Eight years before Simon and Garfunkel sang about going to look for America, two young men set off in a Corvette on much the same mission. One, Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) was a Yalie whose father had recently died and left him the car; the other, Buz Murdock (George Maharis), was a tough city kid who had worked for Tod’s dad. Both were looking for something, although they couldn’t have told you exactly what—just that they were sure that there was more to life than staying on the assembly line that led from school to work to marriage to grave.
Tod and Buz weren’t hippies—they were much too clean-cut to ever blend into the cast of Hair–but they were the spiritual cousins of everyone who’s ever questioned the straight and narrow path to middle-class (or working-class) respectability, and Buz in particular had more than a bit of the beat generation about him.
Tod and Buz, of course, are the central characters of Route 66, the groundbreaking CBS television series that aired from 1960 to 1964. The series was the brainchild of producer Herbert Leonard and writer Stirling Silliphant, and it’s so different from the usual fare (variety shows, westerns, cop shows, anthologies) offered on American television during those years that it’s astonishing not only that it was made at all, but that it lasted for four full seasons.
Route 66 didn’t fit into any existing genre—it wasn’t an anthology program of independent episodes, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone, nor was it a conventional drama with a large ongoing cast, like Gunsmoke or Perry Mason. Instead, each week Route 66 offered a new story, but it was centered around the two recurring characters of Tod and Buz as they traveled across America (often far from the real Route 66, but who’s counting?).
It’s an absolutely brilliant setup that allowed the writers extreme flexibility in terms of story and location, while also maintaining continuity of interest through the two central characters. Rather notably, the series was able to replace Maharis in season 3, after he became ill, with Glen Corbett (as “Linc Case”), without doing any damage to its narrative structure.
There’s so much to enjoy in this series, but first and foremost is the fact that all the episodes were shot on location, which was quite unusual for television at the time. This means that the Route 66 episodes present a time capsule of America when local customs were far more distinctive than they are today, and it’s great fun just to see what Grand Isle, Louisiana, or Philadelphia, or the Glen Canyon Dam looked like 50 years ago.
Another great pleasure is the quality of acting from the supporting characters, both from veterans like Peter Lorre, Lew Ayres, and Everett Sloane and from young up-and-comers including Ed Asner, Robert Redford, and Suzanne Pleshette. A third is the quality of the scripts and the number of serious issues they tackled, from racism to drug abuse to juvenile delinquency. Silliphant, who wrote many of the episodes, is justly famous for infusing a poetic quality into the dialogue, and many episodes include a monologue which, while perhaps a bit too plummy for the character and the context, bring a heightened sensibility not often seen on broadcast television.
Route 66 captures the feeling of a particularly optimistic time in American life, when anything seemed possible (at least if you were white and male and had a few bucks to spare) and a young person that could afford to put off adult responsibilities for a few years and be confident they’d have no problem picking up with a conventional life when the time was right. The road trip is part of America’s cultural DNA, and Tod and Buz are on the greatest road trip of all time—they get to go wherever they want, defer to no one (to the point of being “ugly Americans” to their fellow countrymen from time to time), and always have enough money to maintain their freedom (although the show made a point of having them pick up work as they traveled). Besides, they win every fight and charm all the pretty girls, so who wouldn’t want to trade places with them?
Acorn Media has released all the episodes of Route 66 in a single box set, and it is one big collection: 24 discs, 116 episodes, 6000 minutes. The episodes look and sound great, and if you’re so inclined, you can use the set to disappear into early ’60s America and not come up for air for four days. If you’re more given to moderation, you can treat the set like a collection of chapters from a modern-day serial novel, dipping into them when you have an hour or two free.
The DVD extras are OK, if nothing spectacular: a documentary on the Corvette, vintage commercials for Chevrolet and Bayer aspirin, and clips from a Q & A session featuring George Maharis, directors Arthur Hiller and Elliot Silverstein, casting director Marion Dougherty, and writer/producer Herbert B. Leonard.