In 1946, Bobby Troup wrote a song about driving the highway from Chicago to Los Angeles, and Nat King Cole turned “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” into a huge hit. Three years later Leo Corday and Leon Carr penned a TV advertising jingle to help GM sell cars, and people who tuned in to the popular “Dinah Shore Show” heard the singer cheerily belt out “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet.”
From 1960 to 1964, that’s exactly what two men did, week after week, in the one-hour drama “Route 66,” starring Martin Milner and George Maharis—the latter replaced late in the third season by Glenn Corbett. The show ran for four seasons, and followed the adventures of the two young men as they traveled across America.
Jack Kerouac famously wrote of his own cross-country travels in On the Road, a 1957 novel that became an unofficial manifesto of the Beat Generation. Tod Stiles (Milner) and Buz Murdock (Maharis) weren’t exactly Merry Pranksters and drug users the way Kerouac and his friends were, but they had the same drifters’ impulse and they were young men who were looking to find themselves, or at least a place where they fit in. Call it a more wholesome version of the Kerouac book that was the start of a counterculture influence. Buz had a temper and both men were smug and caustic in their remarks—“hipsters” who subtly mocked squares. Buz throws a self-appointed sheriff through a window and pulls a mechanic out from under a vehicle because he ignores them. No wonder the town wanted to beat these guys up, after which one of them quips, “Once they beat me up, they had their kicks,” in an allusion to the song.
But the two men also had compassion, and once you they liked you they’d do anything for you. Despite the James Dean facade, they were really stand-up guys, and their decency came out week after week as they helped the people they met.
“Route 66,” which aired on CBS Fridays at 8:30 p.m., was a landmark show for a number of reasons. At a time when most things were shot at a studio, it was both written and filmed all over North America. The guys have to shout when they talk to each other in the car in order to be heard over the ambient sounds and the wind whipping over the microphones. Hand-held cameras were used a lot. The series was so original that the title sequence was also shot new each week, showing the guys’ progress on the road. Even the theme song—Nelson Riddle’s new composition, because producers didn’t want to pay the royalties to the Troup song—was re-recorded week after week, with variations, and it made the hit parade in 1962.
Three years before the Civil Rights Act was passed, “Route 66” featured a mostly black cast in “Good Night, Sweet Blues,” which earned an Emmy nomination for Ethel Waters—the first time an African American actor was nominated. In this episode, Waters plays a former jazz singer who’s given not long to live. After she has an attack while driving near where she lives in Pittsburgh and almost crashes head-on into our young heroes, they help her and go to the hospital to check on her. Then they show up at her house, just to make sure she’s doing okay. It’s then that they learn she was in a very accomplished band, and she asks if they’d do a favor for her: to go here and there and round up the old band, which hasn’t been together for 30 years, so they could play one more time for her in her room. And so the boys split up, heading for San Francisco, St. Louis, New York, Kansas City—even a penal institution—in order to convince the band members to return.
“Route 66” was ahead of the curve when it came to content. Following in the footsteps of anthology shows sponsored by Kraft and Alcoa, which featured more intelligent scripts, some pretty heady dialogue, and a higher quality of acting, “Route 66” featured an all-new cast every week to match each week’s new location. We’re not talking about B-list actors, either. Look for Robert Redford as the son of a Polish Pennsylvania forge worker, Lew Ayres as an undercover Nazi hunter, Suzanne Pleshette as a single mom accused of murder, Jack Lord as a jazz trumpeter, Rin Tin Tin as a guide dog, Walter Matthau as a gambler, Darren McGavin as a boxer, Robert Duvall as a heroin addict, Ed Asner as a police detective, Lee Marvin as a lounge singer’s manager, Keenan Wynn as a beauty contest promoter, Martin Sheen as a gang leader, Tuesday Weld as a young woman in a mask, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as a fugitive, Peter Graves as an animal trainer, Buster Keaton as a jinx, Rod Steiger as an escaped killer, Alan Alda as a pre-“M*A*S*H” surgeon, Leslie Nielsen as a shark-hunting scientist, Joan Crawford as a woman afraid of her ex-husband, William Shatner as the son of a lobster fisherman, and Barbara Eden as the daughter of a millionaire. Look for Gene Hackman, James Caan, George Kennedy, David Janssen (who’d get his own road series in “The Fugitive”), and Burt Reynolds, as well.
Each episode has the kind of intelligent writing and direction to keep the drama from turning overly formulaic or melodramatic. You find yourself smiling at some of the terrific performances.
In one particularly memorable episode from Season 3, horror legends Lon Chaney, Jr., Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre play themselves as they reunite in Chicago (at the O’Hare Inn) to devise a horror show that would work for a new generation of TV-watchers.
Tod and Buz worked whatever jobs they could find, and in the process, viewers got to see how segments of the U.S. population lived, at a time when the country was a lot less homogenous and big corporations hadn’t yet stamped their footprints on every community. Instead of McDonald’s and Burger King’s everywhere, there were still diners and small businesses. Lifestyles and cultures were more region-specific, and with no Internet, travel was the only way to experience the vastly different sections of America. It’s a strength of this series, really, the on-the-street, real-life documentation of life as it was lived in various places in the U.S. in the early Sixties.
But a word about U.S. Route 66. I live just seven blocks away from old Route 66, which ran through Bloomington, Illinois—where the first section of paved highway in America is commemorated with a marker in front of the courthouse that Abraham Lincoln often visited. The highway began in Chicago, cut across the length of Illinois and southeastern Missouri, across Oklahoma and the tip of Texas, then across northern New Mexico and Arizona before entering southern California and ending in L.A. During most of the episodes, Tod and Buz stray off-course, usually with navigator Buz holding a map and Tod, who’d inherited the Corvette convertible from his father, giving him good-natured grief or joking about poor directions they got from someone. Sometimes they stray REALLY far off-course, ending up in Massachussetts, Maryland, Louisiana, Florida, Oregon, Tennessee, and any state that offered a unique town or lifestyle for creators Herbert B. Leonard and Stirling Silliphant (“Naked City”) to milk for potential drama.
There’s a slight sophomore slump, in that we get a few plots that feel slightly recycled and the characters themselves seem changed without any logical back story. Tod, for example, is presented as the college man in Season 1, the guy who duels with his brains while Buz, from Hell’s Kitchen, is quick with his fists. But in Season 2 Tod goes back into an establishment after a bouncer tosses him onto the street, and he hauls off and decks the big guy with one punch. There are a few figurative head-snappers as well this season. Then too, Maharis had to be replaced because of a bout with hepatitis, and Corbett isn't nearly as charismatic. Still, the writing comes to the rescue again, and the overall quality of this show over four seasons is well above average for TV drama. Same with the production values, although there are a few more head-snappers to be found in the sound department. An axe struck against a thick tree trunk sounds more like it’s hitting a pile of thick chains. And as Tod skids on a dirt road in the opening episode, we hear the squeal of tires on pavement instead. But such asynchronous moments are kept to a minimum.
Each season is contained in a plastic keep case, with the four of them tucked inside a cardboard slipcase. Six single-sided discs are housed on plastic pages in each keep case, for a total of 24 discs, 116 episodes and 100 hours of entertainment.
All four seasons were broadcast in black and white and presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image stretches nicely for today’s 16x9 TV monitors, though. But four seasons shot in black and white over this time period? You have to expect some inconsistency, and that’s certainly the case. Some shots have considerably more grain than others, and some scenes show a little more fading than others, with black levels dropping off a bit. It’s easy to overlook, though, because you’re mindful always of watching a vintage TV show shot under guerilla conditions, really. Open-air cinematography always poses a challenge, and this series was shot with a lot of outdoor scenes, but also a lot of indoor scenes showing different occupations, including foundry work with its challenging lighting. It’s tough to complain when you look at it in perspective.
The Dolby Digital Mono is unfortunately more inconsistent than the video. Often, for example, when the camera angle changes, the sound quality or volume will shift as well. The tracks are relatively free of pop and hiss and other distortion, but you do hear ambient sounds that would have been eliminated through looping in contemporary dramas, and sometimes you do hear the wind whip past microphones. Still, that adds a you-are-there quality to a show that aimed to give armchair travelers a look at America.
Shout! Factory is usually pretty good about documenting the series they distribute, but this set only offers episode titles on the backs of the DVD cases—no descriptions or air dates. There’s no booklet, either.
The only bonus features come on the sixth disc of Season 4. There’s a mini-feature on “Great Car: Corvettes,” a 25-minute color 2003 installment of “Great Cars” TV show, narrated by a Brit named Reg Abbiss. Then there are commercials that aired during “Route 66”: 15 minutes of Chevrolet commercials (great vintage stuff showing car dealership lots, the Corvair, etc.) and 10 minutes of Bayer Aspirin and Milk of Magnesia commercials that aren’t quite as rich with period details—paid actors in offices and homes (sets).
The final bonus feature is a highlight clip from the Paley Center for Media “Route 66” Festival Event, an Inside Media production filmed on March 14, 1990 that runs 43 minutes. Ron Haver, director of film programs at the L.A. County Museum of Art, introduces people who played a creative part in the production of the show: Marion Dougherty (casting director), Arthur Hiller (director), Elliot Silverstein (director), star George Maharis, and Herbert Leonard (producer), who says that “Route 66” was created out of a brief conversation as Leonard, Silliphant and Silverstein were leaving a restaurant, about a poor kid and rich kid traveling together. It’s an average conversation for panels like this, but fans ought to enjoy it. Maharis jokes around, Leonard talks about battles with censors, but hardcore fans will wish for more depth.
“Route 66” is a classic drama that made the Corvette an American icon and showed Americans what different parts of their great big country looked like, while giving them a sense of the local culture, attitudes, and problems. Some of it was exaggerated for dramatic effect, but you still got an idea of life lived in the early 1960s, and Buz and Tod were a different kind of hero. They had attitude, sure, but they were also nice guys at heart.