Thursday, October 07, 2010


Take the Highway That Is Best

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
With the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957 — an autobiographical account of the author’s experiences traveling across the U.S. and Mexico with Neal Cassady and other members of “The Beat Generation” — it wasn’t long before television found the inspiration to start creating series placing protagonists in identical situations of “trying to find themselves” roaming the nation’s highways and bi-ways in similar fashion. You had The Fugitive’s Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen), a man who pursued a one-armed man for four years in an effort to prove that he had been falsely convicted of killing his wife. There was Run for Your Life’s Paul Bryan (Ben Gazzara), a man who decided to live his life to the fullest via endless travel after being diagnosed with having only two years to live. And Jim Bronson (Michael Parks), the hero of Then Came Bronson, got in touch with his inner Wild One and quit his newspaper job in favor of a life riding his “sickle” around from town to town after the suicide death of a close friend.

The urge to roam was certainly not a new theme in the medium of television; the heroes of numerous Western series had been doing it for years. But 50 years ago on this date, two young men named Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) and Buz Murdock (George Maharis) gassed up a powder-blue Corvette left to Tod by his late father and headed off for adventure or whatever came their way…without guns or horses. Today, Route 66 is recognized by critics and classic television fans alike as the one of the best and most unique of small screen dramas to be televised in the 1960s — a first-rate blend of episodic television and dramatic anthology of such quality that, sadly, isn’t likely to be seen on the boob tube ever again any time soon.

Television producer Herbert B. Leonard and Stirling Silliphant first explored the idea of a show in which the weekly episodes would concentrate more on the guest stars than the series’ principals in Naked City, a program loosely based on the 1948 film that premiered in the fall of 1958 as a half-hour and then sat out a season before returning in the fall of 1960 in the full hour format. Their second collaboration would be Route 66, and in the debut episode, “Black November,” we’re introduced to Murdock, an orphan from New York’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” and Stiles, a Yale-educated son of privilege whose only possession is the Corvette in which the two men would travel (Mr. Stiles died penniless). Though the premise had out heroes looking for “a place to plant roots and stick,” it was really more of a dropping-off to meet a myriad of unusual and offbeat characters that they would encounter in their “vision quest” and to hear their personal stories (we rarely learned much about Buz and Tod save for a few sketchy biographical details). The title of the series, Route 66, was even a bit of a misnomer — many of the stories featured on the show actually took place in areas where the famous highway made famous by Nat King Cole’s hit (written by Bobby Troup) didn’t reach (in fact, two episodes took place in Canada).

Having been sired from the same stable that produced Naked City, there were naturally a good many similarities between the two shows. Both programs often relied on offbeat episode titles — some of the wackier ones for Route 66 include “How Much a Pound is Albatross?”, “Ever Ride the Waves in Oklahoma?” and the ever-popular “Is it True There are Poxies at the Bottom of Landfair Lake?” These whimsical titles often provided camouflage for first-rate scripting (which often tackled controversial and adult issues like mercy killing, drug addiction and the threat of nuclear annihilation) supplied by the likes of creator Silliphant (who scripted the bulk of the show’s output, close to 75 episodes), Howard Rodman, Shimon Wincelberg and Arnold Manoff. Movie veterans and up-and-comers who received credit for directing on both series include Arthur Hiller, Elliot Silverstein, David Lowell Rich, James Sheldon, George Sherman, Robert Gist, Robert Ellis Miller and Ralph Serensky.

Like its Naked sister, Route 66 also relied on the cream of the crop of acting talent, some of who were just getting a foothold in the business. James Caan, Robert Duvall, George Kennedy, Walter Matthau, Robert Redford and Martin Sheen all guested on the show — with veterans such as Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton, Rod Steiger and Lee Marvin (who appeared twice) also putting in appearances. One of Route 66’s classic outings, “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing,” spotlighted a horror film triumvirate of Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr. — all three who played themselves in tongue-in-cheek fashion. In Route’s fourth season, an episode entitled “Where are the Sounds of Celia Brahms?” even featured former Naked City regulars Horace McMahon and Harry Bellaver; (McMahon’s character, in a sly wink to the audience, is told that he resembles a policeman in New York City.)

Naked City was a trendsetter in the use of on-location shooting, and not only did Route 66 do the same it surpassed it in so many ways (of course, City rarely ventured beyond the Big Apple) by filming exclusively “on the road.” It was estimated that by the time the series ended its four-year run the Route 66 “caravan” (often numbering 50 people) had traveled to 25 states, led by Silliphant and location manager Sam Manners. Not only did this help fuel the show’s passion for realism, but it provides a sort of historical travelogue for today’s viewer — a look at a time when these United States of America weren’t quite so homogeneous. The Web site TV Party wryly summed up the nomadic nature of the show by observing: “If Star Trek was meant to be ‘Wagon Train in space,’ then Route 66 was Wagon Train in a rag top.”

For two-and-a-half seasons, the clean-cut Tod (and moral compass of the duo) and his volatile buddy Buz cruised around meeting new people and romancing women until co-star George Maharis (Buz) came down with a case of hepatitis that sidelined him for several episodes in the third season, and left Martin Milner (Tod) with no one to ride shotgun. Upon his return, Maharis let it be known that he had no love for Milner (the two men had always had a prickly working relationship) or the show’s producers and crew…and while producer Leonard (along with everyone else) interpreted Maharis’ actions as a ploy to renegotiate his contract he refused to play ball, so Maharis up and left. His character was replaced in March of 1963 with Lincoln Case (Glenn Corbett), a disillusioned war hero just back from Vietnam…and though viewers weren’t probably supposed to notice, a dead ringer for the departed Buz. Fans of the show weren’t happy with the switch, and Route 66 came to the end of the road in March 1964, with a two-part episode (“Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way”) that closed the chapter on the lives of its protagonists (Tod eventually settles down and marries guest star Barbara Eden).

In its first season, Route 66 benefited from a cushy time slot: it followed the Top Ten favorite Rawhide on Friday nights at 8:30 p.m. The problem was that the show had to compete for the same youth audience against formidable competition on ABC, with The Flintstones and 77 Sunset Strip — which goes a long way toward explaining why Route ranked an anemic (if respectable) No. 30 in the Nielsens for that season. Moving the show to another night of the week might have helped it considerably; it made only one other appearance in the Top 30 ( No. 27 in the 1962-63 season) before the exit of Maharis sealed its fate for good.

Nick at Nite provided a home for Route 66 reruns during its early years in operation but since that time fans have only the DVD releases of the program’s first three seasons to satisfy their wanderlust — and sadly, the company that brought Route to disc has done so in a lackluster, substandard fashion. But the strength of the scripts, the first-rate acting talent and exhilarating cinematography make up for these presentational shortcomings, as a new generation of viewers tune into one of the era’s finest dramatic shows. Though there have been other series that featured “traveling” themes — Movin’ On, Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel, to name just a few of the many — the original Route 66 stands head and shoulders above the rest. And when the attempt to revive the concept in 1993 lasted only a scant four weeks, it demonstrated that not only can you not go home again…you can’t even do it in a bitchin’ Corvette.


Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. blogs at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear and even hearing just a few bars of Nelson Riddle’s classic theme for the show makes him want to take to the road in search of adventure…or at least as far as the local Dairy Queen.

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Great review, Ivan. This was one special show.
Since I still can't get through to Ivan on his own site,I'll just pass the message to him here, to wit:

We viewers in Chicago can see Route 66 and Naked City (both versions) every late night on MEtoo (digital ch 26.3; also available from most cable and satellite carriers). Sony, which distributes the old Columbia-Screen Gems stuff, has kept the old films up well - the b&w photography looks really crisp and clear.
Just thought you'd like to know ...
I regret that I've never seen an episode of this series. You make it sound enticing.
I was a devoted fan of the series when it first aired, but I was less impressed after watching a few episodes last year on MeToo. Great guest stars, offbeat plots, but incredibly pretentious and self-important. IMO.
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