Wednesday 27 May 2020


They say you need time to build an audience in television.

Phil Silvers didn’t. You’ll Never Get Rich was a critical smash and an instant hit with viewers. It won Emmys in three straight seasons and was nominated in the fourth and final year when the setting of the show was changed to punch it up in the ratings.

Evidently Silvers was taken aback by his sudden success on the small screen. Here’s a little local newspaper story from December 28, 1955. Silvers spent the Christmas holidays that year in Miami, full of hotels that were full of comics on stage. The mixing of show folk and sports figures (and alcohol) was very much a New York thing for decades in the days before astronomical salaries, at a time when baseball and boxing were the biggest athletic attractions.
Comic Phil Silvers Amazed By Bilko's Great Popularity
Miami Daily News Staff Writer
Phil Silvers is an old-time showman at 44. He broke in with Gus Edwards at New York's Palace at 7 as a singer.
For 36 of the 37 years he has been in show business he was just an ordinary Broadway star. He did motion pictures in between such Broadway hits as "Yokel Boy," "Top Banana."
Then, less than a year ago, along came Sergeant Bilko and Silvers' present and future turned to gold.
Weekly TV Show
Sgt. Bilko is the character Silvers plays on his weekly CBS television show (WTVJ, Tuesdays, 8 to 8:30 p.m.).
"I turn over in my cabana everytime I think about the success of Sgt. Bilko," Silvers told a visitor to his cabana at the Roney Plaza Hotel, Miami Beach, yesterday.
"Even though I was on Broadway and in pictures, there weren't too many people who recognized me when I went about the country. But now that I'm in television with Sergeant Bilko . . . !
"It gets a little tiring but I love it," Silvers added.
A Sports Fan
Silvers came to Miami Beach and the Roney Plaza to catch a little rest and to see the Orange Bowl football game.
"I'm a sports fan. I used to be for the Yankees when Joe DiMaggio was in there, now I go for the Cleveland Indians in the American League and the Giants in the National," he said.
The Silvers show, billed as "You'll Never Get Rich," is put on film before live audience.
"We're about six or seven weeks ahead so I could afford the time to take a vacation during the Holidays," Silvers explained.
We mentioned boxing above. If there’s any indication how huge the fight game was in the 1950s, it’s evident in Bob Considine’s column in the Hearst papers of October 26, 1955. Boxers turned actors? Why not, said Bilko creator Nat Hiken.
Phil Silvers Has Best TV Show
NEW YORK (INS) – If the Phil Silvers show isn't the best new show on television, I'll eat its kinescopes without ketchup. It's so good that it practically overcomes the canned laughter on its soundtrack.
This long-neglected master of situation comedy has found his perfect vehicle in "You'll Never Get Rich," which CBS is illuminating each Tuesday night at the tough hour of 8:30 p. m. (EDT).
Phil plays the part of Sgt. Bilko, a would-be scoundrel cursed with the heart of a mushmelon. But for that unlucky soft spot, and a vigilant chaplain, Bilko would be the richest man in the array.
If anybody had told you that Phil would finally get his TV break in a situation piece about the peace-time army you'd have laughed, but only in derision. Yet the man is so good, the writing so excellent, the direction so swift and true, the show became an immediate click.
It has all the warmth and cleanliness of an animated "Beetle Bailey," one of the best comic strips in years. . .so good, in fact, that it was barred by the brass which commands the "Pacific Stars and Stripes."
Phil is the kind of comedian who recognizes the right of other human beings to live. The other day, he gave a little party for Walter Cartier, the welterweight fighter who has turned actor, and had some sportswriters as guests at Shor's. He made Cartier the star of the occasion.
Cartier played the part of a flower-fancier with the wallop of a Marciano on Phil's show Tuesday night. He looks a little like Billy Conn looked as a kid but acts as if he had been at the business for years.
The fighter played Pvt. Claude Dillingham, a member of Bilko's platoon. There's a camp boxing show afoot and Bilko's only fighter is a hilarious powder puncher who took boxing lessons from a mail school and got trombone lessons by mistake.
Dillingham appears on the scene, numb with grief because the Pentagon had turned down his appeal to build window flower boxes for the barracks at Fort Baxter, but by accident flattens Bilko's fighter with one punch.
Bilko's venal dreams of using Dillingham instead of the awful one, and cleaning up on bets, are in time frustrated in a howling manner. Good stuff.
Rocky Graziano, the reformed hood, was on hand at the Silvers' party to explain how his quiet-spoken friend, Cartier, got into the acting business.
Seems that after Nat Hiken coaxed Rocky to try his hand as Martha Raye's TV sparring partner, and Rocky made good, the former middleweight champion still frequently patronized Stillman's Gym between rehearsals to bat the breeze with old friends. He'd pick up Cartier and take him back to the studio to watch the rehearsals.
And after Cartier lost to Kid Gavilan and seemed to be headed for the long decline. Rocky urged him to get into the other business with both feet. Rocky paid tribute to Hiken for his own redemption. "I can't tell you how nice it is to be nice," he said.
Hiken put Cartier next to Silvers when the show was being put together and they work like a charm.
“I don't say every fighter can act, because they can't,” Phil says of the species. “But they've got part of it made. They've taken instructions their whole lives . . . jab like this, stand like that, move like this. Acting is a lot like that and they take to it like ducks to water.”
Cartier said a few words. For all his 60 fights he looks like an applicant for the priesthood. And speaks like one.
In contrast to the robust language of his friend Rocky, who, when told by Hiken that his job with Martha Raye involved learning a script, bawled: “Are you nuts? I can’t read or write!”
At the Silvers luncheon, Cartier blushed when called on and said only this; “It’s a small day for you gentlemen, but a great day for me.”
Silvers never really shook the Bilko con-artist persona. He played it in all kinds of guest roles on TV and in the movie It’s a Mad, Mad (etc. etc.) World. Hanna-Barbera ripped off Bilko and put it in not one but two stars (Top Cat and Hokey Wolf). And why not? Ernie Bilko was one of the television’s great characters. Viewers knew it right away.


  1. Hiken seemed to have a soft spot for boxers. Both Jack LaMotta and Rocky Graziano make appearances in " Car-54, Where are you?".

    1. Oops, Sorry, Jake LaMotta.

    2. As did Sugar Ray Robinson.

    3. Whose first loss, I see, was to ... Jake LaMotta.

  2. Wikipedia makes the claim that when the Silvers show ended its prime-time run, CBS sold the rights to NBC which had great success airing the series as a daytime rerun. No source for this info is provided. Probably because it isn't true. "The Phil Silvers Show" has always been distributed by CBS Films and its successors. NBC has never owned it. Neither was it ever aired on NBC daytime. CBS syndicated the show to local stations as soon as it completed its primetime run. All of which is a good example why Wikipedia should be approached with caution.

    1. Hear, hear. Every time I go there, I seem to find some blatant BS.