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.

The Friendship and Careers of Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis

Fred Gwynne was born in New York in July of 1926 and died in Maryland in 1993.  Al Lewis was born in New York in April of 1923 and passed away in New York in February of 2006. At first glance, they don’t seem to have a lot in common, but a closer look reveals why they enjoyed a long friendship.

Fred Gwynne

Fred Gwynne grew up in New York and had a very wealthy and advantaged upbringing.  He was a radioman in the Navy during World War II.  When the war was over, Gwynne entered Harvard, studying drawing and dramatics. He became a member of their Hasty Pudding Club, being involved with many theatrical productions. Gwynne graduated in 1951 and went on to work for a Shakespeare repertory company. He was a talented man with a variety of interests and earned his living from several careers.  He was a copywriter, a musician, a book illustrator, and a commercial artist.

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In 1952, he made his Broadway debut, acting with Helen Hayes in “Mrs. McThing.” The play ran for 320 performances.  In 1953, he performed in his second Broadway play, “The Frogs of Spring” which had a much shorter run.  In 1954, he had a small role in On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando.

He also began appearing on television in the 1950s, and most of his roles were on dramas such as Kraft Theater or DuPont Show of the Week.

The one exception was The Phil Silvers Show where he appeared in 1955 and 1956. The producer of this show, Nat Hiken, went on to create a similar show called Car 54 Where Are You? about New York policemen.  He cast Gwynne as one of the leads, Francis Muldoon. The show ran for two seasons and when it was cancelled, Gwynne went back to his theatrical dramas.

In 1964, the creators of Leave It to Beaver, decided on a different concept for a show called The Munsters.  Fred was cast as the lead role.  While this show also ran two years, the part of Herman Munster was much harder to overcome than Francis Muldoon had been.  Gwynne struggled to find new roles, and when he was unsuccessful, he went back to Broadway.  He did make one pilot during these years for a show called Guess What I Did Today, but no network picked it up. His favorite Broadway performance was Big Daddy in 1974 when he starred in “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.”

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During the 1980s, his cinema career picked up and he ended up with 15 movies to his credit from 1979-1992. Included in this list are The Cotton Club, The Secret of My Success, Fatal Attraction, Ironweed, Pet Sematary, and My Cousin Vinny.

His book writing and illustrating also continued.  His first book, The Best in Show, was published in 1958.  The King Who Rained came out in 1970, and Simon and Schuster published A Chocolate Moose for Dinner in 1976 and A Little Pigeon Toad in 1988.

Throughout most of his career, Gwynne lived a quiet life far from Hollywood. He was married to his first wife Roxy from 1952-1980 and his second wife from 1981 until his death from pancreatic cancer in 1993.

Al Lewis

Al Lewis claimed he was born in 1910 and was a circus performer in the 1920s.  He also said he went to Columbia and graduated with a PhD in child psychology.  After he passed away, his son confirmed that he was born in 1923, and Columbia had no record of him attending school with his given name or his stage name.  His son thought he made himself older to get the role of Grandpa in The Munsters because in real life Yvonne DeCarlo was a year older than he was.

Some of his other jobs included a salesman,  hot dog vendor for the Brooklyn Dodgers, waiter, pool room owner, and store detective.  He was a good basketball player in high school and apparently worked as a basketball scout at some time in his early life. A friend convinced him to join an actor’s workshop in 1949 and that led to a career in vaudeville. In the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in a variety of TV shows including US Steel Hour, Route 66, Lost in Space, and Gomer Pyle.  He too was cast in the Phil Silvers Show which later resulted in his role of Patrolman Leo Schnauzer in Car 54 Where Are You?

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In 1964, he too was offered a role in The Munsters. In 1966 when the show went off the air, he continued making television appearances and starred in cinema movies.  During the 1970s and 1980s, he appeared on Night Gallery, Green Acres, Love American Style, Here’s Lucy, Taxi, and Best of the West.  His career featured 22 films including They Shoot Horses Don’t They, Boatniks, Used Cars, Married to the Mob, and a remake of Car 54 Where Are You?

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Like Gwynne, he was married twice:  to Marge from 1956-1977 and to Karen from 1984 until his death from heart complications in 2006. Lewis also published several children’s books during his acting career.

Midway through his career he opened an Italian restaurant, Grandpa’s Bella Gente, which Gwynne designed the logo for. He also got into radio and was featured on Howard Stern’s Show often.

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It is surprising that both of these stars were in two sitcoms which both lasted only two years. Let’s take a look at the shows that made them household names.

Car 54 Where Are You?

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This sitcom, set in the 53rd precinct in Brooklyn was an early Barney Miller. Gwynne played Francis Muldoon.  His partner, Gunther Toody, was his exact opposite.  While Muldoon was a bachelor, an intellectual, calm and quiet, Toody was married, naïve, excitable, and talkative. In one show, when the precinct is debating splitting up the two men, Muldoon says “I guess most of the men are smarter than Gunther and less trouble than Gunther, but  . . . well, I’m so used to Gunther.  When he chatters away, the days just fly by.  I’d just be lost without Gunther.” Gunther concurs, “You mean ride around with someone next to me that’s not Muldoon? Francis is a quiet man. He doesn’t say a word. He just sits there all day thinking. It’s very comforting for a man like me to know there’s someone next to him doing the thinking for both of us.” Of course, they split them up only to partner them up again because no one else could take the silence or constant chatter.

Al Lewis played Officer Leo Schnauzer, appearing in every episode.

Policemen were split on their view of the show.  Some took offense and felt they were portrayed in a negative light, while others enjoyed it and identified with some of the comedic elements. It was filmed in The Bronx at Biograph Studio.  There was a large sign out front identifying it as the 53rd precinct till a woman came in pleading to save her from her abusive husband and the sign was quickly taken down.

Originally titled Snow Whites, the show aired at 8:30 eastern time Sunday nights between The Wide World of Disney and Bonanza.  The only clue I could find for the original name was that the show was sponsored by Proctor and Gamble who made several detergents for clothing. It was filmed in black and white, but the police cars were red and white so they would show up better on black and white film. The show also starred Beatrice Pons, Charlotte Rae, Nipsey Russell, Alice Ghostley, and Larry Storch.

Perhaps what the show is best remembered for was its catchy theme song.  Anyone who viewed an episode or two can probably remember the fun lyrics:

There’s a hold up in the Bronx, Brooklyn’s broken out in fights.

There’s a traffic jam in Harlem that’s backed up to Jackson Heights.

There’s a scout troop short a child; Kruschev’s due at Idlewild . . .

Car 54, where are you?

 

The Munsters

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In 1964, the creators of Leave It to Beaver decided to feature another “wholesome” family who just happens to live at 1313 Mockingbird Lane in Mockingbird Heights. The family consists of Grandpa who is always experimenting in his lab; Herman who is the funeral director at Gateman, Goodbury, and Graves; his wife Lilly, a vampire; their son Eddie who is a werewolf; and their beautiful black-sheep Marilyn.  Marilyn was beautiful but they viewed her as odd looking and she seemed to get a lot of dates but when she brings them home, they never ask her out again. The family also owns two pets – Spot, a prehistoric animal Grandpa rescued and Igor, a bat.  They lived a somewhat normal life but drank bat milk and cooked in a cauldron. On the hour, a cuckoo clock chimed and a raven, voiced by Mel Blanc, appeared and said “Nevermore.”

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All the actors had to endure a two-hour make-up session, but Gwynne had the worst time because he had to wear 40-50 pounds of padding.  One day he lost 10 pounds filming under the lights.  They gave him gallons of lemonade between takes and later rigged a way to blow cool air on him underneath the material.

The entire family could have been played by different actors.  John Carradine was offered the role of Herman. The pilot featured Joan Marshall as the wife and instead of Lilly, her name was Phoebe. Marilyn was played by Beverly Owens for 13 episodes and then Pat Priest took over for the rest of the show’s run. Eddie was first offered to Bill Mumy, Will Robinson from Lost in Space, and Grandpa to Bert Lahr from The Wizard of Oz.

After the show was cancelled, the Munster mobile often traveled to memorabilia shows.  There was also a Dragula built with purple silk upholstery and chrome pipes for the exhaust. Although the show was only on the air for two years, there were a lot of collectibles such as board games, lunch boxes, paper dolls, and coloring books.

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In 2001, the McKee family of Waxahachie, Texas was such a huge fan of the show that the family built their 5000+ square foot house to exactly resemble the Munsters’ home including the crooked weather vane and grand staircase that lifted up to feed Spot.

Both Gwynne and Lewis were born in New York.  They both appeared on the show Brenner early in their careers. Both were tapped from their roles in The Phil Silvers Show to play roles on Car 54 Where Are You? They both went on to star in The Munsters.  Neither of them ever had another series.  They both chose to live on the east coast. They both wrote children’s books.  They were each married twice and married to their second spouse for the rest of their lives. They both had a lot of success in the movies as well as television. They were both men with fascinating careers before they ever entered acting.  I learned a lot about these interesting friends.  Happy Birthday to Fred Gwynne would have been 91.