Today, Phil Silvers’ legacy might be that his voice and TV persona were ripped off by Hanna-Barbera for the character of Top Cat. As a result, today’s generation is missing out on watching a truly unique performer with the ability to play a perfect fast-talking heel, who truly lived up to his nickname as “The King of Chutzpah.” Today we look in on the first time Silvers performed his most famous character Sergeant Bilko on film in the very rare, unaired audition show for what would become the classic Phil Silvers Show.
Originally titled You’ll Never Get Rich, The Phil Silvers Show (sometimes also referred to simply as Sgt. Bilko) featured a very straightforward premise. Bilko is stationed at a quiet Army base in the middle of Kansas, in charge of a rag-tag group of men who spend very little time actually doing their duty. Bilko is constantly trying to get rich quick whether it be with the help of his men, or through their wallets. The show was created by Nat Hiken, who was one of television’s first writer/producers. When the show started, Silvers’ career in film was just beginning to flourish, but his stage resume was long. Starting with vaudeville, and then working his way up to a Tony award winning Broadway actor, Silvers quickly made a name for himself as a very funny actor. He didn’t do standup, and according to a featurette on the It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World DVD, he wasn’t particularly funny in real life, but when in character the man knew how to milk every laugh out of an audience with a slow burn or a quick emotional turn to anger.
The pilot episode of The Phil Silvers Show was discovered at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, in the Nat Hiken collection. It was filmed in August of 1955 in front of a live studio audience in midtown Manhattan. This audition episode does an exceptional job of quickly setting a tone and introducing characters very seamlessly, showing us rather than telling us. Nobody complains about how lazy the troupe is; instead we see the bugle player sit up in bed and puts the needle on a record in order to play the Reveille call. Instead of telling us Bilko is always trying to scam money from someone, as the platoon wakes up and crawls out of bed, we see flyers in the barracks advertising Bilko’s many businesses: travel agent, bingo night, running a football pool, and selling platoon insignia jewelry. The main thrust of our pilot is a classic revenge tale: at the weekly poker game, Bilko loses all his money for the first time. It’s not until the Chaplain talks to Bilko that he realizes he’s been cheated: his opponents moved his shaving mirror right behind his lucky mirror. Bilko can’t believe it. “Can’t you see what happened?! Those muh-” He catches himself, remembering he’s speaking with a man of the cloth, “They’re mean fellas, Padre. Mean,” in what I have to assume was the only joke for television in 1955 referencing the word “motherfucker.”
Meanwhile, the top brass is concerned that Bilko isn’t seeing enough action on the base, which is why he’s trying to create it himself. So, they decide to give him a brand new squad of recruits. He is initially excited to have new blood, but then suddenly realizes that they won’t be paid for the first 30 days. When a recruit corrects him, telling him that they brought money from home, Bilko melts into a euphoric celebration. Later in the evening when he tries to grift this money from his new crew, he learns that they’ve all given it to Higgins, the goody-two-shoes of the platoon, to ensure they don’t spend it foolishly. But when Higgins comes to Bilko to ask him to hang on to the money, he’s incredibly tempted, even moreso when he learns the poker game is starting without him. “Sir, the Soldier’s Guidebook states that enlisted men may leave their valuables with their sergeant.” Bilko thrusts the money back into Higgins’ chest. “You didn’t see the footnote where my name was mentioned, didja?”
Left alone in his room with the money, Bilko experiences extreme temptation to use the money to enter the poker game and Silver takes the opportunity to do some fine comedic physical acting. He chews the scenery as he locks the money up in a lockbox, puts the lockbox in a safe, puts the key to the safe in the bottom of his gas mask while nervously tugging at his hair and chewing on his fingers. Unable to take it, and having dealt himself an impossibly good hand of four aces, he unlocks the money, moves towards the front door, pauses, then wakes up Higgins and forces him to take the money back. Bilko may be a crafty man, but he’s no thief. Now completely content and with a clean conscience, he returns to his room, lays down in his bed and goes to sleep with a smile on his face.
Silvers manages to play Bilko as a many faceted character where a lesser actor could make him a cartoonish villain. Instead, Bilko’s struggle of conscience is clearly one of actual concern for his men, despite them having been put in his charge a mere few hours prior. A few months later, this audition show would be filmed again, this time with a number of different cast members and a much more polished directing style, and would serve as the first episode of The Phil Silvers Show proper. Clearly the show made an impression on the American public as it would go on to run for 129 episodes across three seasons. During his time, Phil Silvers would prove to be a well-known personality the world over. The complete series of Sgt. Bilko has just been released on DVD, and I can only hope that his legacy will continue to live on (not as an impersonation done by wise-cracking cartoon cat).