Nat Hiken (1914-1968) might not be a household name, but his 1950-60s TV sitcom creations are: The Phil Silvers Show (a.k.a. Sgt. Bilko) and Car 54, Where Are You? So are the stars he wrote for: Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Woody Allen, Bette Davis, Don Knotts, Al Lewis, Sid Caesar, Martha Raye, and Zero Mostel. During his incomparable career, Hiken was a polymath who created, produced, directed, wrote, and composed music (including Car 54's unforgettable theme song). Hiken won eight Emmy Awards, and is credited with discovering and advancing the TV careers of Fred Gwynne, Alan Alda, and Dick Van Dyke. He even managed to transform boxer Rocky Graziano into a comedy star on The Martha Raye Show by tailoring dialogue to suit the prizefighter's stiff, awkward delivery.
Starting as a writer in radio for Fred Allen in 1940, Hiken became one of TV's first writer-producers when the little box took over American living rooms at mid-century. The Silvers Show, which debuted in 1955, was described by one critic as a "polished example of expert farce." Yet after two seasons, during which the show earned seven Emmies, Hiken walked out, exhausted from 18-hour days and disgusted over conflicts with NBC execs. After several successful CBS specials and a few cancelled pilots, Hiken was back on top with Car 54 in 1961. But behind-the-scenes problems caused him to scrap the show after two seasons. Five frustrating years followed, during which Hiken's auteur leanings put him at odds with New York and Hollywood TV and film execs. The stressed-out Hiken died of a heart attack in 1968, at age 54.
In a 2001 Hiken biography, King of the Half Hour, author David Everitt wrote: "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 specialization. For all his accomplishments, and for all the laughter and good cheer he orchestrated, Nat Hiken deserves to be rediscovered."
Biography of Nat Hiken at Teletronic, The Television History SIte