The Phil Silvers Show: You May Never Get Rich, but You’ll Receive a Wealth of Humor

This month, we begin a new series, “We Salute You” and we will look at shows about the military. Our first series is The Phil Silvers Show a/k/a You’ll Never Get Rich.

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The sitcom debuted on CBS in 1955. The pilot was never aired, but the show was part of the television schedule until 1959, producing 143 episodes.

Nat Hiken created the series which ended up being nominated for Best Comedy Series every year it was on and winning that category in 1956, 1957, and 1958. In addition, Silvers won an Emmy for his performance, and Hiken won an Emmy for Best Director.

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Nat Hiken in the bowtie with Phil Silvers

In 1955, television was transitioning from New York to California. However, Hiken insisted on filming the series in New York. The earlier seasons were filmed at Dumont and later seasons moved to CBS studios in Chelsea, Manhattan.

The show was filmed like a play in front of a live audience. The cast members had to memorize the entire script. When Mike Todd guest starred in season two, he insisted that the show be filmed more like a movie. Takes were filmed out of sequence and multiple takes were allowed because there was no audience. The crew realized that this process was faster, cheaper, and easier for the actors, so the change was put in place permanently. The show was screened for the military though, and servicemen made responses that were used to make the show more realistic.

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Sergeant Ernie Bilko (Phil Silvers) is a con man. He runs a motor pool at a small US Army Camp, Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas. Colonel Hall (Paul Ford), who doesn’t trust Bilko, tries to stay on top of his schemes. Bilko tries to make money any way he can and is not above using the landing craft for midnight cruises, “borrowing” tanks, setting up poker games, and conniving with a local service station for spare parts for Jeep tires for his get-rich quick scams. Bilko has pulled the wool over Col Hall’s wife’s (Hope Sansberry) eyes and flatters her every chance he gets. Silvers said Bilko was so successful because “inside everyone is a con man wiggling to sneak out.”

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Although his men knew he could not be truly trusted, they were usually loyal to him and while he occasionally used them in a scheme, he typically made sure they were taken care of. Some of the situations Bilko found himself in included starting a mink farm, entering his platoon in a singing contest, investing in an ailing race horse, stealing a French chef’s family recipe, buying swampland, thinking there was uranium beneath Hall’s living room, and getting a hot racing tip but not being able to get his bet in on time.

For the fourth season, the camp moved from Kansas to Camp Fremont in California. The move was explained that Bilko orchestrated the new location because he learned there was a gold deposit near the abandoned army post. The primary reason for the geographical change was so stars could guest on the show because the camp was now said to be close to Hollywood. Some of these celebrities included Dean Martin, Mickey Rooney, Bing Crosby, Dorothy McGuire, and Lucille Ball.

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Bing Crosby visits the base

In addition to the stars who were said to come from Hollywood, guest stars on the show included Charlotte Rae, Fred Gwynne, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde, Tom Poston, Dina Merrill, Alan Alda, Bea Arthur, and Tina Louise.

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I was surprised by the large cast that was featured on this show as opposed to Gomer Pyle, Hogan’s Heroes, or McHale’s Navy. Bilko’s comrades were Corporal Barbella (Harvey Lembeck) and Corporal Henshaw (Allan Melvin).

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Bilko with Barbella and Henshaw

The rest of the men included Corporal Sam Fender (Herbie Faye), Sergeant Grover (Jimmy Little), Privates Doberman (Maurice Gosfield), Zimmerman (Mickey Freeman), Kadowski (Karl Lukas), Gomez (Bernard Fein), Paparelli (Billy Sands), Mullen (Jack Healy), Fleischman (Maurice Brenner), Sugarman (Terry Carter) and Dillingham (Walter Cartier), as well as quartermaster Sergeant Pendelton (Ned Glass). Bilko even had a romantic interest in Sergeant Joan Hogan (Elisabeth Fraser).

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Because the series had so many secondary cast members, it became too expensive to maintain, and that was the primary reason it was canceled. I was surprised it did not affect the ratings because there were a lot of cast members to follow from week to week.

The show started out on Tuesday nights the first season. Its competition was The Legend of Wyatt Earp and Milton Berle.  The ratings at first were not good and Camel Cigarettes, the sponsor, considering withdrawing. The network moved the show so it didn’t need to compete with Berle’s second-half hour. The ratings skyrocketed. The second and third seasons, it continued on Tuesday nights but was up against Cheyenne both years and against The Big Surprise on the second season and The Eddie Fisher Show the third season. The Phil Silvers Show continued to be in the top 30 for season two but fell below those rankings in season three. Season four found the show on Friday nights up against Man with a Camera and M Squad.  I would have thought that season might have the weakest competition but the show never recovered its higher ratings. However, Friday nights many people were out, not home watching television.

Another downfall with such a large cast is the personality conflicts that might occur. Apparently, Phil Silvers did not get along with Maurice Gosfield. Gosfield had trouble remembering his lines which frustrated the other actors; however, he got the most fan mail which Silvers resented. In his memoir, Silvers discussed this issue and wrote that Gosfield “thought of himself as Cary Grant playing a short, plump man.”

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Gosfield as Doberman

Phil Silvers would play the same type of con man on many sitcoms later including The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, The Lucy Show, and the movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

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After its cancellation, CBS sold the show to NBC which was a great move on NBC’s part. The network made a ton of money on the show’s syndication because reruns were run for decades.

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DC Comics published comic books based on the show as well. From 1957-1960 there were 16 issues of a Sergeant Bilko comic book and 11 issues of a Private Doberman comic book.

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In 2009, the US Postal Service issued a set of stamps honoring early television programs. This show was commemorated with an image of Sergeant Bilko.

I remember the show being on the air a lot while I was growing up, but I rarely see it now. I am going to rely on a fellow blogger to sum up the show. In a recent blog on neatorama.com from February 14, 2019, the show was described as follows:

It is my opinion that THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (aka YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH) remains the single most underrated sitcom in television history and that Phil Silvers remains the most underrated comedian in that medium. This is really saying something because the series has indeed received great acclaim over the years. Even so, Silvers is just not given his proper due for creating the Bilko character. But it is Phil Silvers, his facial expressions, his bugle-call barking of orders, his complete manipulation of everyone on the base, and his wild schemes to make money that never seem to get old no matter how much you watch the episodes on video. The show is a great testament to the talents of Phil Silvers. With its complex plotlines and quickfire dialogue it’s still a treat to watch Silvers’s monumental character. The most oft-said line in the series must be “but, Sarge! as Bilko launches into another diabolical and, ultimately, flawed scheme to make money and dodge work.”

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Bilko isn’t a bad guy; he’s just not trustworthy. As he himself likes to say, “All I ever wanted was an honest week’s pay for an honest day’s work.” Maybe in this politically correct world we live in, making fun of the military is a taboo. It’s too bad because all the critics loved this show. If you want to check it out for yourself, the series is on DVD, so it is available for a week-end of binge watching; you can purchase individual seasons or the complete series.

Charles Lane: What a Character!

My blog theme for this month is “What a Character!” I am looking at the careers of four successful and hard-working actors. With 372 acting credits, perhaps there was no more prolific character actor than the beloved Charles Lane. He perfected the grumpy sourpuss always ready and gleeful to make life more complicated for others. His bio on imdb.com captures his type perfectly as the “scrawny, scowling, beady-eyed, beak-nosed killjoy who usually could be found peering disdainfully over a pair of specs, brought out many a comic moment simply by dampening the spirit of his nemesis.”

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However, despite that, we always knew there was more to him, and that his real persona was being covered up by his crotchety outward characteristics. His character Herman Bedloe on Petticoat Junction portrayed this dual-personality perfectly. Bedloe was always trying to shut down the train, but we knew he actually liked the Bradley family, and occasionally you would get a glimpse of the lonely and soft-hearted side of him.

He was born Charles Gerstle Levison in San Francisco in 1905. His family survived the 1906 earthquake. His father was an insurance executive, and Charles would follow in his footsteps for his first career.

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The Music Man

A friend, actor Irving Pichel, convinced Lane to try his hand at acting, and Lane joined the Pasadena Playhouse in the late 1920s. His first movie was City Girl in 1930, and his last was Acting on Impulse in 1993. During those six decades he had a successful career in both television and Hollywood. In 1933, Lane became one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). In that year alone he made 23 films. There was an anecdote told about Lane that it was not uncommon for him to go to a movie, see himself on screen, and be surprised because he completely forgot he had been in the film. Starting out at $35 a day, by 1947 he was earning $750 a week.

His longest-running role was husband. In 1931 he married Ruth Covell; the couple had two children and were married until her death in 2002.

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It’s a Wonderful Life

Perhaps most people recognize Lane from his role of rent collector for Henry Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra signed Lane to roles in ten of his movies. Lane was a corrupt attorney in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), an IRS agent in You Can’t Take It with You (1938), a newsman in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), a reporter in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and Blink Moran in State of the Union (1948). Among his most-cherished possessions was a letter from Capra where he wrote “Well, Charlie, you’ve been my No. 1 crutch.” Other popular films he was in include The Ghost and Mr. Chicken; It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; and The Music Man.

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You Can’t Take It with You

During World War II, Lane joined the Coast Guard. When he returned to civilian life, his television career took off. His first role was on Burns and Allen in 1951. During the 1950s, he appeared in more than 30 shows including Topper, The Thin Man, Perry Mason, and The Ann Sothern Show. He was often seen on Lucille Ball shows. He and Lucy had become friends when they both worked for RKO, and he had a great respect for Desi Arnaz’s acting ability.

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I Love Lucy

During this decade he was cast on the show Dear Phoebe in 1954. Peter Lawford starred in the show as a former college professor who writes an advice column under the name Miss Phoebe Goodheart. Meanwhile, his romantic interest is Mickey Riley portrayed by Marcia Henderson, the paper’s sports writer. Lane took on the role of Mr. Fosdick, their boss.

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The Andy Griffith Show

The 1960s found him on almost every popular show of that decade. Tuning in to your favorite series, you would spy Lane on Bachelor Father, Pete and Gladys, Mister Ed, The Andy Griffith Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Get Smart, The Bing Crosby Show, The Man from UNCLE, The Donna Reed Show, Green Acres, Bewitched, and The Wild, Wild West, among many others.

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Gomer Pyle USMC

Lane had recurring roles on five shows during the 1960s. On Dennis the Menace, he was the pharmacist Mr. Finch. He also could be seen on his friend’s series, The Lucy Show as Mr. Barnsdahl, a local banker. The Phyllis Diller Show had a cast that should have made it a hit and from 1966-67, Lane played Maxwell. Although many characters appeared on both The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction, Lane had two different roles on the two series. He appeared in 24 episodes of Petticoat Junction between 1963-1968 as Homer Bedloe, a railroad executive who is always trying to find a reason to shut down the Cannonball. On the Beverly Hillbillies, he portrayed Foster Phinney.

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Petticoat Junction

Lane continued with both his movie and television appearances throughout the 1970s, taking roles on The Doris Day Show, The Odd Couple, Family, Rhoda, Chico and the Man, and he continued his television appearances into the 1980s and 1990s with shows that included Mork and Mindy, St. Elsewhere, LA Law, and Dark Shadows.

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Bewitched

The decade of the seventies would find him cast in two additional series, Karen and Soap. Karen debuted in 1975, starring Karen Valentine as Karen Angelo. Karen works for an advocate group for the common American citizen, Open America, founded by Dale Busch, who was played by Lane. On Soap, Charles took on the role of Judge Petrillo who presided over Jessica Tate’s murder trial; however, because of Jessica’s husband, the judge lost $40,000 in a bad investment.

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Soap

Charles Lane was honored in 2005 when he turned 100. SAG proclaimed January 30 “Charles Lane Day,” and TV Land honored him in March for his long career. After receiving his award, he let it be known “in case anyone’s interested, I’m still available!”

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TV Lands Award March 2005

Despite his being typecast in cranky roles, friends and family described him as funny, kind, and warm-hearted. Lane’s one vice was smoking. In 1990 he was rushed to the hospital when he was having problems breathing. When the doctor asked if he smoked, Lane informed him he had kicked the habit . . . 45 minutes earlier. He never smoked again and he lived another 12 years, dying peacefully in 2007.

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Homer Bedloe

Although it’s tough on actors to be typecast so early in their career, it’s a double-edged sword, because it also provides a lot of opportunities for roles. Lane was an enigma; while he always convinced us that he was just as mean as could be, we also knew if someone would give him a chance, he could be reformed like Scrooge; he just needed the opportunity. It always makes me smile to come across Charles Lane in a move or television episode. It’s like seeing an old friend, or perhaps the neighbor who yelled at you to get off his yard. However, if you looked closely, you would see him watching and wanting to be part of the action. As you watch your favorite older classic shows, keep an eye open for him.

The Millionaire and His Wife: Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer

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Today we continue our month-long series about the characters on Gilligan’s Island and the stars who portrayed them. We begin with the millionaire, Thurston Howell III, and his wife, Lovey. On the island, their money is worthless, but it doesn’t stop Mr. Howell from bribing other captives when it’s in his best interest.  He must have been a boy scout who learned the motto, “Be prepared,” because he and his wife took clothes on a three-hour tour to last a few years. In real life, Natalie Schafer was the millionaire. Both Backus and Schafer had very interesting careers.

 

Jim Backus

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Jim Backus was born in Cleveland in February of 1913. He was one of those stars who seemed to excel in everything:  radio, Broadway, animation, big-screen movies, and television series. In an interesting aside, Margaret Hamilton who would go on to have a full career including the Wicked Witch of the West at the Wizard of Oz, was one of his grade school teachers. Jim grew up in a wealthy area, attending Shaw High School in East Cleveland. His father was a mechanical engineer. I could not find exact proof of this but several articles mention he was expelled from the Kentucky Military Institute for riding a horse in the mess hall. He later attended the American Academy of Dramatic Art.

In 1939 he married Betty Kean; they divorced in 1942. One of his famous quotes was “Many a man owes his success to his first wife and his second wife to his success.”

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In the 1940s, Backus began appearing on radio as the “rich man,” which he often portrayed afterward on radio and television. He played the role of aviator Dexter Hayes on Society Girl on CBS Radio Network. He also appeared on the Mel Blanc Show as Hartley Benson, an arrogant character, and as Hubert Updike on The Alan Young Show. He also showed up regularly on The Jack Benny Program.

During his radio years, he married Henny Backus whom he was married to the rest of his life.

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He began his big-screen cinema career in 1949 and would go on to appear in almost 100 movies, including Here Come the Nelsons, Pat and Mike, and Rebel Without a Cause (seen above). His most famous movie role was probably Tyler Fitzgerald in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. My favorite movie of his is Hello Down There with Tony Randall and Janet Leigh from 1969.

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During the 1950s, he began auditioning for roles on television. He would go on to appear on 18 different series during that decade, including I Married Joan, on which he starred with Joan Davis. On the show, Backus played a respected judge and Davis was his scatterbrained wife. The show was very popular and lasted three seasons.

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As if he wasn’t busy enough with acting in the 1950s, he also made a song recording with Phyllis Diller that hit the top 40 in 1958. It was called “Delicious,” and the two of them would take a sip of champagne throughout the song, saying “Delicious.” As the song continues, they get more drunk and a bit giddy, slurring their words and laughing hysterically.

 

His television career continued to be demanding in the 1960s. He appeared on 25 series, and four of them had regular starring sitcom roles. In 1960, The Jim Backus Show debuted. The program focuses on Backus in the role of Mike O’Toole, the editor/proprietor of a low rent wire service struggling to stay in business.

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He had made movie shorts about Mr. Magoo in the 1950s and in 1960, he starred in 130 episodes of Mr. Magoo and would make 26 more episodes under the title The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo in 1964-1965. Mr. Magoo was an older nearsighted man who was very popular, appearing in ads and merchandise for years. The humor of the show was based on the difference between what Mr. Magoo thinks he sees and the reality of what was really there. Jim Backus liked to repeat a story about his famous character. He was in the movie, Don’t Bother to Knock, with Marilyn Monroe. She asked Jim to meet her in her dressing room later and his curiosity got the best of him, so he went, only to learn she wanted him to portray Mr. Magoo which he did.

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This was also the decade he was offered the role of Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island in 1964. That same year he was asked to play the role of Abner Kravitz on a new show, Bewitched but turned it down because he was committed to Gilligan’s Island. Gilligan’s Island would run from 1964-1967 and he would go on to appear in several Gilligan revivals including the far-fetched The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.

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During 1968-1969, Backus took the role of Mr. Dithers in a revival of Blondie.

During the 1960s, he also appeared on 77 Sunset Strip, The Beverly Hillbillies, Daniel Boone, The Wild, Wild West, and I Spy, among others.

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Backus continued his television work into the 1970s where he appeared on 31 shows. He appeared in a variety of genres including I Dream of Jeannie, Young Dr. Kildare, Medical Center, The Brady Bunch, Gunsmoke, Ellery Queen, Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat.

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Backus also continued his commercial work in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the spokesperson for La-Z-Boy furniture and General Electric. He and Natalie Schafer appeared in an ad for Redenbacher’s popcorn. They played their characters from Gilligan’s Island but apparently had been rescued and were in a luxurious home. In a sweet ending, it was the last television appearance for either of them.

When Jim Backus had a little bit of free time between acting jobs, he loved to golf. He also tried his hand at writing a few books and film scripts, including his autobiography which he wrote with his wife, Only When I Laugh in 1965.

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In July of 1989, Backus died from pneumonia, after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for many years.

He had a long and varied career and seemed to have many friends in the business.

 

Natalie Schafer

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A millionaire in real life, Natalie Schafer seemed like a very fun woman, a bit of a character. She was born in November of 1900 in New Jersey and raised in Manhattan. She was quite secretive about her age, often claiming she was born in 1912.

She began her career in Broadway, appearing in 17 plays. She married actor Louis Calhern in 1934 and they divorced in 1942. She moved to Los Angeles in 1941 to become a film actress and received parts in 34 movies. Incidentally, she and her ex remained friends and appeared together in the movie Forever Darling in 1956.

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Like Backus, Schafer typically played wealthy and sophisticated roles. She did not have the versatility her tv husband had but continued to stay busy acting on television.  While Gilligan’s Island was her only long-term role, she appeared on 21 shows in the 1950s (including I Love Lucy, Loretta Young, Phil Silvers, and Topper); 8 in the 1960s (including The Beverly Hillbillies, 77 Sunset Strip, and Route 66); 15 in the 1970s (including Mayberry RFD, The Brady Bunch, and McMillan and Wife); and an additional 8 shows in the 1980s before she passed away (including Three’s Company, The Love Boat, Trapper John, and Simon and Simon).

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Schafer made most of her money from investments, particularly in real estate.

Several sources revealed that much of her fortune was bequeathed to either her Gilligan’s Island co-star Dawn Wells or to care for her dogs; however, at least $1.5 million was donated to the Lillian Booth Actors’ Home to renovate their outpatient wing. I never saw any answers from Wells about inheriting money, but on Vicki Lawrence’s talk show, she did say that Schafer spent her last years living with her. Like many wealthy people, she was quite thrifty.  She often admitted that she accepted the role of Mrs. Howell because she got a free trip to Hawaii to film the pilot and didn’t expect it to get picked up.

 

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Everyone seemed to like her on the set. Dawn Wells said she especially adored Schafer and Backus. Schafer was a hard worker and liked to keep fit. In a Chicago Tribune article from October 25, 1965, she relayed her secrets for staying in shape. For one thing, she did her own stunts on the show. She also said she swam nude every morning and evening, doing 100 strong kicks at the side of the pool. She also invented an ice cream diet for herself. She claimed to eat a quart a day, saying she had a bowl of vanilla ice cream with her coffee, two bowls of varying flavors for both lunch and dinner, and another single bowl for an afternoon snack. She claimed that she would lose three pounds in five days.

In 1990, Schafer passed away from liver cancer. After her death, she wanted people to realize her true age, and many of her closest friends were quite surprised to learn she was 12 years older than she claimed.

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While Thurston Howell III and his wife Lovey were two interesting characters, I don’t think they can compete with the characters who were Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer. I had a lot of fun learning about them.