1914 - 1968
Nat Hiken was a pioneering American TV writer, producer, and songwriter who rose to prominence in the 1950s when he gave American television audiences probably their finest half hour series of comedies; 'The Phil Silvers Show'. Hiken had a gift of economy with words that distinguished him from other writers. Many of the scriptwriters that he worked with would openly admit that Hiken could take what they had said in several sentences and put it across in just a few words, and those words would be funnier than they could ever have imagined. He also had a great eye for talent and is credited with discovering future stars such as Fred Gwynne, Alan Alda and Dick Van Dyke. He also had a talent that allowed him to find the right lines for the right people and in the process was able to draw strong comedic performances from such unlikely celebrities as boxer Rocky Graziano.
In his lifetime Nat Hiken was known as the 'King of the Half Hour' and was rewarded with eight Emmy Awards. But in latter years his contribution to television has been forgotten far too easily. It is time to look back and remember one of the giants of the small screen.
Nat Hiken was born on June 23rd 1914 in Chicago where his parents lived in the Lawndale district, just a few blocks away from Roosevelt Boulevard where many other Jewish immigrants had settled at that time. When Nat was six his parents decided to move to Milwaukee where his father, Max, who had done manual labour for much of his working life, took a lease on a storefront property. Nat, it would appear, inherited his father's sense of humour and by the age of eight father and son would perform a 'party piece' where Nat sat on Max's lap and they performed a mock ventriloquist act. Nat did not enjoy the same sort of relationship with his mother, Minnie, who by all accounts was a much more serious person whose great interest was in politics. Years later this almost resulted in Nat being blacklisted as a communist sympathiser.
In 1950, just as Nat's career was taking off it almost came to a grinding halt. On June 22nd his name appeared in a pamphlet entitled 'Red Channels,' which set out to expose communist sympathisers working within the entertainment industry. 'Red Channels' exerted such a powerful influence on the broadcasting industry that it almost became the blacklisters bible. Although not a communist sympathiser himself, Nat knew that his mother's strong political beliefs could easily pull him into the widening net of those under suspicion. It was no matter that you were innocent - industry bosses only had to think you were guilty. In the end Nat had to take out an advertisement in Variety denouncing any communist beliefs. It put a great strain on his relationship with his mother, but as he privately said at the time, "I have to do it because I've been having dreams that my daughters were going from door to door begging for food." Fortunately, it did the trick.
By the time Nat was a teenager he had a reputation among his friends as a funny storyteller and a bit of a teaser or, as the Yiddish expression puts it, a kibbitzer which in effect means a meddlesome onlooker. Nat would always try to find the humorous side of a situation even if it was (although not nastily) at the expense of a friend or colleague. He did well at school and eventually enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in 1932 to study journalism. At University he joined the staff of the campus daily known as the "Cardinal." In his senior year he began to hone his humorous writing skills by writing a column called the "Gripers' Club." This was a send-up of newspaper advice columns where students were invited to write in their complaints about university life. But in reality, many of the letters that were published were written by Nat himself under a number of aliases.
Soon after his graduation Nat came up with an idea for a freelance news service which involved stories about local men and women who were now involved in the movie business in Hollywood. On the strength of this idea his cousin, Sandy, who was working as a secretary for Republic Pictures, suggested that Nat come out to California where she had a number of contacts within the film industry. Nat made the trip and soon found a tour of newspaper offices along the way proved to be very fruitful as he sold many of them on his idea of Hollywood news items with a hometown interest.
By all accounts Nat wasn't the most prolific writer at this time and often left it to the last minute before submitting his copy to the local newspapers. Still, he made enough money to live on - just. It was only when Sandy introduced him to some friends of her's that she thought Nat would hit it off with, that things changed. Roland Kibbee was the manager of a local radio station and Jack Lescoulie had aspirations to be an actor but up to this time had done nothing more than bit parts. He was currently surviving as the disc jockey at KFBW. During a conversation one day, Nat told his new found friends about his "Gripers' Club" column and Lescoulie thought it could be adapted to make an amusing radio show. They agreed that Nat would set about writing it while Lescoulie tried to get some airtime with KFBW. But Nat, just like he did with his newspaper articles, just sat on it until Lescoulie announced that they were going out live the following Saturday. Nat set to work and produced the material in record time. It seemed that he produced much better material when working to a tight deadline.
The show was called "The Grouch Club" and went out six mornings a week from Monday to Saturday. It's tongue-in-cheek approach came as a refreshing change to listeners who were used to hearing lively, loud and quick-talking radio show hosts and the broadcast began to pick up a steady and appreciative following. By 1938, the show was picked up for broadcast throughout the state by the California Radio System. With success also came a little more luxury for Nat, as he didn't have to come up with new ideas every day as the show was now broadcast just once a week on a Monday evening. The shows were also extended and Nat found that he had to write a sketch for each of them in order to stretch them out. It soon turned out that sketch writing was Nat's true forte.
"The Grouch Club" soon began to attract the attention of publications as prestigious as 'Variety' and very soon Warner Brothers took an interest too. The result of this was a series of short films. Finally, in April 1939, NBC broadcast the show coast to coast with it now being sponsored by General Mills' Kix cereal. The show had also caught the ear of Fred Allen, the popular radio comedian whose own show was considered one of the best and was certainly one of the most popular in the so-called classic era of American radio. In 1940 he hired Nat Hiken and Roland Kibbee to write for him.
In order to write for Allen, Nat needed to relocate from Los Angeles to New York, but he soon settled in and found that he didn't miss the glamour and glitz of Hollywood. A lot of show business people still populated New York as did many sportsmen such as boxers Joe Louis, Jake LaMotta, Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Graziano, and as boxing was Nat's favourite sport he was in his element. New York was also much closer in lifestyle to Milwaukee than LA was.
In 1941 Nat met a young woman called Ambur Dana Salt and in October they married. Around the same time Nat's responsibilities on the "Fred Allen Show" increased and he was now pretty much Allen's head writer. When America joined the Second World War Nat joined the Air Force, but even though he already had a pilot licence he never got behind the cockpit for his country and was assigned to produce a morale boosting fund-raiser on Broadway. In 1946 Nat decided to call it a day as an Allen scriptwriter, feeling that the time was right for him to branch out on his own. But Nat was worried about giving up the security of a regular income and put off telling Allen until 1947. By that time television was gaining in popularity and although only about 135,000 televisions were in use the signs were there that this new medium was gaining ground so fast that there might come a time when it was more popular than radio. Nat was still not convinced. Even the man they were starting to call "Mr Television", Milton Berle, was still trying to find a successful radio format. At this point he'd had six failures behind him.
The problem with Berle was that his visual style of humour was ill suited to radio. Here was a brash and breezy comedian who could do as much with a double take as he could with a funny line. But this was completely lost on a radio audience. Nat Hiken was now given the task of finding a successful radio formula for Berle. To his credit, Nat gave Berle his first radio success, but the comedian's impact on television was now eclipsing anything else he did. The radio series premiered on NBC in March 1947 and after a lukewarm reception in the early episodes both critics and listeners began to warm quite considerably. In his biography, years later, Berle wrote that it was "the best radio show I ever did."
By 1949, with Berle's television commitments taking precedence, the radio show was cancelled and once more Nat Hiken had to weigh up his options. Those who predicted televisions rising popularity were proved correct and by 1948 - 49 the number of TV sets in use had risen to half a million. Nat's first television gig was an impressive one. He was hired as head writer on the staff of "Four Star Revue," a new variety series developed by NBC. Nat stamped his personality on the series by altering the format (which everyone else was following at the time, mainly to compete with Milton Berle), by crafting sketches that were all linked as opposed to being individual set-pieces. One critic remarked that the idea was "hardly wildly original" but "no one else has done it." Encouraged by the support he was getting Nat decided to develop the concept to the next level for a comic he regarded as having huge potential.
Martha Raye had been on the verge of something special for many years but had never managed to cross the last hurdle into stardom. Born into a showbiz family, just two days after Martha arrived in the world her mother was back on stage, and Martha first appeared in their act when she was three years old. In the early 1930s, she was a vocalist with the Paul Ash and Boris Morros orchestras. She made her first film appearance in 1934 but it wasn't until 1947 when Charlie Chaplin cast her in "Monsieur Verdoux" that she got a chance to really shine. But the release of the film coincided with accusations that Chaplin was a communist and, in spite of its early rave revues, it was forced to close early. By the time she arrived on NBC's "All Star Revue" (as it had now been renamed), her movie career was over. Nat created a character for her as a frustrated, man-hungry spinster and put her into a situation comedy setting. The show was an immediate hit and was the talking point of the 1951-52 season. However, before that season came to an end Nat was worried that some of the scripts were not strong enough. He soon found a solution to this problem.
On a summer day in 1952 Nat met Rocky Graziano. After spending some time in the championship boxer's company Nat got the idea that he could use Graziano in "The Martha Raye Show." From Graziano's point of view his days in the ring were numbered and he needed another way to make a living. Now that Nat was director, as well as head writer of the TV series he could do what he liked. Graziano's delivery of his lines was stiff and awkward and in a lesser writers hands he may have been made to look a fool. But Nat wrote the script in such a way that this type of delivery actually became an asset and what's more there was an instant chemistry between the boxer and the star. The critics raved about the second season premiere of "The Martha Raye Show," the first TV programme to be written and directed by Nat Hiken.
With a growing reputation and possible success looming Nat still yearned to get away from it all once a week. His favourite escape was a game of gin rummy at the Park Plaza Hotel where he would meet up with the likes of composer Jule Styne, CBS executive Oscar Katz, former press agent-now producer, Irving Mansfield, fellow comedy writer Leonard Stern and the Broadway star Phil Silvers. Part of the enjoyment of the game for Nat was the banter that went on between the players, not least of all Silver's who, although was a terrible gambler, was certainly one of the most vocal and entertaining of the participants.
Silvers' career up to that point had not exactly set the entertainment world alight. The Brooklyn-born performer began his show business career as a child singer in vaudeville. But when his voice broke-his voice went, and it soon became clear that he was never going to become a musical star. Instead he toured the burlesque circuit honing his natural talent for verbal dexterity, quick-witted ad-libs and his own little nuances. This got him some roles in the movies whenever a smart talking wise guy was required, but it seemed that Hollywood could find little else for him. It was this type of role that landed Silvers a date at Washington's Mayflower Hotel on February 6th, 1954 in front of an audience that included President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, almost every single major cabinet officer and Hubbell Robinson, vice president of programming at CBS.
Silvers went down so well that night that Robinson got in touch with him as soon as he returned to New York and offered him a contract. Robinson didn't know what he wanted Silvers to do yet but knew there was one man with a gift for tailoring a comedy series to suit the performer. "Nat Hiken", he told Silvers "will produce, write and direct the new show." Hiken only knew Silvers casually up to that point, mainly from the card games they had played, but knew enough about him to get the feel of his character. Even so, it was several months before they decided on an idea. Initially, Nat Hiken wanted to cast Silvers as a finagling army sergeant, but Silvers didn't like the idea. He thought they could come up with something much better. By the time they were ready to meet up with Robinson again (along with other CBS executives) they had come up with 8 possibilities for a series. One included Silvers as a minor league baseball manager, one as a conniving stockbroker and one as the manager of a gym. CBS liked the army idea.
The cunning, work-shy Ernest G. Bilko ran the Motor Pool at Fort Baxter, Kansas - and arguably most of the camp. The master of the money making scam, Ernie would bet on anything and everything whilst keeping an eagle-eye open for his next fortune-making opportunity, be it at the expense of some poor unfortunate, or a talented individual who would be temporarily assigned to his platoon. For supporting characters Hiken handpicked the cast himself. Billy Sands had been a stalwart of the "Berle" show; Herbie Faye and Jimmy Little were bit-part players from the "Martha Raye Show," while Bilko's sidekicks. Harry Lembeck and Allan Melvin were from "Stalag 17." Harry Clark played mess sergeant Stanley Sowici and Paul Ford became Bilko's beleagured Colonel Hall. However, Maurice Gosfield came out of nowhere.
The part of the platoons slob was originally to be played by Maurice Brenner, but when Maurice Gosfield walked into the casting room one day Hiken knew immediately that he had found a slob who fitted the bill beyond his wildest dreams. Brenner was recast, as Private Fleishman while Gosfield became Duane Doberman, an oversized, ugly, talentless individual, who -according to Silvers himself, Gosfield fit in every department. A pilot was shot for Robinson and his boss William Paley who remarked, "this is money in the bank. Take it off the rack and go ahead." 39 episodes were initially ordered and both Hiken and Silvers were given a percentage of the series. Word of how funny the series was began to circulate round the industry and for shooting of the initial episodes the likes of Jack Benny, Milton Berle and Cary Grant would pop into the studio.
Under the title "You'll Never Get Rich," the show premiered on September 20th, 1955 but to Silvers' and Hiken's horror it was put up against an NBC comedy that featured Martha Raye, Bob Hope and Milton Berle. The ratings were poor that first week and showed little sign of improvement as the weeks rolled into a month. The Network decided to move the time slot and also managed to get the platoon a spot on the prestigious "Ed Sullivan Show." Critics also began to take notice. Jack Gould of the 'New York Times' wrote 'A set owner would have to search the channels far and wide for a more polished example of expert farce.' Week by week the ratings grew for the series which was now renamed "The Phil Silvers Show", after the growing popularity of the star, and soon became a smash hit. Among its fans was the President of the United States who got White House secretary Jim Haggerty to phone up the production office the day after an episode. 'The old man missed last night's show' explained Haggerty. 'Can you get me a print?' A copy was immediately shipped off to him.
In 1955 the series won five awards bestowed on it by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. It was still in its first season. But the strain of keeping it constantly funny was already beginning to take its toll on Nat Hiken.
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