Heaven: The Phil Silvers Show

IT HAS BEEN 41 YEARS SINCE THE FINAL EPISODE of The Phil Silvers Show – universally known simply as “Bilko” – was first broadcast in the United States, ending the series’ four-year run. Since then, in reruns over here, the programme has been a perennial feature of the BBC schedules, albeit an irregular one, moving around like an itinerant top cat that disappears from the neighbourhood for years at a time. Simply put, though, for all intents and purposes Bilko has always been there.

Its influence can be seen all over – obviously in shows like Dad’s Army, which translated the platoon-based comedy to more peculiarly British ends, and Only Fools and Horses, with its continually self-defeating, gold-hearted con-man, winning in ways the hustler he professes to be would hardly recognise. More subtly, Bilko echoes in The Simpsons – the only TV comedy which has rivalled its sustained level of inspiration – where the ethos of the Motor Pool can be seen in the misfit slackery Homer and his cohorts bring to their duties in the nuclear plant, and in The Sopranos, whose ensemble cast carry the same whisper of real, rumple-faced lives having been lived.

Despite this, the show remains incomparably fresh. It still sparks across a television screen so dazzlingly it illuminates how utterly, and increasingly, barren most of the surrounding landscape is. Loving this show has little to do with any bankrupt 1950s nostalgia; whilst it is saturated in its time and exudes the perfectly-preserved whiff of the era in which it was made – the end of the period broadcast historians have dubbed television’s Golden Age – Bilko, a consistently joyous combination of wit, invention and inspiration retains a unique and lethally sharp contemporary snap.

Of the men who fell-in as Company B of the Motor Pool at Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas in 1955, very few are still around. One of them, though, has just written Bilko: Behind the Lines with Phil Silvers, a valuable little book about his time on the programme.

Out-and-out Bilkophiles will know who Mickey Freeman is. Those on the next rung down will know who he is when told he played Private Zimmerman in all 142 episodes of the show. Slightly more casual watchers of the programme will know who Zimmerman is when I say he was the little blonde one with the tufted buzz-cut almost exactly like Tintin’s hair, always there when the Motor Pool crowded close around Silvers’s schemes in front of the camera for those cluttered, close-up jumbled compositions of heads that still say more about the USA than Mount Rushmore.

When I first call up Freeman, I check to make sure he was expecting the call. “Yes,” he tells me, “I dressed in uniform just for you.” He assures me he’s still a Private. “I really don’t want to be more than a Private. I’m humble.”

Freeman’s is a story-teller’s book, filled with snapshots of the men who made Bilko, sad and funny, but mostly funny, tales of who they were and what became of them. One of the things the book brings home is how much Bilko’s success was to do with the ways in which the show was constructed so completely around Silvers’s own persona. “He was a tremendous gambler,” Freeman says, “wherever he was, he’d bet on anything… ‘The next guy that walks into the room is going to be wearing a red tie.’ He’d give you odds on tie colours, anything.” Meanwhile, without trying with the self-consciousness of a Sex and the City, it came marinated in the feel of New York, the city in which it was born and filmed.

The show has an unstressed cosmopolitanism, an easy mix of ethnicity. Jumbling up Jewish, WASP, Italian and Irish, Bilko was also the first American TV show to boast regular black players among its cast, without making anything at all of their colour, an attitude that, in 1955, didn’t go down well with sponsors below the Mason Dixon line.

Phil Silvers and Nat Hiken, who had been one of the most fertile writers of radio comedy throughout the 1950s, first knocked the idea for the show into shape in a rented cold-water flat on West 48th Street, in walks through Central Park and in the stands at baseball games – in fact, many of the names used in the show, including that of Bilko himself, were lifted from players in the minor leagues.

Freeman points out that Silvers himself was a “streetwise, burlesque comic to begin with,” who learned his trade in handed-down New York theatre tradition that stretched back to the early 1800s. “And Hiken always was around Broadway, press agents and writers,” he adds. “Yeah, Hiken had the feeling of the street. He knew. Damon Runyon characters were his favourite kinds of people. So, yeah, you put them all together, and there it was, the feeling of New York.”

Many of those Runyonesque characters filled out the edges of the series. Freeman, a life long New Yorker, born on the Lower East Side who sold peanuts on Coney Island as a kid, had been a stand-up comedian before he came to the show. Herbie Faye, (Pvt Fender) had been Silvers’s stage partner back in the 1920s; Walter Cartier, (Pvt Cunningham), had been a professional fighter, and in 1951 was the subject of Stanley Kubrick‘s first short film; Jack Healy, (Pvt Mullen), had been Rocky Graziano’s original manager, the guy who introduced the fighter to “the right people.” Graziano is a particular influence in the show: one of Bilko’s main henchmen, Cpl Rocco Barbella is named exactly after him. Fittingly, Graziano took up professional boxing whilst he was AWOL from the army. This stuff resonates through every second of the programme.

Although with his multi-award-winning stage performance in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (another show originally written specifically for him) he would once more attain the heights of success he had achieved with Bilko, Phil Silver’s later years were marked by illness and depression. Freeman last spoke with him over the telephone shortly before his death in 1985.

At that time, Freeman had been performing on a cruise ship, doing his stand-up and screening his own favourite Bilko episode, the very excellent “Doberman’s Sister.” On the ship he encountered a worried mutual friend who told him that Silvers had become a virtual recluse.

“So I called him. On the ship I had shown “Doberman’s Sister,” you know, and his voice was still in my ears, that rat-tat-tat-tat-tat, that rhythm. When I called, a nurse answered. I heard ‘Mr Silvers, it’s Mickey Freeman’ So he picked up: ‘Hello…… Mickey……. how… are ya…?’ and my God I was shattered. I said, ‘Phil, listen, I just came from London, the show is a big hit in London, they love you.’ And he said, ‘Well, maybe I’ll be doing my therapy, and maybe I’ll get back in shape….how come you’re in California?’ So I said I was on the ship and working, and he said: ‘Oh, you still got that excitement in your voice…. You’re lucky, that’s wonderful…” And that’s the last I spoke with him.”

Today, aside from Freeman, only Allan Melvin (Cpl Henshaw, Bilko’s other main hench), Nicholas Saunders (who played Cpt Barker, Colonel Hall’s chief aide, and these days translates Chekhov), Terry Carter (who played Pvt Sugarman and was later promoted to Colonel Tigh in Battlestar Galactica), and Maurice Brenner (Pvt Fleischman, a regular, mostly voiceless spectacled presence at the back of the barracks) are still with us.

“Yeah, there’s nobody left, I’ll tell you this. There’s nobody, it’s just… Frightening.” Freeman pauses.

“Like I said, it’s a very high mortality rate for a non-combatant unit.”

Published in The Scotsman, June 6 2000