September 20th, 1955 saw the CBS network premiere of The Phil Silvers Show, a bold, frenetic situation comedy set on the fictional army camp of Fort Baxter and  featuring the antics of a conniving US Army Master Sergeant named Ernest G Bilko. Created and written by Nat Hiken and starring comedian Phil Silvers, the show was a fast-paced, high-energy slice of comedy that would eventually prove to be a huge hit with television audiences worldwide.

 

Having seen Phil Silvers perform at the Washington Mayflower Hotel, to an audience that included President Eisenhower, Vice-President Nixon and almost every major cabinet official, CBS Vice-President of Programming Hubbell Robinson offered Silvers a lucrative contract. Silvers, having already enjoyed a hugely successful career as a nightclub entertainer, radio, film and stage performer was initially reluctant to move into television. However he soon reconsidered when Robinson informed him that he would be working with writer Nat Hiken. Hiken was an established comedy writer with a proven track record. He'd enjoyed major success working on radio with Fred Allen and had recently broken into television as writer/creator of The Martha Raye Show.

Phil Silvers

Phil Silvers & Nat Hiken

The Phil Silvers Show

Over a period of several months Hiken and Silvers spent numerous hours playing poker and pinochle whilst discussing and formulating possible characters and plotlines. Hiken's first suggestion was that of a fenegling sergeant in the US army. Silvers dismissed this idea as he felt it was simply re-hashing ground already covered by the likes of fellow comedians Abbott & Costello.

 

By the time they met with Hubbell Robinson again to discuss how best to progress they had several ideas to hand, including having Silvers play a Turkish Bath attendant, a conniving stockbroker, a minor league baseball team manager and the manager of a gym. Robinson expressed great interest in Hiken's original idea of having Silvers portray a US army sergeant.

 

Nat broached Phil with the idea that the character of the brash army sergeant could prove to be a combination of characters that Silvers had already played to great effect on the Broadway stage - Punko Parks in Yokel Boy (1939), Harrison Floy in High Button Shoes (1947) and most recently Jerry Biffle in Top Banana (1951). The realisation dawned on Silvers that he had already been playing facets of the character throughout his career. The character of the immortal Sgt.Ernest G Bilko was born.

 

The show was one of the true pioneers of television comedy. It was one of television's first shows to feature a multi-racial cast, helped pioneer the three-camera system (along with The Lucy Show) and helped to launch the careers of numerous talents including Dick Van Dyke, Fred Gwynne, George Kennedy, Dick Cavett and Alan Alda.

 

Over its four season run the show won 8 Emmys with a further 9 nominations. It's influence on television is without equal and it has helped inspire generations of comedy performers, actors and writers. It's impact and effect can be seen in such sit-coms as Taxi, Seinfeld, Friends, Porridge and Only Fools & Horses to name but a few.

 

Today almost 60 years after the first show was broadcast it remains the crowning jewel in the history of television situation comedy.