TV Guide magazine
16 to 22 May 1959

Taps For Sergeant Bilko

Ernie is leaving the network, but Phil Silvers will return

“Personally, I’ve had it,” Phil Silvers said.

He was discussing the CBS decision to cancel his Sergeant Bilko show after this season. “As far as I’m concerned, this is it for Bilko. I won’t play the character ever again, not even in a TV special.

“You know I’m flying out to Hollywood to appear on the Jack Benny special (May 23) as soon as we wrap up the filming of our last show here. Right now I don’t know what Benny has in mind for me. But you can bet that I’ll be playing Phil Silvers on that show, not Sergeant Bilko.”

Phil was sitting at a table in a big, bare rehearsal hall in New York, sipping orange juice from a cardboard container as he watched the Bilko platoon rehearse.

He jumped up to do a scene, then returned to his juice, a cigaret and his visitor. What, he was asked, are his future plans, now that Sergeant Bilko is receiving his honorable discharge?

“It’s pretty definite that I’ll do four specials for CBS next season, probably one every three months,” Phil said. “And that’s about all the TV I expect to do. I want to give the public a chance to miss my face for a while.

“There is one other possibility. There’s a real colorful building over on West 48th Street here in New York that’s now inhabited by various Broadway press agents. At one time Walter Winchell, Damon Runyon and Ed Sullivan all lived there. I’d like to do a Playhouse 90 based on that building. In fact, I’ve already asked my Bilko writers, Billy Friedberg, Arnie Rosen and Coleman Jacoby, to write the show. And if it’s successful on TV, I’d like to expand it into a Broadway play that I’d star in.”

Incidentally, somebody asked Phil, why was Bilko canceled?

“It certainly wasn’t my decision,” Phil said. “We were all caught short when we heard the news. But after four and a half years of playing nothing but Bilko, I’m not disappointed. In fact, I’m almost glad. There are so many other things to do—to go to from here.”

He paused a moment, inhaling deeply on his cigaret. “I’ve been ready to give up Bilko for the last six months. It’s been a real chore for that long to do the show week after week after week. But I’m a guy who doesn’t know how not to show up. I didn’t have the guts to call it quits myself.”

He motioned to the other actors in the room. “I know this has been a way of life for too many people. I didn’t want to be the one to say, ‘Let’s forget the whole thing.’ ”

If Phil didn’t kill the show, then, who did? He stamped out his cigaret in an ash tray. “You can’t blame it on our ratings. They’ve held up.” (The latest Nielsen ratings lists the show about five points lower than it was a year ago but still at a highly respectable 21.9. The show is seen in 9,000,000 homes each week by more than 20,000,000 viewers.)

“I guess we ran into sponsor trouble. You know you can’t do a weekly show like ours these days without two sponsors. Even a half-hour show is too expensive for most sponsors to handle alone.

“Well, we’ve had Camel cigarets as one of our two sponsors from the start and they established this wonderful identity with us. They even tailored their commercials to fit the platoon, and we integrated them into the show.

“Because of that I think no second sponsor has ever had a chance to tie in like Camels. So that second sponsor always felt he wasn’t getting a fair shake. Well, when the second sponsor we have now, Schick shavers, decided to cancel after this season, CBS tried for a while to find a new one. But then the network decided that maybe the show had run its course, and they tossed in the towel.”

He smiled musingly. “I don’t think CBS tried too hard to sell us. But as I said, I’m not sorry. I’m tired of the role and of the constant grind.”

(CBS network officials confirmed Phil’s theory. It seems that cancellation of the Bilko show permitted CBS to meet the request of the Desilu Playhouse sponsor, Westinghouse, to move from its present Monday night spot to a Friday night time period for the 1959-60 season.)

New episodes of the Silvers show are to be televised through June 19. Starting June 26, reruns will take over through Sept. 11. Then it’s taps for Sergeant Bilko—except, of course, for more reruns. CBS will have 145 Bilko shows on hand and they will be syndicated to local stations around the country. Silvers and the entire cast, of course, will receive the usual actor’s percentages for the reruns.

The interview was conducted during rehearsals for the episode Doberman—Missing Heir. With Maurice Gosfield as Doberman and Jane Kean as Dixie.

Phil glanced up to watch Maurice Gosfield—Private Doberman—rehearse a comedy love scene with Jane Kean, a guest that week. He laughed as Gosfield grabbed Miss Kean in a bear hug, then stumbled over his lines, necessitating a prompt from the script girl.

“It’s things like that that I’m going to miss,” Phil said. “Actually, though, looking back on the whole thing, I have no regrets. There’s nothing that I would have done differently. I think the show has improved every year and is better today than when we first started.

“Sure, I’ll admit some of our shows haven’t been prize winners. But I think you’ll find at least five minutes of good comedy even on those that weren’t too good. And that’s a pretty fair record. Remember, we’ve won at least one Emmy every year since we’ve been on.”

Among Phil’s other pleasant memories will be the number of top-name stars who have appeared on the Bilko show purely out of friendship to him. For the minimum actors’ union fee of $80 he has presented such people as Bing Crosby, Lucille Ball, Dean Martin and Mickey Rooney. On other weekly half-hour shows these stars could demand up to $10,000 for a single guest appearance.

“I just can’t call people like that and ask them to work for that minimum fee. Usually it’s just a lucky break when we get them. They happen to be here in New York for some reason and I talk them into coming down to our studio for a surprise walk-on.”

Phil revealed that Frank Sinatra had phoned him from Australia to invite him to co-star in some future movie. “First of all, though, I’m taking my wife to Europe in June. I’ll get together with Sinatra when we return.”

The director called a halt to the rehearsal. Phil stood up and smiled. “Watch this,” he said. He yelled, “Okay, gang,” and assumed the classic orchestra conductor’s pose with both arms upraised.

He lowered one arm in a down-beat and the cast and crew, without further prompting, started to sing a raucous chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.” Phil turned back to his visitor. “That’s about the way it is,” he said.—Bob Stahl