‘Car 54’ & ‘Sgt. Bilko’

(Above: Phil Silvers and Joe E. Ross, source YouTube video)

Nat Hiken was one of TV’s earliest showrunners, a producer/writer/director who won five Emmy Awards for two of the funniest series ever: Car 54, Where Are You? and The Phil Silvers Show, more popularly known as Sgt. Bilko.

This weekend, over-the-air channel Decades will air marathons of each show.

Car 54, Where Are You?

Before Brooklyn 99, before even Barney Miller, fictional New York cops were generating laughs on Car 54, Where Are You?

The series also boasted a memorable theme song (written, of course, by Hiken):

“There’s a holdup in the Bronx,
Brooklyn’s broken out in fights,
There’s a traffic jam in Harlem that’s backed up to Jackson Heights,
There’s a scout troop short a child,
Krushchev’s due at Idlewild,*
Car 54, where are you?”

(* If you’re baffled about what Idlewild could possibly mean, skip to the bottom of this article).

Car 54, Where Are You? ran originally on NBC for two 30-episode seasons (1961-1963). You can see 38 episodes on Decades, from noon ET Saturday through 7 am Sunday. The marathon starts with episode one, which you can also watch right here:

The show centers around Bronx cop partners Toody and Muldoon. Fred Gwynne (later Herman in The Munsters) plays the sensitive and quiet Muldoon, with Joe E. Ross as the eager, naïve and noisy (“ooh, ooh!”) Toody. The supporting ensemble includes Beatrice Pons as Toody’s wife Lucille, and Al Lewis (later Grandpa in The Munsters) as Officer Schnauzer.     

All 60 episodes of Car 54, Where Are You? are also streaming free on Shout Factory TV. Some episodes are also available free from Uncle Earl’s Classic TV Channel.

The Phil Silvers Show/Sgt. Bilko

Sitcoms in military settings were not uncommon during TV’s first few decades, from Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C and McHale’s Navy to F Troop and Hogan’s Heroes. But none rose to the heights of The Phil Silvers Show, later syndicated as Sgt. Bilko, which won three consecutive Emmy Awards as Best Comedy Series.

Bilko, Doberman
(Bilko and Doberman, source Wikipedia)

If you didn’t know already, you’ve probably figured out by now that Phil Silvers stars as Sgt. Bilko in this series, set on a US Army base. Bilko, who runs the camp’s motor pool, was perhaps TV’s first antihero, always scheming and conniving new ways to get rich quick (the show’s original – and third – title was indeed You’ll Never Get Rich).

Bilko’s foil is usually the camp’s Colonel Hall (Paul Ford), and his motor pool platoon includes Harvey Lembeck (later bumbling biker Eric Von Zipper in the beach party movies) as Cpl. Barbella, Car 54’s Joe E. Ross as Sgt. Ritzik, and Maurice Gosfield as lovable Private Doberman.

The Phil Silvers Show ran originally on CBS for 142 episodes over four seasons (1955-1959). Decades will run a 24-hour marathon of 48 episodes starting at 7 am Sunday with episode one. Here’s a scene from the third season:

You can find all episodes of The Phil Silvers Show/Sgt. Bilko streaming at Uncle Earl’s Classic TV Channel, including an unaired pilot and the surviving opening of a one-hour variety special. We’d also highly recommend the series’ final episode, a surreal precursor of sorts to Seinfeld’s end decades later, with Bilko and his crew ending up behind bars for their hijinks. (Larry David, Seinfeld’s co-creator, has indeed cited Sgt. Bilko as one of his major influences.)

Movie Flops

Nat Hiken (1914-1968) was long gone by the time his two major successes were rebooted as terrible feature films in the mid-1990s. Each flopped, both critically and commercially.

Car 54, Where Are You? (1994) starred John C. McGinley as Muldoon, singer David Johansen as Toody, and Rosie O’Donnell as Lucille. Al Lewis reprised his role as Officer Schnauzer.

Car 54, Where Are You? is streaming free on Vudu.

Warning: this revival has a dismal 2.5 rating on IMDb and (are you ready?) … a 0% TomatoMeter score on Rotten Tomatoes. We strongly recommend sticking with the original TV series.

Sgt. Bilko (1996) starred Steve Martin as Bilko, Dan Aykroyd as Colonel Hall and Eric Edwards as Doberman.

Sgt. Bilko is available to Starz subscribers or for a $3.99 rental from several providers.

On a positive note, the movie version of Sgt. Bilko isn’t rated quite as badly as the movie version of Car 54, Where Are You? It has a 5.9 rating on IMDb and a 31% TomatoMeter score on Rotten Tomatoes. But we’d again recommend sticking with the original TV series.

For this weekend’s complete Decades schedule, visit Decades.com/binge. To find the Decades channel number in your area, either over-the-air or on cable, visit decades.com/wheretowatch.

(* And what was Idlewild? Until December 1963, it was New York City’s international airport. It was then renamed JFK.)

About Les Luchter

Les Luchter is a former managing editor of Multichannel News, editor-in-chief of Cable Marketing, and news editor of Broadcast Week.

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