Biography: Nat Hiken
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 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 later years his contribution to television has been forgotten far too easily. It is time to look back and remember one of the unsung heroes of the small screen.
Nat Hiken was born on June 23rd 1914 in Chicago where his parents lived in the Lawndale district, close to where many other Jewish immigrants had settled at that time. When Hiken was six his parents decided to move to Milwaukee where his father, Max, took a lease on a storefront property. Hiken, 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. By the time Hiken was a teenager he had a reputation among his friends as a funny storyteller and a bit of a teaser. Hiken would always try to find the humorous side of a situation. 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 Hiken himself under a number of aliases. Soon after his graduation Hiken 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, who was working as a secretary for Republic Pictures, suggested that Hiken come out to California where she had a number of contacts within the film industry. Hiken 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 Hiken 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. Through his cousin he met Roland Kibbee, the manager of a local radio station and Jack Lescoulie, a disc jockey at KFBW who had aspirations to be an actor but up to this time had only managed to pick up bit parts. During a conversation one day, Hiken 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 Hiken would set about writing it while Lescoulie tried to get some airtime with KFBW. But Hiken, just like he did with his newspaper articles, just sat on it until Lescoulie announced that they were going out live the following Saturday. Hiken 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. Its tongue-in-cheek approach came as a refreshing change to listeners 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. The shows were also extended and Hiken 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 Hiken '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. It soon 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, Hiken 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. In 1941 Nat met a young woman called Ambur Dana Salt and in October they married. By now Hiken was pretty much Fred Allen's head writer. When America joined the Second World War Hiken 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 Hiken decided to call it a day as Allen's scriptwriter, feeling that the time was right for him to branch out on his own. 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. Berle's visual style of humour was ill suited to radio and was completely lost on a listening audience. Nat Hiken was now given the task of finding a successful radio formula for Berle. To his credit, Hiken gave Berle his first radio success, but the comedian's impact on television was now eclipsing anything else he 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 television's 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 as head writer Four Star Revue, a new variety series developed by NBC. Hiken stamped his personality on the series 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 Hiken 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. Hiken 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. In 1952 Nat had become friendly with 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 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 success looming, Nat Hiken 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 Silvers who, although 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 had spent years touring the burlesque circuit honing his natural talent for verbal dexterity and quick-witted ad-libs. 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 in February 1954 in front of an audience that included Hubbell Robinson, vice president of programming at CBS.
Silvers went down so well that night that Robinson 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 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 beleaguered Colonel Hall. However, Maurice Gosfield came out of nowhere.
The part of the platoon's 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." 39 episodes were initially ordered and both Hiken and Silvers were given a percentage of the series. 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 after a month when the Network decided to move the time slot and also managed to get the platoon a spot on the prestigious Ed Sullivan Show. Critics 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. In 1955 the series won five awards from 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.
The first reading of a new 'Bilko' script (it only came to be called 'Bilko' when it was later shown in re-runs) was on Monday and Tuesdays through to Thursdays was rehearsal before the shoot on Friday. Nat Hiken's working day normally began at six in the morning when he arrived at his office at CBS headquarters. He wrote until he was needed on set sometimes rewriting a scene at the last minute just before the cast went in front of the cameras. Sometimes he'd even feed a character a new line just as he was about to take his place in front of the camera.
Hiken also relied on the quick-witted Phil Silvers to ad-lib at the appropriate time if, for instance, something unexpected would happen. The best example of this is probably the episode 'Court Martial', where the Army had inadvertently inducted a chimpanzee into Bilko's platoon. The only way out of the mess was to court martial the animal with, naturally enough, Bilko acting as the poor creatures defence. While filming the scene the chimp suddenly left his mark and walked to the back of the stage where he picked up a telephone. Without missing a beat Silvers turned to the court and said "Just a minute, sir, I think he's calling for another lawyer." Not only did it save the scene but it also gave the series another of its truly golden moments.
The responsibility of The Phil Silvers Show weighed heavy on Nat's shoulders. When the show was in production his friends and relatives noticed an intensity in him that he didn't have before the show's success. He confided in one family member that sometimes he woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat knowing that so many people relied on him to come up with the next plot idea. Eventually the stress of running the series proved too much and following some minor ailments which kept him from writing and from the set it was agreed that the first series would end at episode thirty four rather than episode thirty nine as planned. Hiken decided that he would leave the series as soon as he could find a suitable replacement. But it wasn't until towards the end of the second season that he bought in Leonard Stern as his successor. Stern had just left The Honeymooners another great comedy series at the time and came with a good pedigree. However, Hiken was soon rewriting Stern's scripts. At first Stern was, naturally enough, put out. But on reading the scripts he found that he was, to use his own words, 'humbled' by what he saw. "Where you would have a line that would be satisfactory Nat would find one that was perfect for the moment." In spite of the admiration Stern came to develop for Nat he decided to take another job. He left, he says, as a much better writer.
Hiken now turned to Billy Friedberg who came with the advantage of having worked with Nat before and knowing all his little idiosyncrasies. At the same time that Hiken was having problems so was Phil Silvers. The star was a compulsive gambler - but worse than that, he was a bad compulsive gambler and soon got himself into terrible debt. As a last resort he sold his partial ownership of the show, against Hiken's advice. With the strain growing too much for Hiken in May 1957 an official announcement was made that he was leaving the series to 'take a rest for reasons of health.' By now The Phil Silvers Show had accumulated no less than seven Emmy Awards. But Nat walked away from it. The series continued for two more seasons without him. By the fourth season the show's ratings began to slip slightly. It wasn't a drastic dip but enough for CBS to cancel it.
In 1958 Nat decided to move on to a new TV series. His idea was to revive a successful radio series he had some years before called The Magnificent Montague. Sir Cedric Hardwicke was cast in the lead role and the pilot episode was well received enough to indicate that Nat had another winner on his hands. But following the filming of two more episodes CBS decided not to pick up a full series.
By now, television production was moving away from New York at a rapid speed and relocating to California. The writing had been on the wall since 1951 when AT&T finished laying their cable relays that allowed TV networks to transmit across the country from one city to another. On September 30th The Colgate Comedy Hour became the first commercial show to transmit a nationwide signal from Los Angeles. This became the signal for the building of modern purpose-built TV studios. Nat Hiken resisted the move away from New York pointing out that it was an essential training ground for young comedy writers where they could learn the finer points of their art. His fear was that moving television production to the luxury of Los Angeles would take the 'edge' off comedy and it would soon become predictable and formulaic.
Putting the disappointment of the cancelled show behind him Hiken busied himself in 1959 on four CBS specials: The Ballad of Louie the Louse, The Slowest Gun in the West, Summer In New York and Just Polly and Me. The first of these, and probably the best, was another vehicle for Phil Silvers in which he played a character very much like Bilko, except Louie didn't have any endearing qualities. He was a loan shark who mercilessly bled his clients dry. One of Louie's debtors, Paul Barton, is so unhappily desperate that one night he finds himself praying to the heavens that he wished Louie would die in a plane crash. Waking up the next morning he discovers that his wish has come true. Wracked with guilt Barton writes a glowing tribute to Louie that makes him out to be something of a saint and soon turns him into a National treasure. Barton is invited to Hollywood to make a movie of Louie's life and becomes a star himself. But his success is threatened when Louie is found alive and well having survived the crash. Barton must now hide Louie's true personality from the rest of the world.
For The Slowest Gun in the West Hiken teamed Silvers with Jack Benny. The story was about Fletcher Bissell III (Silvers) aka The Silver Dollar Kid, a sheriff who was so cowardly that no self-respecting gunslinger would shoot him for fear or ruining his own reputation. Eventually they find a man who is as cowardly as the Kid, Chicken Finsterwald (Benny), who once shot an eighty-four year old woman in the back and then ran out of town when the lady recovered and went looking for him. The other outlaws talk Finsterwald into disposing of the Kid convincing him that here was a gunman that even he could beat. But whilst shooting the CBS specials Hiken's relationship with Silvers began to break down. It is not clear what led to the eventual split although it has been suggested that Silvers was resentful of having sold his percentage of 'Bilko' somewhat prematurely. When the final special was shot in 1960 Silvers and Hiken went their separate ways.
In 1958 Hiken made a TV special called The Friars Club Man of the Hour. In the show fellow performers and comedians verbally decimated guest of honour Ed Sullivan. It was all done in the best possible taste of course and the specially invited guests had the audience-and most of all Sullivan himself in fits of uproarious laughter. But CBS were uncomfortable with the style of the show and when they failed to find a sponsor willing to take a chance on it there were no follow-up broadcasts. It would be over a decade before Dean Martin's Celebrity Roast appeared on television and became a smash hit and in the process revived Deano's dwindling TV ratings.
By 1960 Nat Hiken found himself without regular TV work. He was determined to make another impact with a long running TV series only this time he planned to make the show through his own production company. He was hoping for four or five successful seasons before selling the show into syndication. This would provide a comfortable pension for him and security for his family. Hiken had been toying with the idea of a series that revolved around a couple of New York cops. He knew the idea offered comedic possibilities concentrating on the everyday lives and personal concerns of the cops; their lives revolving more around such things as worrying about their own financial situation, finding affordable living accommodation and dealing with other domestic issues. Although they would still feature in comedic situations the crooks would only provide a secondary concern.
For casting the new series Hiken originally wanted Mickey Shaunessey as patrolman Francis Muldoon and Jack Warden as Gunther Toody. But when he failed to reach an agreement on fees with the actors he went back to Bilko for actors he had worked with before. Fred Gwynne had appeared in two memorable Bilko' episodes. The part of Toody went to Joe E. Ross who had starred in Bilko as the regular character Mess Sergeant Rupert Ritzik, a comic foil to Bilko who often ended up the target of his scams. Ross came into Bilko to replace Harry Clark, the actor who portrayed Stanley Sowici, after Clark died suddenly of a heart attack in February 1956. Other Bilko veterans were also employed as both regular and guest characters.
Car 54, Where Are You? hit the screens in 1961 and like Bilko before it only found a relatively small audience. But as the weeks progressed and critics began enthusing over it that audience grew much larger. Viewers also took to two other stars in the series, Al Lewis as patrolman Leo Schnauser and his on screen wife, Sylvia, played by Charlotte Rae. As their popularity grew Hiken began broadening their characters and for many fans their often-explosive relationship proved one of the highlights of the series. But behind the scenes the production was beset with problems.
The first problem was Joe E. Ross. Never considered by Nat Hiken as one of the most gifted actors he ever worked with, Ross was in the series because, like Maurice Gossfield as Doberman, he looked and sounded perfect for the part. But Gossfield began to get delusions of grandeur and as more and more Doberman fan mail flooded into the CBS offices so Gosfield's head began to get as big as his stomach. The warning signals on 'Car 54' came the day that Joe E. Ross turned to Hiken on set whilst running through a script and said "Nat, I don't think that's so funny." Soon after that Ross would turn up at the studio not having learned his lines and would order the script girl to run off and fetch him a copy. He could also get nasty with other stars of the show and on one occasion when his screen wife Beatrice Pons was taking a moment too long preparing for a scene he turned to her and said "I'm the star of this show and you're wasting my time!"
There were other behind-the-scene problems, too. At the end of the first season director Al DeCaprio, who had worked with Nat for four years on Bilko decided he'd had enough, and quit. Hiken also fell out with Billy Friedberg during the second season and fired him. Once again Hiken found the heavy workload and the responsibility of producing the show was too much for him. The pressure was affecting his ability to write. There was also pressure from the network. NBC wanted to replace the live laughter track with canned laughter, something Hiken resisted vehemently. He even resisted their requests to film the series in colour. The series was doing well in the ratings and was almost certain to be renewed for a third season when Hiken pulled the plug on it. He had quite simply burned himself out.
With no new show scheduled for the 1963-64 season, Hiken tried once more to revive interest in The Magnificent Montague. Another pilot was filmed and Nat tried to sell it to Desilu Productions, then NBC, then CBS. Nobody was interested. He dropped the idea and instead began developing a series for Al Lewis as a self-made business tycoon who returns to his working-class neighbourhood. When that didn't work out he shot a pilot episode of The Alan King Show but yet again nobody took up the option of a series. Over the next few years' projects were embarked upon and projects fell through and it wasn't until 1965 that he returned to television when Carol Burnett asked him to write a comedy special for her. Carol + 2 (the two being Lucille Ball and Zero Mostel) was a success and it became apparent to Hiken that the future of US television was now clearly rooted in California. He finally relented and moved to LA but the move did little to improve his fortunes. He spent a lot of his time socialising and playing golf but he grew ever more restless and ever more concerned about his professional and (to a lesser degree) his financial future. In 1968 Jule Styne approached Nat with an idea for turning Louie the Louse into a Broadway musical. The prospect intrigued Nat but before it got off the ground another more attractive offer came his way: A Hollywood movie. The Love God? was to star Don Knotts as a small time publisher called Abner Peacock whose own ornithological magazine (The Peacock) is facing bankruptcy. In an effort to save it Peacock goes into business with a smut peddler called Osborn Tremain. Without Abner's knowledge Tremain turns The Peacock into a porno magazine and lands his partner in court on obscenity charges.
When Hiken delivered the script for The Love God? everyone concerned felt as though they had a hit on their hands. The studio were so impressed that they decided the part of Peacock was too big for Don Knotts and dropped him. They wanted Dick Van Dyke who at this point in his career was at the height of his box-office appeal with both Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang behind him. In the end though, he wasn't offered the role. The part of Osborn Tremain was to be played by Phil Silvers whose career in recent years hadn't fared much better than Hikens. Even so, Silvers had to be persuaded to take the part. Hiken felt the part would have been perfect for Silvers and would have put him right back in the spotlight. But the day after agreeing to take the role Silvers did a complete about-face and pulled out. Against Hiken's wishes the studio replaced Silvers with Edmond O'Brien. Things went from bad to worse and Hiken tried desperately to salvage the production but all the time he knew that his big film debut was going to be a disaster.
By December it was quite clear that Hiken was feeling the strain and once more his health began to suffer. On Saturday 7th December Hiken declined an offer to accompany his wife to the opera; instead deciding to stay at home on his own and enjoy a quiet evening in having a meal and watching the TV. At about eleven o'clock his daughter came home and found him on the floor of the downstairs bathroom. Nat Hiken was dead. A massive heart attack took away his life at just 54 years of age.
In his introduction to his excellent 2001 biography of Nat Hiken ('King of the Half Hour'), author David Everitt summed up Nat Hiken's contribution to television history thus:
"Nat Hiken's story mirrors a brief, exciting period when inspired producers and writers, based primarily in New York, enjoyed the opportunity of shaping a new medium. He embodied early television's finest qualities: independence and imagination, as well as a demand for the best and an appreciation of the melting-pot experience. These qualities also made it difficult, if not impossible, for him to adapt when the TV industry began to transform itself in the early 1960s: he remained independent at a time when networks sought control over their producers; he insisted on excellence and comic vision when mediocrity and homogeneous programming became the norm; and he was a compulsive, hands-on creator, attentive to his shows' every detail, at a time of increasing specialisation.
For all his accomplishments, and for all the laughter and good cheer he orchestrated, Nat Hiken deserves to be rediscovered."
for Television Heaven