Welcome, dear friends and other suckers, to a new regular feature here at the Criminal Complex. Yes, the Scam Artist Hall Of Fame, as demanded by none of you, will highlight those great men and women, fictional and non, who through their erudite shrewdness and intelligence part money from its fools. Our inaugural inductee is none other than that captain of the cardsharps, the service’s own shuckster, Sergeant Bilko.
This may seem an odd choice for such an honored position, the main character (as portrayed by Phil Silvers) from a sit-com that your grandparents used to watch when they were your age. And that’s fair enough until you consider that, compared to other such squeaky-clean TV comedy fare of the time as Leave It to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, to have a protagonist who spent all of his time fleecing the men in his command for every cent they earned helping to defend our country from communism was quite revolutionary indeed. The Phil Silvers Show was one of CBS’ most top-rated shows in the late 1950s, and was a success in reruns even immediately after it ceased production. Why would a show about such an inherently unlikeable guy enjoy such success, especially in such a notoriously tight-assed era in American culture like the 1950s?
That’s all part of the scam, isn’t it?
Bilko’s entire raison d’etre is money, preferably in large sums. A master card-player and gambler, he’s always above-board in his gamesmanship, but the real challenge lies in getting a game together. The men of Fort Baxter (and later, Camp Fremont) are all wise to Bilko and spend much of the series simply trying to avoid him—they know if they play, they’ll lose. Two of Bilko’s best marks are his fellow sergeants, Grover and Ritzik. In the episode “Bilko in Outer Space,” for example, Grover and Ritzik come into some big dough, six hundred bucks. If they want to make it through the week until their next furlough with their wallets intact, they simply must avoid Bilko and his deck of cards. Grover even says at one point that Bilko has them trained like dogs. Their attempts at avoiding Bilko actually work through most of the episode, until Bilko uses their desire for isolation against them and sets up a fake space-program experiment where two men will be locked away in a simulation capsule for three days. Stuck with nothing to do, they’re putty in Bilko’s hands once he shows up.
It’s just that sort of judo move that is Bilko’s greatest strength. Never one to back down from a challenge (unless it’s, you know, actually military service), Bilko can always take the brute force of the straight world and use it against itself. Take Col. Hall, for instance. Gambling is strictly forbidden on base, so Bilko must spend a lot of time convincing the colonel there’s nothing going on in the motor pool but auto repair. But at the same time Bilko knows and begrudgingly respects his superior. At one point, Bilko even goes so far as to get Col. Hall transferred to another post entirely, only to double his efforts to get him back once the new colonel proves himself to be an even harder sell. And though Bilko, hoping to get the colonel off-base so he can take an unauthorized furlough, fans the fires of marital strife between Col. Hall and his charming wife, he also helps them patch things up by episode’s end, employing a complicated scam which convinces several women that Hall is in fact a major motion-picture producer. It wouldn’t be Bilko if it wasn’t all a big scam, but he knows exactly which side of the bread his butter is on.
In fact, Bilko’s downfalls (of which there are more than a few) come when he overextends himself. Surely, sometimes his scams fall apart in the bold light of Col. Hall’s authority, but oftentimes Bilko and his own greed are his own worst enemies. When Bilko manages to open up a perfectly legit casino in the old USO hall, he has huge dollar signs in his eyes. That is, until the local mob shows up and takes their percentage—100%. Bilko may be small potatoes, but it’s a steady gig. If he can keep his eyes from getting bigger than his stomach, he’s fine. In fact, this is exactly what happens in Bilko’s final adventure, “The Weekend Colonel.” Bilko trips over an exact look-a-like of Colonel Hall and uses him to authorize a Monte Carlo night on the base. The money is supposed to go to charity, but the only charity involved is the Ernie Bilko Retirement Fund. Bilko’s own greed keeps him from seeing how outlandish this scam is until Col. Hall himself comes back to the base ahead of schedule and monkey-wrenches the whole thing.
Though that’s how the show ends, it’s clear throughout the run of The Phil Silvers Show that Sgt. Bilko is needed on that base. He’s a part of the ecosystem; granted something of a parasite, the remora and his ilk always have a place. When the WACs and girlfriends of the men of Ft. Baxter tried to keep their men away from Bilko, he appeased them before eventually suckering the men right back into their gambling ways. Bilko is like the proverbial tree that bends in the wind of Col. Hall’s hollering, always willing to give so long as he gets.
So here’s to you, Sarge. Bilko and The Phil Silvers Show may not be as popular as they once were, but if the ratings of shows like Psych and White Collar are any indication, TV will always employ these sorts of lovable vagabonds and the TV-viewing public will continue to cheer for them. But without Sergeant Bilko and his early swindling of America’s heart, this sort of cheerful con-man could have been relegated to limbo, where men’s wallets are always safe and everybody plays by the rules. What a boring, Leave It to Beaver world it would be then.
- originally published 8/27/2012