The New Phil Silvers Show (TV Series 1963–1964) Poster

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A Curiously Forgotten Bump in A Successful Television Career
theowinthrop24 June 2008
Warning: Spoilers
In the middle and late 1950s Phil Silvers became a television star of top magnitude in the comedy YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH, wherein he was that con-man's con-man Sergeant Ernie Bilko, the best motor pool head in the U.S. Army, stationed in a Midwestern Fort. Episode after episode followed his schemes to make a buck, inevitably running afoul of the camp Commander, Col. Hall (Paul Ford), and usually just missing out of being totally successful. The reruns of YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH still crop up on television, and still remain quite amusing, with Silvers supported by Herbie Faye, Allan Melville, Maurice Gosfield (as the immortally stupid Private Doberman), and others including (in several episodes) a young Dick Van Dyke. YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH remains one of the classic comedy series of the so-called "Golden Age" of television of the 1950s (if there ever was such a golden age).

In 1963 Silvers switched over to Channel 2 and prepared a new series. Most people don't recall THE NEW PHIL SILVERS SHOW because it was not a great success. Silvers' work in the 1960s is best typified by his appearances in two films: IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963) and BUONO SERA, MRS. CAMPBELL (1968). This is understandable, but only just so: we do not like to think of talented people in flops. Yet Silver's second and last series lasted a full year as say the last series of Lucille Ball, HERE'S LUCY, which lasted barely two months. Also, there was an attempt at a build-up in public interest in Silver's re-emergence on television. A special was put on starring Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith, Danny Thomas, and Jack Benny dealing with Silver's pushing his way onto the Channel 2 line-up. That has rarely happened since.

It was not a bad series (I rank it a "6" out of "10") but it broke no new ground for Silvers or his writers. Instead of a Midwest Fort it was in a Midwest factory. Instead of being named "Ernie Bilko" he was "Harry Grafton", and now he was not running the motor pool, but he was in charge of the factory kitchen and factory morale. Paul Ford had been a wonderful foil for Silvers in the first series, but Ford had a splendid pompous delivery and good timing. Here Silver's "enemy" was Stafford Repp (soon to get his great television role as "Chief O'Hara" in BATMAN) who was the factory manager. Repp was a competent actor, but he did not have Ford's self-image and timing. The owner of the factory appeared a few times (Douglas Dumbrille) but while he certainly matched the pomposity he did not show up enough.

The episodes followed the path laid out by the Bilko episodes: Grafton would concoct some scheme to con money out of the workers or someone on the outside - but somehow the scheme never quite worked well. But what seemed really amusing on that Fort set was not as funny here. In fact, two jokes I recall from the show were throw away types that were not meant to be major jokes at all. The first opened each show. Grafton always slept as long as he liked. He rarely arrived at 8:00 A.M. like the others. This should show up on his time cards. Instead, Grafton (who is handy with his hands) pulls out a remote control at the time-clock and uses it to readjust the time on the face to be at 8:00 A.M. and then return it to 9:30 or whatever time it is. This joke was part of ever episode showing him coming into work. The other was that (as he planned the lunches for the workers) he and his cohorts would come out on a food truck dressed in the national dress (French, Italian, German, Russian, Spanish, whatever) of the country the food supposedly came from.

You can see that those two jokes are throw away ones, and (at best) cute. It is not the same as well laid out joke schemes or plot keys. In any case I find it amazing that I recall so little of this show. I recall that a cartoon image of Silvers opened each episode saying, "Glad to see ya!", but not a single one of the story lines. I watched it for the first four months, hoping it would pick up. It never did. Possibly it was that the writers were not able to get enthused about the setting: taking on the stiff braids of the military was more interesting than taking on the world of upper and middle management in a small factory. What suggests that this was the matter is that the second season the factory setting was dumped entirely. Instead we concentrated on Grafton's home life with his sister and the sister's children. Bilko's home life rarely came up (he was always, even at his crookedest a career army man). The only non-military side to Ernie Bilko was his on-again/off-again love affair with a female sergeant at the camp. The last thing we would have though of was his being an uncle or daddy or husband or brother.

In any case, the audience (what remained of it) evaporated). After a full season THE NEW PHIL SILVERS SHOW was canceled. I have never seen any of the episodes re-aired since 1964.
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Counterfit Bilko-like character transfered to Civilian Life just didn't pass muster. (No, Schultz! We didn't mean "Pass the Mustard!")
redryan647 June 2009
ANY OF us who have even a marginal interest in the history of the programming in the Television medium are fully aware of the weekly airings of a con-man's con-man in YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH (aka THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW. Each episode was funny, fresh and a cut above most sitcom quality. The manipulation of what was often obvious and otherwise ordinary was executed with such care as to rocket the series to the upper regions of the Nielsen's ratings stratosphere.

AS A FURTHER consequence of the show's unqualified success in that period of 1955-59, its star, Mr. Phil Silvers, became very highly typecast; if not as Sgt. Ernie Bilko, at least as a fast talking grifter-charlatan. The role was such a close fit for the talents and brand of humor radiated by the machine gun-like,rapid fire Silvers delivery, that the public expected the same always.*

APPARENTLY BEING tired of the pigeon-holing, in spite of its success, Phil went on the record after BILKO was a series wrap, stating that he wouldn't choose to do another con-man character for the TV networks sitcom stables. We well recall his being quoted thus in either TV Guide or one of the weekly Television supplements in our great, metropolitan Chicago newspapers, and we had four of them at that time, circa 1959-62.

WELL, RATHER THAN calling Mr. Silvers a liar,for to lie one must have the intent of deceiving someone with statements known to the offender to be untrue. Let us just say that the veteran Burlesque Comic was mistaken in his evaluation of his future projects.

THE RESULTING series, THE NEW PHIL SILVERS SHOW (United Artists TV/CBS Television Network, 1963-64), turned out to be what could be accurately described as a transplantation of the SGT.BILKO saga into a situation and setting in the civilian world. Changing the characters name did nothing for its compatibility with the TV viewing audience. They loved him as Sgt. Ernie Bilko; but apparently suffered a sort of pop culture shock with this Bilko-like newcomer's pretending to the Comedy Throne.

SITUATIONS in the show, including an on going war of wits with plant superintendent (Stafford Repp in his pre Chief O'Hara portrayal on BATMAN (Greenway/20th Century-Fox/ABC Television Network,1966-68).) This was obviously patterned on Bilko's chronic struggle with his Commanding Officer, Colonel Hall (Paul Ford); but it never quite generated the comic energy of the classic, earlier series.

AFTER A FULL season of tinkering with the premise, the humor and the setting, THE NEW PHIL SILVERS SHOW breathed its last; being the victim of the network's bottom line.

AT LAST, the lead, Phil Silvers (alias Sgt. Bilko, alias Harry Grafton, was able to keep his word never to another Con-man character on a television series. As a matter of fact, he didn't have another starring series of any sort.

NOTE: * The phenomenal success of Mr. Silvers' character in YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH rocketed him to the greatest heights of pop-culture prominence. After less than four years he was viewed as an equal to even one so well known as Groucho Marx. As evidence, even a summer issue in 1959 of MAD MAGAZINE published an article of satire entitled "What if CBS played NBC a Game of Baseball." In it at the very beginning, the teams' managers were introduced as Marx and Silvers. Lawrence Welk, from ABC, was given the chores of the Home Plate Umpire.
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