Allan Melvin: Actor who played Bilko's sidekick
Wednesday 27 February 2008
Allan Melvin made his name worldwide in a true classic of television's so-called golden age, The Phil Silvers Show, playing Corporal Steve Henshaw, the devoted right-hand man to the scheming Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko.
While Bilko, head of the motor pool at the fictional Fort Baxter US Army camp in Kansas, was pursuing his scams and get-rich-quick schemes, Henshaw and Corporal Rocco Barbella (Harvey Lembeck) would loyally help him with his ruses. One famously involved Henshaw impersonating the Hollywood stars Clark Gable, James Stewart and Humphrey Bogart on the telephone – a voice talent that Melvin later used in many animated series.
Throughout the four-year run of The Phil Silvers Show (originally titled You'll Never Get Rich and subsequently sold in American syndication as Sergeant Bilko), Melvin was a formidable supporting actor to the former vaudeville comedian Phil Silvers. In the United States, the programme knocked the legendary Milton Berle Show off its top spot in the ratings, won eight Emmy Awards and, to the surprise of many, ended in 1959. After 138 episodes, the cast were struggling to maintain the gruelling routine and the CBS network saw the potential in continuing to syndicate the show profitably without having to pay out their high salaries.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1923, with a father who worked as a film salesman for Fox, Melvin moved to New York with his family when he was young. He graduated in journalism from Columbia University, then served in the Navy.
In 1944, he landed a job in the NBC network's radio sound effects department in New York, and was soon acting in radio soap operas. At the same time, using his talent for mimicry, Melvin performed a nightclub act in which he did film-star impressions, and won the radio show Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts with it.
He came to the attention of Silvers when he played Reed in the Broadway play Stalag 17, set in a German prisoner-of-war camp during the last year of the Second World War. After his run in The Phil Silvers Show, Melvin's brawny looks sometimes led him to be cast as tough guys and bullies.
His later regular roles in American television sitcoms of the 1960s and 1970s included the Marine Sergeant Charlie Hacker in Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Sam Franklin (the butcher boyfriend of the housekeeper Alice) in The Brady Bunch and Barney Hefner (Archie Bunker's best friend) in All in the Family, the American version of Till Death Us Do Part; he reprised the role throughout the entire run of its sequel, Archie Bunker's Place. Melvin was also a regular guest-star in other popular series.
Throughout his career, Melvin's distinctive voice was heard in animated productions, including The Magilla Gorilla Show (as the title character), The Flintstones, The Banana Splits Adventure Hour (as Drooper) and Hong Kong Phooey, as well the film Pufnstuf (1970, as the mayor H.R. Pufnstuf).
Allan Melvin, actor: born Kansas City, Missouri 18 February 1923; married (one daughter); died Los Angeles 17 January 2008.
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