, all right. You don't want to go to Trenton. Okay, I got two round trip tickets to Camden. What about them?

BROWNSTEIN: The upshot of which is Bilko sold, or his ancestors sold all of the seats on the boat going across the Delaware, which is why George Washington was standing up in the boat.

SEIGEL: So it's my understanding that if Phil Silvers had wanted to continue doing this or Nat Hiken had wanted to continue doing it, it was very successful at the time the series ended. They could've kept on doing it, couldn't they?

BROWNSTEIN: This is a group that decided when it was time to say we are done. It wasn't like they got cancelled for low ratings. The other thing was they kept winning Emmy awards. It was time to let somebody else win some Emmys also.

SIEGEL: That's Paul Brownstein, producer of the Phil Silvers Show, 50th anniversary edition. Phil Silvers died in 1985.


Unidentified Man #13: Sgt. Bilko, what are you doing?

SILVERS: Well we had a little spare time and I was allaying the men on the workings of the rifle. You see so I always feel that idle hands of the devil's tools. Something wrong somewhere.

Man #13: The general heard that there's a big game going on in this barrack.

SILVERS: Game? Gambling in my barracks?

NORRIS: Hey Bilko, here's a buck. Can I get in the game now?

SIEGEL: You can see Sgt. Bilko At Work and also the chimp who joined the army in clips from The Phil Silvers Show. They're at our website, NPR.org.

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