Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Buddies With Bilko

What was it like on the set of the old Bilko show? Thanks to a frustrated actor, we have an idea.

Herb Kamm (far right) was a newspaperman for the New York World Telegram. But he wanted to do more than write. He wanted to act. And Phil Silvers gave him an opportunity.

Here’s his story published in the TV Radio Mirror of January 1959. This was Bilko’s last season.

I Was "Drafted" Into Bilko's Army
Writer turned actor — for two whole days of shooting — know now why Phil Silvers' men willingly follow their sergeant in his zany battles

AT LONG LAST, I have inflicted revenge on the myopic grade-school teacher who once told me I couldn't act and the draft officer who cavalierly rejected me for service in the Army of the United States. In a single masterful stroke, some weeks ago, I became an actor and a soldier, filling both roles under the greatest military figure of our electronic time, Sergeant Ernie Bilko.
The failure of the theatrical and military worlds to recognize my supreme talents had rankled in my breast for years. Being a writer is a rewarding enough profession, but it has never nourished the hunger for power— the power of spellbinding an audience, of being a fighting man.
Unable to endure the privation any longer, I took matters into my own hands, one bright day, and confessed my frustration to Phil Silvers. "Write me into one of the scripts of the Bilko television series," I pleaded. "I will be able to triple in brass as an actor, soldier and writer. More, I will be able to go out and tell the world of the behind-the-scenes magic of your show."
It was that last statement that made his eyebrows arch over the horizon of his glasses. "A capital idea!" he cried.
The script writers of The Phil Silvers Show, "You'll Never Get Rich," were hastily summoned and told of the conspiracy. It just so happened that the script for Program No. 113 — the show is now in its fourth straight year — was being completed. Titled "Bilko, the Potato Sack King," the installment contained several parts which had not yet been filled. One was the role of an Army recruit who would appear in one scene and utter fourteen deathless, uninterrupted words. This was me.
I filled out a three-page contract in triplicate with the Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., a federal withholding-tax form and a New York State non-resident tax form. I was in.
Two teams of two writers each are assigned to the Silvers show. Each tandem turns in a script of some sixty pages on alternate weeks. While one team actually is writing, the other is sweating out an idea. It's hard work.
Once the script is completed, it takes five days to get the filmed portrayal of it "in the can," as we actors say, for showing on television at a later date. The first day is devoted merely to a reading of the lines against a stopwatch.
Silvers, producer Ed Montagne, director Aaron Ruben and the other members of the company obviously were confident of my ability and my dedication to show-must-go-on tradition, for they excused me from attending the reading.
The following day, at one P.M. sharp, I reported to rehearsal on the sixth floor of Steinway Hall in midtown Manhattan. The rehearsal studio is a large room with a stage at one end; the other walls are rimmed with ballet bars. Except for a few chairs and tables, no props are used in the run-throughs.
The script girl, Gertrude Black, pointed to my line on Page 29 and smiled benignly. Other members of the cast, whom I readily recognized as the assorted heroes of Sergeant Bilko's platoon, were scattered about the room, chatting, reading newspapers or staring off into space.
Paul Ford, who plays Bilko's commanding officer. Colonel Hall, sat off in a corner mouthing his lines. In contrast with most of the others, who wore sport clothes, he was dressed in a business suit. After all, he's a colonel. Silvers, wearing a brown suit, a striped sports shirt buttoned at the neck and a gray hat shoved back on his head, sat reading his script listlessly.
Silvers called me over and patted my knee. "You'll have to forgive me," he said. "I'm not myself today. I've had some kind of a bug for the last couple of days."
"You look pretty good to me, Sarge," I said. I had been "drafted" only two days, but it doesn't take a soldier long to recognize authority, by golly.

Maurice Gosfield, the squat, screw-faced pixie who plays Doberman, wandered over to pay his respects. "I lost fourteen pounds," he said, holding his trousers away from his midriff. "Look, you could put a baby kangaroo in there. Clean living is what does it."
"You look more like you got caught in a revolving door," said Silvers. That took care of Private Doberman.
The scenes of the show are not rehearsed in regular sequence, so it was some time before Silvers and I — get that, Silvers and I — were called by director Ruben. Formerly a writer for the show, Ruben has been its director the last two years.
"Directing is wonderful," he told me. "It's taught me more about this business in a couple of years than I could learn in maybe fifty years of writing. But it's still the script that counts. If you haven't got the words, you're dead."
My scene finds Bilko being re-issued to the Army after a brief and disastrous foray into the business world as the $20,000-a-year executive of a firm manufacturing burlap potato sacks. As he is being handed his new gear, I march in with five other recruits to receive mine. Awed by the pile of clothing handed me, I exclaim: "Wow, I never had so many clothes in my life — two hundred dollars' worth!"
Maybe Shakespeare did write better stuff, but he could hardly top that line, and I must say I delivered it with convincing gusto. Having said, I looked up at Silvers for approval.
He peered down at me and smirked, "All right, now get the hell out of here."
"Hey, that's not in the script," I protested.
"If you're not careful, you won't be, either," he barked.
Under the ministrations of Ruben, we went through the scene several times. It got better each time, thanks to Silvers. Bug or no bug, he quickly warmed up to the flavor of the scene, lifting the spirits of the other players as he did.
"The guy is so terrific," Ruben said later, "that we never stop running the cameras when we shoot his scenes, because you never know when he's going to throw in something priceless — an extra word, an extra gesture."
It is worth mentioning, too, that Silvers pretty much knows his lines after a single reading. He is quickly transformed from Phil Silvers to Ernie Bilko.
The second day's rehearsal was much like the first, except that more action was thrown into it. It was apparent, too, that the pressure and tension of acting had begun to set in. But Silvers, though still a bit under the weather, was alive with animation and good humor and drew laughter frequently to ease the strain.
"You never get tired of this guy," said Harvey Lembeck, who plays Rocco. "Everything he ever learned in show business is put into his work here. He's terrific, and you can't help but do well, working with him. That's why this cast has stuck together so long. You won't find a happier bunch in the business."
Thus inspired, I went home to study my line and to act it out in front of a mirror. The youngest of my three sons caught me at it and ran crying to his mother. She put him to bed with a sedative, but even now he avoids me.

Thursday was my big day. The filming is done in CBS Studio A. It's a large building in a rather dingy neighborhood on Manhattan's West Side, but it was on this same site that Adolph Zukor started his Famous Players long before the advent of talkies. The schedule called for shooting to start at nine A.M., but, after a fitful night, I arrived fifteen minutes early.
The floor was cluttered with sets, cameras, actors, technicians and a score of other supernumeraries, but it was orderly confusion. Ruben and Al DeCaprio, camera director, supervised the arranging of props and worked out camera positions, marking them on the floor with masking tape.
Here again, the scenes were not taken in sequence, and mine was the second on the roster. I spent the preliminary time looking over my set — an Army supply room with a counter and eight steel shelves on which were piled canteens, mess kits, ammo belts, shirts, pants, sweaters, coats and helmets. A sign on the wall read- "No Alterations. If It Don't Fit MAKE IT!" Truly inspiring, I thought.
Suddenly we were called into action. My finest hour had come.
I had been told to wear casual clothes — "Remember, you're being inducted into the Army, not the Chase National Bank" — but it was a keen disappointment when the makeup man passed me by. "Can't do much with that kisser," he said.
We walked through the action twice, and then came the heart-palpitating command: "All right, everybody, this is a take. Quiet! Quiet on the floor! Cameras ready? Okay, roll it!"
As I marched in behind another recruit, my mouth went dry, and my Adam's apple played tennis with my ears. But, when my cue came, I uttered my fourteen words loud and clear. I was nothing less than superb.
Still, the standards of the people who turn out the Silvers show are such that they never settle for anything less than perfection. So the scene was filmed three times before Messrs. Ruben and DeCaprio, obviously unworried over the chances of my suffering a heart attack, were satisfied with it. But I must admit: We were better each time.
When it was over, Ruben gave me the double-O sign, and Silvers pinched my cheek. "See?" he said, turning to the others. "Everybody was worried about this guy's line. "This guy said his line better than anybody."
The flattery drooled over me like honey over a bun.
"You'd be surprised," Silvers said seriously, "at how many times an actor with one line will fluff it. Sometimes they just freeze up."
Later he told me: "Let's face it. This is work I love it, but it's work. People watch the show and say, 'That must be easy. Everybody has a ball.' Well, we do have a ball, but no matter how long you're in the business, you feel the tension, and you always wonder if maybe you couldn't have made it a little better."
I came away from the experience with a profound respect for every person who had even the smallest part in it. There was not a single untoward incident; only a complete dedication on the part of everyone, from script girl to star — that, and a feeling of deep pride.
Sure, it was a lark for me. And, when I viewed the edited film at a private showing, my ego went into orbit. My wife now treats me with a respect commensurate with my new stature as an actor; the stigma of having been classified 4-F during World War II has been expunged, and I've got a thing or two to tell that grade-school teacher.
But, more than anything else, I've acquired fresh esteem for television and the people who labor in its tangled, cabled vineyards.

1 comment:

  1. This story must have been in the hopper for a while, since by January '59, the filming of the show had been relocated six months earlier from the west side of Manhattan to the West Coast, for the final season.