Published Jan 06, 2015Sometimes an actor fits a particular role (and vice versa) so very well that it makes it difficult for them to move on. Phil Silvers never really stopped playing the fast-talking and quick thinking Sergeant Earnest Bilko. It was a role that defined his entire career, for better or for worse, and even when he was technically playing a different character, he was always Bilko.
Starting off life as You'll Never Get Rich in 1955, the show's name was quickly changed to Sgt. Bilko to reflect the huge popularity of Silvers' character and the animated opening sequence that's familiar to anyone who has seen it in syndication. It's obvious why his character became so popular: pretty much every episode was based around some kind of scheme masterminded by Bilko himself, usually to make money. Not every scheme unravels, but the ones that do are normally the most entertaining episodes simply because to see him use his arsenal of skills to come out the other side smelling like roses.
Silvers is assisted by a strong ensemble cast composed of the other soldiers at Fort Baxter, the fictional army base set in rural Kansas, and they are a vital part of the show. The loveable head of the base, Colonel Hall (played by Paul Ford) is hardly a match for Bilko, even though he is always suspicious of what's going on. One definite star emerged from the rest of the platoon in the form of Private Duane Doberman (Maurice Gosfield), whose sad sack demeanour made him Bilko's first choice for every task, but there were many other regulars who were given plenty to do.
Despite winning three Emmy Awards for best comedy, the show only ran for four seasons, but that still translates into 142 episodes, and while there are definitely stronger episodes, there aren't really any that could be described as stinkers. In the final season, in which the platoon gets moved to California, there is more of a reliance on big name guest stars, such as Dean Martin and Lucille Ball, but the richness of the supporting cast stops even the big names from hogging the limelight. It's been said that the high number of speaking parts in Sgt. Bilko made it one of the more expensive sitcoms at that time, which might have contributed to its cancellation, but the fact that it stopped before the quality declined explains why it's still rightfully regarded as one of the best sitcoms ever.
Not surprisingly for a show that first hit the airwaves 60 years ago, the video quality isn't perfect. There hasn't been much of an attempt to make it look shiny and new, but it is still very watchable. There is a whole lot of show here, too — the running time is more than 48 hours, spread over 20 DVDs — so there isn't quite so much need for extras as in a more meagre set. There are special introductions for some episodes and commentary tracks on five episodes, but more interesting is the original audition version of the pilot, which features some different cast members and what remains of a live episode that was broadcast in 1959, simply because they are very rarely seen. There is also an episode of The Lucy Show featuring Silvers, an episode of The New Phil Silvers Show that ran for one season in the mid '60s, an assortment of interviews with various people and some other Bilko-related footage from during the show's original run. (Shout! Factory)