1914 - 1968
The first reading of a new ‘Bilko’ script was on Monday and Tuesday’s through to Thursday’s 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.
Although Hiken didn’t officially direct the series he was always on hand to offer his own advice. On one occasion when a director wanted to do an alternate take of a scene Hiken cut in with “They came, they saw, they laughed. Leave it alone.” It was this approach that kept ‘Bilko’ fast and spontaneous. Finally, when Hiken was happy that everything had been taken care of he’d return to his office and write some more. It would be early evening before he returned to his apartment.
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. He found it impossible to delegate any responsibility and paid so much attention to detail and was such a perfectionist that on one occasion he was found writing the names of horses on a chalkboard that was to be used in a scene. He’d suddenly had an inspiration for amusing names and didn’t trust anyone else to write them down.
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. Nat 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.
Nat 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 Nat 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 Nat’s advice. With the strain growing too much for Nat 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 shows 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 and gave LA a distinct advantage over New York’s ad hoc array of converted theatres and radio stations. 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 Nat 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. The partnership was put under further pressure when Silvers told a reporter “He (Hiken) would be nothing without me. That’s why he always comes crawling back.” Silvers added that he was only joking, of course, but the remark may have been an indication of some deeper feelings that he had. But 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 likes of Jack Carter, Joey Bishop, Morey Amsterdam, Joe E. Louis and Jack E. Leonard had the audience, other guests-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. The idea was to have four or five successful seasons before selling the show into syndication providing a comfortable pension fund for him and his family.
The idea of a series that revolved around a couple of New York cops had been kicking around in Nat’s head for some time. He knew the idea offered more comedic possiblities concentrating on the everyday lives and personal concerns of the cops with the crooks only providing a secondary (although still comic) concern. These were not the hard-bitten cops of TV drama shows such as 'Dragnet' and their lives revolved more around such things as worrying about their own financial situation, finding affordable living accommodation and dealing with other domestic issues.
For casting the new series Nat 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 best of which was probably ‘The Eating Contest.’ In this, Gwynne played a character called ‘The Stomach’ a lovelorn soldier who could eat his own bodyweight in food. Bilko sets up an eating contest that he is certain to win but in the end gets an attack of conscience and reunites Gwynne with his girlfriend. 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 Nat 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 Nat 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. Nat also fell out with Billy Friedberg during the second season and fired him. Once again Nat 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 Nat 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 Nat pulled the plug on it. He had quite simply burned himself out.
With no new show scheduled for the 1963-64 season, Nat 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 Nat 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 Nat 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 Nat’s. Even so, Silvers had to be persuaded to take the part. Nat 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 Nat’s wishes the studio replaced Silvers with Edmond O’Brien. Things went from bad to worse and Nat 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 Nat was feeling the strain and once more his health began to suffer. On Saturday 7th December Nat 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 Nat 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."
Return to Top of Page