‘The Phil Silvers Show’: Sgt. Bilko Was Named After a Chicago Cubs Player

The Phil Silvers Show left an undeniable legacy on the history of TV as a classic show from the medium’s golden era. It also featured a main character with a name that’s both distinctive and hilarious: Sgt. Bilko. But where did the name itself come from? The series creator actually used the name of a Chicago Cubs player. Here’s the story behind the show, the character, and the name. 

What was the premise of ‘The Phil Silvers Show?’

Phil Silvers
Phil Silvers | CBS Photo Archive

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According to IMDb, The Phil Silvers Show ran from 1955-1959. Writer Nat Hiken created the series.

The show involved Sg. Bilko using his soldiers at Fort Baxter (where he was stationed) to help him engage in get-rich-quick schemes. He’d spend less time on doing his actual job and more time trying to make money in ways that often seemed less than honest. 

Phil Silvers was the show’s star. The series was incredibly popular and spawned a 90s movie adaptation starring Steve Martin. What truly made the show great was Silvers’ depiction of Bilko. 

Who was Sgt. Bilko? 

The character of Sgt. Bilko became so well known that the show is sometimes casually referred to as that name by fans. Silvers portrayed Bilko as something of a con man and a flimflammer.

He was always attempting to find a way to get ahead, make money, or otherwise get something over on someone. These led to complicated plot lines that would amplify for comedic effect. 

Silvers’ show and his depiction of Bilko would inspire many shows and comedians that came after him. For example, according to the UK Telegraph, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm creator Larry David was a big fan of Silvers and the sitcom, with that show inspiring both of David’s later shows. 

Unfortunately, according to IMDb, CBS canceled the show somewhat abruptly. At the time, the logic most networks had was that shows couldn’t enter syndication until it was off the air, leading CBS to cancel it at the height of its popularity. This greatly upset Silvers, who said: 

“The cancellation of the Bilko show came as a complete surprise to me. After five big years on the air it was killed without anyone consulting me. It destroyed my pride. I was startled and hurt by the action, but there was nothing I could do about it.

I was always beefing about how tired I was from all the work, but I wanted to retire from the show myself, not have it done for me. Still I can’t complain too much, I owned half the show and gave it up for a considerable sum of money in my children’s names.”

Despite the show not lasting as Silvers would have liked, he did more than enough to cement both his and his character’s names as legends in the world of TV. But where exactly did the name of Bilko come from? 

The Chicago Cubs player Sgt. Bilko was named after

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Bilko is certainly a unique name for a character, but it had its roots in reality.

According to MeTV, Hiken named the sergeant after an athlete. The name came from baseball player Steve Bilko. Bilko played in the Pacific Coast League of the minors and later in the majors with the Chicago Cubs. A 1954 call from announcer Bert Wilson gained some notoriety for the player. A double play featuring Bilko, Ernie Banks, and Baker received a Wilson call of, “Bingo to Bango to Bilko.” 

According to Baseball Reference, Bilko had a 10-year career in the majors. Along with playing for the Cubs, he also played for the St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Angels, Detroit Tigers, and Cincinnati Reds. He finished his career with 76 home runs and a batting average of .249.

The player Bilko may not have been a legend on the diamond, but The Phil Silvers Show immortalized him on the small screen as he shared the name of one of the most iconic characters in TV’s golden era.