Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The 60th Anniversary of the TV Show Route 66

It was sixty years ago tonight, on October 7 1960, that Route 66 debuted on CBS. The show centred on Tod Stiles (played by Martin Milner), a young man who had recently graduated from college and was unsure what he wanted to do with his life, and Buz Murdock (played by George Maharis), a friend who had been employed by Tod's father. The two young men travelled about the United States (with two trips to Canada) in a Chevrolet Corvette. After George Maharis left the show, Tod's new travelling companion was Lincoln "Linc" Case (played by Glen Corbett), a Vietnam veteran recently discharged from the military. The show had a semi-anthology format, with many episodes focusing more on the people that Tod and Buz or Tod and Linc met in their travels.

Route 66 was created by writer Stirling Silliphant and producer Herbert B. Leonard. Stirling Silliphant had earlier developed the critically acclaimed TV series Naked City, based on the classic film noir police procedural The Naked City (1948). Herbert B. Leonard served as the executive producer on that show. As originally conceived, Route 66 would have centred on two Army veterans trying to adjust to civilian life.  The name for the prospective series was The Searchers.

George Maharis, who had guest starred on episodes of Naked City, was signed to play the character of Johnny Gary and Robert Morris was chosen to play the role of Lincoln Ridgeway.  A backdoor pilot for Route 66 aired as the Naked City episode "Four Sweet Corners" on April 28 1959. In the episode Johnny Gary returns home to New York City to find that his baby sister has become part of a shoplifting ring. Ultimately, Herbert B. Leonard was unable to find a network interested in the conflict. In the meantime, the concept then called The Searchers would undergo a number of changes before becoming the TV show we know as Route 66.

Among other things, the title was changed from The Searchers to Route 66, as it was feared The Searchers would create confusion with the 1956 movie of the same name. While George Maharis would remain one of the two young men travelling the United States, Robert Morris was replaced by the better known Martin Milner,who had already appeared in such movies as Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Marjorie Morningstar (1958). It is difficult today to say why Robert Morris was not tapped for Route 66. It is possible Herbert B. Leonard wanted a better known actor to draw attention to the series (at the time neither George Maharis nor Robert Morris were well known). It is also possible that Robert Morris turned the series. He had recently married and then he and his new wife had lost all their belongings in a fire. Regardless, Robert Morris died on May 22 1960 following a severe epileptic seizure. The two young men were also renamed Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock. They were also no longer ex-servicemen.

While Route 66 must have seemed to be a startlingly original creation to viewers when it debuted, author Jack Kerouac suspected Stirling Silliphant and Herbert B. Leonard of having plagiarized his book On the Road. Jack Kerouac considered filling a lawsuit, but dropped it when his lawyers informed him that there was insufficient evidence to form a case. As to Herbert B. Leonard, while he admitted to reading On the Road, he also said, "... I don't think that was what I had in mind. I visualized these guys as positive, young--little knights in shining armour. They weren't beatniks, in the sense that they had some kind of sense of feeling of social injustice." There certainly are some superficial resemblances between On the Road and Route 66, there were also some major differences as well. While Tod and Buz could be considered part of the counterculture insofar as they travelled the country rather than working nine-to-five jobs, they were also much more straight-laced than Jack Kerouac's protagonists.

One thing that set Route 66 apart from other shows of the time is that it was shot primarily on location. In the course of the show, the characters travelled through 25 states and twice travelled to Canada. Of course, this meant that, despite the show's title, the majority of its episodes took place away form U.S. Route 66. Because Route 66 was shot across the United States, it serves a time capsule of the country in the early to mid-Sixties. Among the cities the characters visited were Dallas, Los Angeles, Reno, St. Louis, Tuscon, and many others.

Route 66 was not without controversy when it first aired. The show was mentioned more than once in the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Deliquency's hearings on television violence.  Among the scenes brought up before the subcommittee were one in which a young man was whipped with a chain. An accusation was also made that more "sex" had been injected into the series under the orders of James T. Aubrey. This was the source of the notorious "Aubrey dictum," which called for the producers of Route 66 to include more "broads, bosoms, and fun" in Route 66. That Aubrey ever issued such a memo was denied by Frank Stanton of CBS. 

As mentioned earlier, George Maharis eventually left Route 66. He missed several episodes late in the show's second season due to a bout with hepatitis. Tod is then shown as travelling alone, with Buz's absence being explained as the character being hospitalized due to the "echovirus." George Maharis departed the series entirely in its third season. According to Mr. Maharis, he left the show because of his health. Route 66 required him to work long hours under often arduous conditions. Stirling Silliphant and Herbert B. Leonard claimed that George Maharis wanted to leave the show in order to make movies. Regardless of the reason, Tod Stiles was in need of a new travelling companion. No explanation was ever offered as to what happened to Buz. He last appeared in the episode "A Gift for a Warrior," which aired on January 18 1963.

The next several episodes would see Tod travelling alone, with the exception of the episode "Suppose I Said I Was the Queen of Spain," which aired on Feburary 8 1963. In this episode Tod is seen travelling with Lee Winters (played by Robert Duvall). Fans of the show have observed that Lee Winters's lines could have easily been said by Buz, leading many to believe that the episode was made when it was thought George Maharis would return to the show. 

It was with the March 22 1963 episode, "Fifty Miles from Home," that Tod's new travelling companion was introduced. He met Lincoln "Linc" Case outside a Houston bus station. Linc offered a sharp contrast to Buz. He was both introspective and introverted. He was also a Vietnam veteran, the first to ever be a regular character on an American television show. Linc would travel with Buz until the end of the show.

As mentioned earlier, the characters would twice visit Canada. Unfortunately, their first episode would not air until Route 66 entered syndication. "I'm Here to Kill a King" was scheduled to air on November 29 1963. Sadly, it was on November 22 1963 that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the subject matter of "I'm Here to Kill a King" was just a bit too close to the actual assassination of the president. The episode was one of the many "evil twin" episodes so popular on television shows in the Sixties. Martin Milner played the dual role of Tod Stiles and Paul Kades, an assassin who is in Niagara Falls to kill a visiting Middle Eastern king. "I'm Here to Kill a King" has some uncomfortable parallels to the JFK assassination. he king's motorcade through Niagara Falls resembles President Kennedy's motorcade through Dallas. And at one point in the episode Paul Kades comments that he is shooting the king in the head. CBS removed "I'm Here to Kill a King" from the schedule and never aired it during its initial network run. The episode would not be seen until reruns of Route 66 entered syndication.

There are claims on the internet that there was talk of the fifth season of Route 66 being shot in colour with Tod and Linc now travelling from place to place in Europe. I have never been able to verify any of this. The claim that Route 66 would switch to colour makes sense, as in the early Sixties the American broadcast networks were making the transition to colour. Many of CBS's shows would make the change to colour in 1965, including The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies,  and The Ed Sullivan Show. That the show would have moved to Europe makes less sense. Route 66 was shot entirely on location, something that would have been expensive in the United States alone at the time. I would think shooting in Europe would have been cost prohibitive.

The point is perhaps moot, as ratings for Route 66 dropped in its fourth season to the point that CBS cancelled the show. Fortunately, Route 66 was afforded something that was very rare in the Sixties, a series finale. The two part "Where There's a Will, There's a Way" aired on March 6 1964 and March 13 1964. In the episode Tod married heiress Margo Tiffin (played by Barbara Eden). Married and wanting to settle down, Tod and Linc part ways, with Linc planning to return home to Houston, Texas.

Route 66 went onto a successful run as a syndicated rerun. The show was well remembered enough that in 1993 a sequel series titled Route 66 aired on NBC as a summer replacement series. Unfortunately, it was not well received by critics or fans. The series starred James Wilder as Nick Lewis and Dan Cortese as Arthur Clark. The two were travelling the United States in a classic 1961 Corvette, left to him by his father Buz Murdock. Making Nick Lewis the son of Buz Murdock was one of the problems with the show. First, it was not Buz who owned the Corvette, but Tod. The Corvette would then not have been part of Buz's legacy to his son. A bigger problem is that the show doesn't really explain why Buz was not part of his life. Did he die? Did he desert Nick's mother. Having grown up as an orphan, it seems difficult to see Buz not sticking around to raise a son. Regardless, the point may well be moot. This new version of Route 66 only lasted four episodes. 

While the revival of Route 66 was not well received, the original series was critically acclaimed in its time. In 1962 the show was nominated for the Emmy Awards for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for Esther Waters in the episode "Goodnight, Sweet Blues" and Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Series for George Maharis. In 1963 it was nominated for the Writers Guild of America award for Episodic Drama for "Goodnight, Sweet Blues." It  won the Writers Guild of America award for Episodic Drama for the episode "Man Out of Time."

Route 66 was a number of socially conscious dramas that debuted in the late Fifties and early Sixties, including such shows as Naked City, The Defenders, East Side/West Side, Channing, and others. Throughout its run Route 66 dealt with such issues as juvenile delinquency, drug addiction, mental illness, mercy killing, and even the threat of nuclear annihilation. The show could be very dark at times, with some of the characters that Tod and Buz and later Tod and Linc met expressing nihilistic attitudes. At the same time, Route 66 featured its share of humorous episodes (including its series finale), some of which veered into outright comedy. Route 66 was a well-written show (a lion's share of the episodes were written by Stirling Silliphant himself) with well-rounded characters, often played by actors at the top of their game. Route 66 may not be as well known as it once was, and it certainly deserves to be better known.

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