Whether you call it You'll Never Get Rich, The Phil Silvers Show, or Sergeant Bilko, The Phil Silvers Show served up a solid-gold sitcom character in Silvers' conniving Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko. From the "forgotten post" Fort Baxter (later Camp Fremont), Bilko sidestepped Army authorities to run every bilk job in the book, from bingo to craps to dances with marked-up ticket prices. Put-upon, ineffectual Colonel Hall (Paul Ford) was no match for Bilko, who presided over the motor pool and its motley crew of easy marks.
A contemporary of fellow TV giants Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar, Silvers etched a unique persona: his unassuming appearance (bald pate and horn-rimmed glasses) and disingenuous flattery belied his sticky-fingered, money-grubbing ways. With barked gibberish in place of drill orders he never bothered to learn and an alternation of tight, insincere smiles with shit-eating grins, Silvers made Bilko a slippery devil with considerable comic impact (those spontaneous cadences became known as "the Bilko growl"). Silvers and series creator Nat Hiken also had a secret weapon to make Bilko not only hilarious but loveable: he was a softie, and he'd kick back ill-gotten gains to losers who truly needed it.
When pleased, Bilko would give little high-fives to his right and left-hand men, Cpl. Rocco Barbella and Cpl. Henshaw (Harvey Lembeck and Allan Melvin, both of Stalag 17). Among the platoon were Pvt. Duane Doberman (Maurice Gosfield), Pvt. Herman Zimmerman (Mickey Freeman), Pvt. Dino Paparelli (Billy Sands), and Pvt. Sam Fender (Herbie Faye). Also on base: Sgt. Rupert Ritzik (Joe E. Ross, later of Hiken's Car 54, Where Are You?), the master sergeant cook with the "Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!" exclamatory. Hiken learned particularly to exploit the great unwashed Doberman; Hiken reportedly forbid Gosfield to take acting lessons, lest he lose his natural hilarity.
Sgt. Bilko—The Phil Silvers Show—50th Anniversary Edition marks the first appearance of this classic sitcom on DVD. Completist Bilko fans disappointed in a best-of release can take solace in the fact that Paramount's three-disc set comes courtesy of Paul Brownstein Productions. Brownstein has rounded up a tremendous set of bonus features to accompany eighteen of Bilko's finest adventures: "New Recruits," "The WAC," "The Horse," "The Eating Contest," "Bivouac," The Twitch," "The Investigation," "The Revolutionary War," "The Court Martial," "The Con Men," "A Mess Sergeant Can't Win," "Doberman's Sister," "Bilko's Tax Trouble," "The Big Scandal," "Hillbilly Whiz," "Bilko the Art Lover," which "Bilko Joins the Navy," and "Weekend Colonel."
Top honors go to the absurd heights of "The Court Martial," in which a chimp is accidentally inducted, then laboriously drummed out of the Army, "A Mess Sergeant Can't Win," which brilliantly frustrates Bilko as he tries and tries again to lose a bet to the departing Ritzik, and "Bilko Joins the Navy," a Neil Simon & Terry Ryan script that gives Bilko one of his biggest challenges: talking his way out of a Navy mission in progress. Citing exhaustion, Silvers ended the popular series himself, and the set includes final episode "Weekend Colonel," which gave Paul Ford a wacky double role and winked at Silvers' TV stardom by putting Bilko under closed-circuit surveillance.
Some very young-looking TV stars show up in guest spots: Fred Gwynne (later paired with Ross on Car 54) as "The Stomach" in "The Eating Contest," future "Grandpa Munster" Al Lewis in "Weekend Colonel," Julie "Catwoman" Newmar as "Stacked Susie" in "The Big Scandal," Alan Alda as a rebellious heir in "Bilko the Art Lover," and Dick Van Dyke as a southern north-and-southpaw opposite Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Gil McDougal, Whitey Ford, and Red Barker in "Hillbilly Whiz," which also featured location shots taken at Yankee Stadium. The Phil Silvers Show was also notably progressive, in that its platoon ensemble was integrated.
Bonus features include the historic Ed Sullivan Show appearance that boosted Silvers to overtake heavy competition Milton Berle (8:39); excerpts from the 1956 Emmy broadcast, at which the show won best comedy series, best actor, best comedian, best comedy writing and best director trophies (4:51) as well as the 1957 awards (2:27); a too-short excerpt from a Dick Cavett Show with Silvers and friend Jack Benny (5:03); pieces of Silvers' last interview, with Sonny Fox (5:06); a very amusing Bilko sketch from the special Phil Silvers on Broadway (7:15).
And Brownstein has yet more: Sgt. Bilko remake stars Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, and Phil Hartman discussing their characters for Nick at Nite (3:04); raw outtakes of Hartman recording Nick at Nite Bilko promos (2:13); Tony Randall and Jack Klugman waxing enthusiastic about Bilko for Nick at Nite (0:26); an audio excerpt of Silvers roasting Humphrey Bogart in 1955; Camel cigarettes spots with the cast (1:52); original series opening (0:24); a Pontiac spot with Silvers (0:42); 1963 fall preview clips featuring Silvers and promoting The New Phil Silvers Show (3:21); unfortunate novelty song "The Bilko Growl," and a 24-shot photo gallery.
The most extensive extras are the rarely seen "Lost Audition Show," an alternate, unaired version of the pilot saved on 16mm kinescope, with Jack Warden as Cpl. Henshaw (33:05) and commentaries with Allan Melvin (who also provides an audio introduction to every episode and bonus feature); military advisor and actor George Kennedy; and guest stars Dick Van Dyke and Larry Storch—the latter provides two commentaries, both with series regular Mickey Freeman.
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