Nearly sixty years ago, television viewers the world over fell in love with Sergeant Bilko, a sneaky character who cheated his fellow officers, agitated the top brass and conned the soldiers under his command out of their wages. Sergeant Bilko was the scourge of Fort Baxter in Kansas. The Phil Silvers Show as it was originally called, but later referred to as “Sergeant Bilko”, ran on CBS from 1955 through to 1959. However, because it was so popular it is still repeated to this day and was repeated on prime-time television for decades after it was axed. Its star was Phil Silvers, a middle-aged, balding, loud comedian with thick glasses. The show went on to win Emmy Awards for best comedy series, best actor, best comedian, best comedy writing and best director.
The series featured Master Sergeant Ernest G Bilko of the United States Army who was in charge of the motor pool at Fort Baxter, a small United States Army base. Exploiting this position, he directs a number of scams, ranging from gambling to renting out military vehicles. Bilko and his men seemed to spend very little time actually performing their duties—Bilko in particular spent most of his time trying to wheedle money through various get-rich-quick scams and promotions, or to find ways to get others to do his work for him.
While Bilko’s soldiers regularly helped him with his schemes, they were just as likely to get scammed. Nevertheless, Bilko exhibited an odd paternalism toward his victims, and would doggedly shield them from all outside antagonists. The sergeant’s attitude toward his men has been described thus: “They were his men and if anyone was going to take them, it was going to be him and only him.” Through it all, the platoon was generally loyal to Bilko despite their wariness of his crafty nature, and would depend on him to get them out of any military misfortune or outside mistreatment. In such circumstances, Bilko would employ the same psychological guile and trickery he always used to outwit his suckers, but for good purposes.
Bilko’s swindles were usually directed toward (or behind the back of) Col John T Hall, the overmatched and beleaguered post commander who had early in his career been nicknamed “Melon Head”. Despite his flaws and weaknesses, Col Hall would get the best of Bilko just enough to establish his credentials as a wary and vigilant adversary. The colonel would often be shown looking fretfully out of his window, worried without explanation or evidence, simply because he knew that Bilko was out there somewhere, planning something. The colonel’s wife, Nell, had only the kindest thoughts toward Bilko, who would shamelessly flatter her whenever he saw her.
The show’s setting changed with the fourth season, when the men of Fort Baxter were reassigned to Camp Fremont in California. This mass transfer was explained in storyline as being orchestrated by Bilko, who had discovered a map showing a gold deposit near the abandoned army post. One reason for the change from Kansas was so that the series could more plausibly bring in guest stars from nearby Hollywood, such as Dean Martin, Mickey Rooney, Diana Dors and Lucille Ball. Silvers even played himself in an hour-long episode.
In the series finale, “Weekend Colonel”, Bilko discovers a short-order cook who is the exact double of Colonel Hall. Bilko hires the cook to impersonate the colonel, so he can cheat the other officers in a bogus charity effort. The real Colonel Hall learns of the scam and Bilko ends up being locked away in the guardhouse. As Colonel Hall looks at his prisoners on a newly installed closed-circuit TV system, he quips; “It’s a wonderful show, and as long as I’m the sponsor, it will never be cancelled.” The camera cuts to Bilko and his henchmen finally behind bars. Bilko waves to the camera and says, “Th-th-that’s all, folks!”
So ended the final series.
Although an American show, The series was shown weekly on BBC Television during its original run, and was a staple of BBC One’s post-11pm late-night schedule throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, appearing up to several times per week immediately prior to the channel’s signoff. During the 1990s, the series moved to BBC Two, where it often held a late-night slot, as well as runs during the daytime programs and even occasionally in an early evening slot. The program only disappeared from British television screens around as late as 2000 despite it being made in black and white.
The popularity of the program was underlined when the Radio Times Guide to Comedy ranked The Phil Silvers Show as its top TV sitcom.