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Lessons From the Road: The Story of TV’s ROUTE 66

By John C. Alsedek:


My maternal grandmother was an actress, and a quite capable one. While three kids and a full-time job as a nurse kept her from pursuing it as a career, she was still able to perform regularly in regional theater productions and locally produced PBS programs. And on the rare occasion that a Hollywood production shot in Central Pennsylvania, she picked up small speaking roles, such as Mrs. McBride in the 1976 Eddie Albert film Birch Interval. On one such occasion, she ended up on the back of Keenan Wynn’s Harley Davidson during a break in filming—her one and only motorcycle ride. The production she was working on at the time? The hit early sixties TV show named for a road and a song: Route 66.


U.S. Route 66 was established on November 11, 1926, and as the Nat King Cole hit song "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66" proclaimed, “It winds from Chicago to L.A., more than 2,000 miles all the way.” Initially constructed largely of gravel or graded dirt, Route 66 could be a harrowing drive, earning the name "Bloody 66" in sections such as the steep, hairpin-laden stretch outside of Oatman, Arizona. Nonetheless, Route 66 soon became a fixture in American culture. As the primary east-west thoroughfare, it was very heavily traveled, particularly by those escaping to California during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Dying towns along the route were revived by the tourism industry, as people suddenly found themselves with easy access to attractions such as the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert.


Route 66, National Park Service

However, by the end of the fifties, the Interstate Highway System was sounding the death knell for Route 66 as the nation’s major cross-country roadway. Instead, it became more of an escape, a way to, quite literally, take "the road less traveled." And this was the backdrop for the TV series Route 66, which concerned a pair of drifters who drove around the country, taking on temporary jobs and meeting all sorts of everyday people along the way.


Created by Herbert B. Leonard and Stirling Silliphant, Route 66 came about via a backdoor pilot on another show created by Leonard and Silliphant, ABC’s Naked City. In a 1959 episode of Naked City entitled "Four Sweet Corners," actors Robert Morris and George Maharis played Link Ridgeway and Johnny Gary, young ex-servicemen who worked together to get Johnny’s kid sister out of trouble with the law and then decided that instead of staying in NYC, they wanted to discover themselves by traveling the highways and byways of the U.S. While none of the networks were initially interested in the proposed series—then tentatively known as The Searchers (not to be confused with the 1956 John Wayne film of the same name)—Leonard and Silliphant loved the chemistry between Morris and Maharis. However, Morris died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage in May 1960, and the producing duo needed to find a replacement.



That replacement came in the form of 29-year-old Martin Milner (who beat out, among others, young Robert Redford for the part). Leonard and Silliphant reworked the series premise a bit; Milner and Maharis were now Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock, references to them being ex-servicemen were deleted (a little ironic since Milner actually was a Korean War–era Army veteran), and the show was retitled Route 66. The producers wrote the hour-long pilot episode "Black November" and self-financed its production. Fortunately for them, CBS liked what they saw and picked up Route 66 for the fall of 1960.


On the surface, Route 66 had a very simple format: just two guys driving around the country in a ’61 Corvette convertible. But the show was far, far more interesting than that. A semi-anthology series in that there was no real continuity beyond the two leads, its strength was that very fact: the constantly changing cast and setting (virtually all shot on location around the U.S.) made for some really interesting TV viewing. The name Route 66 turned out to be a misnomer, as Tod & Buz ended up in places nowhere close to the fabled highway, including all over New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Deep South. But no one gave that much thought, and the series was a hit—including on the Billboard charts, as Nelson Riddle’s instrumental theme song made it into the top 30 and garnered two Grammy nominations.


Being a semi-anthology, the show was able to touch on a wide variety of subject matter. Some of the episodes are pretty straightforward: one of the guys falls in love, they help a family in distress, or perhaps teach a little morality lesson to someone in need of one (as in the episode my grandmother was in with Keenan Wynn, "Some of the People, Some of the Time"). Others are comedic: two of my very favorites are the Halloween show "Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing," starring horror legends Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Peter Lorre; and the comedy/drama "Journey to Ninevah," starring silver-screen legends Buster Keaton and Joe E. Brown.


But Route 66 also touched on a lot of subject matter that the bulk of early sixties television would never even dream of mentioning. In "Goodnight Sweet Blues," an all-Black guest cast tells the tale of a dying jazz singer (Ethel Waters), who wants to play with her old band (which includes real-life jazz legends Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones, and Coleman Hawkins). In "The Man on the Monkey Board," a concentration camp survivor–turned Nazi hunter (Lew Ayres) is aided by Tod & Buz in his search for a Nazi war criminal aboard a offshore oil rig. In "Birdcage on My Foot," Tod & Buz try to get a hostile drug addict (Robert Duvall) clean, and in the process, Buz has to face some demons from his past. Other episodes deal with terrorism, gang violence, mental illness, nuclear war, and mercy killing, among other touchy subjects.


Near the end of season two, George Maharis was hit by a case of infectious hepatitis and missed several episodes. As it turned out, this was a harbinger of things to come. Maharis missed several more episodes early in season three before leaving entirely midway through the season. He was replaced by Glenn Corbett, who played Lincoln "Linc" Case, a recently discharged veteran of the Vietnam conflict. Tod & Linc carried on for one more season before wrapping up the series with the two-part episode "Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way"; in it, Tod married a Houston commodities trader (Barbara Eden), and Linc returned home to reconcile with his estranged family. Thirty years later, NBC tried doing a sequel series starring James Wilder as an illegitimate son of Buz, who inherited Tod & Buz’s Corvette; however, Wilder and Dan Cortese were unable to replicate the success of the original Route 66, and their sequel lasted just four episodes.


While Nat King Cole is the musician most closely related with the song "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66," he wasn’t the composer. No, that distinction belongs to a fellow with whom I share a hometown. We’ll be talking about musician and actor Bobby Troup and his wife, Julie London, next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!

 

SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.

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