Tuesday, May 10, 2011


original opening credit for "Bilko"
Two of television's legendary sitcoms, You'll Never Get Rich, a.k.a. The Phil Silvers Show, a.k.a. Sgt. Bilko (1955-59, CBS), and Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-63 NBC) were both the brainchildren of Nat Hiken, without a doubt the most fertile comic mind in TV history. In the 1940's, Hiken was acerbic comedian Fred Allen's head writer on his radio show--a job that proved frustrating for him, as it was largely assumed that Allen wrote all of his own material. He then moved on to create and write Milton Berle's (excellent) 1947 pre-TV radio show, before moving over to television, writing and producing "big mouth" comic actress Martha Raye's weekly comedy/variety show, to much acclaim

Phil Silvers, Nat Hiken
My tribute to kiken, originally published in the NY Observer in 2005. (Click to enlarge)

Nat Hiken and his Bilko writers sweep the Emmy awards in 1958
In 1955, Nat Hiken became television's first comedic auteur, creating, writing, producing, song-writing and directing You'll Never Get Rich, a vehicle for the inspired comic dynamo Phil Silvers. Silvers portrayed master Sgt. Ernest T. Bilko, an ingenious, money-hungry yet always charming con man, a role well tailored to Silvers' real life personality.

 The weekly plots (many would be written by Hiken discoveries such as the young Neil Simon) revolved around the world of Bilko's Machiavellian money-making schemes. The regular group inhabiting the motley motor pool (company B, 3rd platoon) was always ethnically diverse--a Hiken trademark. and a rarity in the white-bread world of late 50's TV.

The members of the motley motor pool at leisure.
 The show of course featured the incredibly lovable & incredibly homely "actor" Maurice Gosfield as Sad Sack private Duane Doberman, Bilko's ultimate patsy, who women inexplicably found sexy and irresistible.
"Mondo Doberman" Originally appeared in The Village Voice. Click to enlarge.
 Hiken always had a great "eye" for interesting faces (casting many ex-boxers in his shows), and was always on the look out. Gosfiled filled the bill. He could barely deliver his lines, but became possibly the most popular character on the show, finally recieving more fan mail than Phil Silvers himself.

 Duane Doberman, late 50's DC Comic book Hero

Sgt. Bilko and Diane Doberman from the classic episode "Doberman's Sister"
"Sgt. Bilko" remains one of the great classics of the golden Age of television, and continues to grow in stature as more & more people continue to discover it's comedic riches.
The Bilko Game
Phil Silvers conferring with Nat Hiken on the Bilko set

Nat Hiken making his point to Alan Melvin, Phil Silvers and Harvey Lembeck

the Bilko cast shill for Camels..

and pose for the cover of Colliers
Car-54, Where Are You?, filmed on location in the Bronx, depicted the sometimes Kafkaesque goings-on and inhabitants of the fictional 53rd Precinct. The seemingly deceptive simple plots would frequently spiral into sometimes surrealistic, nightmarish extremes. The two stars were actor, sometimes-cartoonist Fred Gwynne, long of body and sad of face, as the cultured officer Francis Muldoon, and former low-brow night club comic, Hiken discovery, neanderthal-like Joe E. Ross (who had appeared as a regular cast member on "Bilko") as his beloved partner Gunther Toody, short, squat and loveably dumb ("Do you Mind... Do... You... MIND!?").

Phil Silvers visits the set of Car 54, nat Hiken on the right

                                              Car 54 opening theme

Nat Hiken posed with his two stars, Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne

Fred Gwynne, Nat Hiken, Ruth Masters
Everything you ever wanted to know about Joe E. Ross, "King of the Slobs" can be found here:

Car 54 counted among it's fans, Literary Great William Faulkner.
"Toody-Mania" swept the USA in the early sixties

 The two Mutt & Jeff stars had perfect chemistry, something Nat Hiken had a brilliant knack for getting right--Toody with his pointless, endless ramblings ("OHH OHH... Nobody swears vengeance like John Wayne!") as Muldoon drove the squad car in a dreamlike stupor.
Fred Gwynne & Joe E. Ross.  Perfect Chemistry.
 Just as Bilko had before, Car 54 utilized an ethnically diverse cast, Jews, Italians, Irish, hispanics and blacks (including Nipsy Russell & Ozzie Davis), and many of Hiken's beloved trademarked New York, Runyonesque characters, including Jewish Bronx characters like Molly Picon as "Mrs. Bronson"...
Joe E. Ross, Molly Picon, Fred Gwynne
 ex- boxer Jake Lamotta, various blonde floozies and ex-strippers, and a who's who of great and in some cases still unknown comedic guest stars, among them Jan Murray, Mickey Deems, Maureen Stapelton, Carl Ballantine, Tom Bosley, Wally Cox, Gene Baylos, B. S. Pulley, Larry Storch, Alice Ghostly, Jules Munshin, Shari Lewis, Godfrey Cambridge, Charles Nelson Reilly, Jack Gilford, Margaret Hamilton, Hal Linden, etc. The supporting cast was unforgettable, notably Paul Reed as the perpetually exasperated Captain Block; Beatrice Pons as Toody's shrewish wife Lucille; and Al Lewis as combustible patrolman Leo Schnauser.
Al Lewis as Officer Leo Schnauser and Paul Reed as Captain Block
Sylvia & Leo Schnauzer

The show was a hilarious masterpiece. It ran for only two seasons yet has become a beloved cult favorite, fondly remembered for it's hilariously clever, funny, insane and ultimately warm-hearted plots, dialog, acting,  and for a glimpse at the lost Bronx of the early sixties. It's by far my favorite TV show.
Joe E. Ross (Gunther Toody) with one of his beloved hookers

Car 54 Puppets and Unbreakable Record

cover art by George Wachsteter

Joe E Ross on the set of Mrs. Bronson's kitchen, Nat Hiken on the right
the two Car 54 stars between takes in the Bronx 
After several years of largely creative inactivity, Nat Hiken reluctantly moved to Los Angeles and wrote & directed his one and only film, the 1968 Don Knotts flop and future cult favorite The Love God?

                                    Trailers From Hell on The Love God?

Nat Hiken died in Dec, 1968 at he age of 54. Once the most celebrated creator of television comedy and winner of eight Emmy awards, today he's largely forgotten. Which is why it's now time to rejoice...


OOH! OOH! To celebrate the 50th anniversary of it's debut, Season One of "Car 54, Where Are You?" has finally arrived on DVD! 30 beautifully restored episodes mastered from the original 35 mm film, from Shanachie Entertainment. Order today!  Season two is now also available, featuring back cover art by yours truly:


On a related note, May 11th, 2011 would have been Phil Silvers 100th birthday.      Happy Birthday Sarge!

This is an excellent book about Nat Hiken's life and career, written by David Everitt. Very highly recommended.


Maurice Gosfield as El Mucacho


  1. Now there's a record cover I'd proudly put on my wall!

  2. Now there's a record cover I'd proudly put on my wall!

  3. What the hell... "Now there's a record cover I'd proudly put on my wall!"

  4. I may have that record, I'll have to check. I'm pretty sure I have Top Banana. Now I have to find a copy of the Car 54 Where Are You? lp. That one is new to me.

  5. Wow! Terrific drawings, and great commentary! Nat Hiken really was a genius!

  6. Man, I'd kill for that WANTED: EL MUCHACHO poster!

    With the possible exception of "A Matter of Record" from The Honeymooners ("YOU... are a BLAAAAABBERMOUTH!!") - which leaves me so drained that burglars can break in and clean out my house right in front of me - "Doberman's Sister" is possibly my all-time favorite TV comedy episode. (Maybe "The Germans" from Fawlty Towers too, if we're counting international.) I read the Hiken book cover-to-cover when it first came out, and can recommend it without reservation. (Well, maybe one tiny reservation. The author slams The Beverly Hillbillies. Grrrr!)

    Also grabbed that Car 54 DVD on the first day - something I've been waiting for all my life, it seems. (It's a good thing Best Buy had a few on hand, because I woulda beaten an old lady and a bus full of orphans senseless if they'd been foolish enough to grab the last one.)
    I thought I'd exercise some self-control and spread out the episodes over several weeks or months, but wound up bingeing instead - watched 'em all back-to-back over one weekend when I had the flu.

    ...Season 2, Where Aaaaaaaare You?

  7. Was Maurice Gosfield really as gross and unkempt as some things I have read have portrayed him?

  8. Although revered by many, Nat Hiken still hasn't received his due. Since the term 'genius' is tossed around almost as frequently as standing ovations occur these days, I think a new term must be devised just for Nat. I spoke with Mickey Freeman, Fred O'Neal, Hank Garrett, and Paul O' Keefe about him. They all immediately uttered that same old word--genius. I'll forgive them.

  9. Although revered by many, Nat Hiken still hasn't received his due. Since the term 'genius' is tossed around almost as frequently as standing ovations occur these days, I think a new term must be devised just for Nat. I spoke with Mickey Freeman, Fred O'Neal, Hank Garrett, and Paul O' Keefe about him. They all immediately uttered that same old word--genius. I'll forgive them.