Route 66 was one of the most unique American television dramas of the 1960s, an ostensible adventure series that functioned, in practice, as an anthology of downbeat character studies and psychological dramas. Its 1960 premiere launched two young drifters in a Corvette on an existential odyssey in which they encountered a myriad of loners, dreamers and outcasts in the small towns and big cities along U.S. Highway 66 and beyond. And the settings were real; the gritty social realism of the stories was enhanced by location shooting that moved beyond Hollywood hills and studio backlots to encompass the vast face of the country itself. Route 66 took the anthology on the road, blending the dramaturgy and dramatic variety of the Studio One school of TV drama with the independent filmmaking practices of the New Hollywood.
Route 66 was the brainchild of producer Herbert B. Leonard and writer Stirling Silliphant, the same creative team responsible for Naked City. The two conceived the show as a vehicle for actor George Maharis, casting him as stormy Lower East Side orphan Buz Murdock, opposite Martin Milner as boyish, Yale-educated Tod Stiles. When Tod's father dies, broke but for a Corvette, the two young men set out on the road looking for "a place to put down roots." Maharis left the show in 1963 in a dispute with the show's producers, and was replaced by Glenn Corbett as Linc Case, a troubled Vietnam Nam vet also seeking meaning on the road.
Like Naked City, which producer Leonard had conceived as an anthology with a cop-show pretext, the picaresque premise of Route 66 provided the basis for a variety of weekly encounters from which the stories arose. Episodes emphasized the personal and psychological dramas of the various troubled souls encountered by the guys in their stops along the highway. Guest roles were filled by an array of Hollywood faces, from fading stars like Joan Crawford and Buster Keaton, to newcomers such as Suzanne Pleshette, Robert Duvall, and Robert Redford. The show's distinct anthology-style dimension was symptomatic of a trend Variety dubbed "the semi-anthology," a form pioneered by Wagon Train and refined by shows like Bus Stop and Route 66. The series' nomadic premise, and its virtual freedom from genre connections and constraints, opened it up to a potentially limitless variety of stories. While the wandering theme was hardly new in a television terrain overrun with westerns, for a contemporary drama the premise was quite innovative. Route 66 was consistent in tone to the rest of TV's serious, social-realist dramas of the period, but unencumbered by any predetermined dramatic arena or generic template--as against the likes of The Defenders (courtroom drama), Dr. Kildare (medical drama), Saints and Sinners (newspaper drama) or Mr. Novak (blackboard drama). Indeed, the show's creators met initial resistance from their partner/distributor Screen Gems for this lack of a familiar "franchise," with studio executives arguing that no one would sponsor a show about two "bums." Of course, Chevrolet proved them wrong.
Perhaps even more startling for the Hollywood-bound telefilm industry was the program's radical location agenda. Buz and Tod's cross-country search actually was shot across the country, in what Newsweek termed "the largest weekly mobile operation in TV history." Remarkably, by the end of its four-season run, the Route 66 production caravan had traveled to twenty-five states--as far from L.A. as Maine and Florida--as well as Toronto. The show's stark black and white photography and spectacular locations provided a powerful backdrop to its downbeat stories, and yielded a photographic and geographical realism that has never been duplicated on American television.
The literate textures and disturbing tones of Route 66's dramas were as significant as its visual qualities. The wandering pretext provided both a thematic foundation and a narrative trajectory upon which a variety of psychological dramas, social-problem stories, and character studies could be played out. The nominal series "heroes" generally served as observers to the dramas of others: a tormented jazz musician, a heroin addict, a washed-up prizefighter, migrant farm workers, an aging RAF pilot (turned crop-duster), a runaway heiress, Cajun shrimpers, a weary hobo, an eccentric scientist, a small-time beauty contest promoter, drought-stricken ranchers, Cuban-Basque jai-alai players, a recent ex-con (female and framed), a grim Nazi-hunter, a blind dance instructor, a dying blues singer--each facing some personal crisis or secret pain.
The show's continuing thread of wandering probed the restlessness at the root of all picaresque sagas of contemporary American popular culture. The search that drove Route 66 was both a narrative process and a symbolic one. Like every search, it entailed optimism as well as discontent. The unrest at the core of the series echoed that of the Beats--especially Kerouac's On the Road, of course--and anticipated the even more disaffected searchers of Easy Rider. The show's rejection of domesticity in favor of rootlessness formed a rather startling counterpoint to the dominant prime-time landscape of home and family in the sixties, as did the majority of the characters encountered on the road. The more hopeful dimension of Route 66 coincided with the optimism of the New Frontier circa 1960, with these wandering samaritans symbolic of the era's new spirit of activism. Premiering at the dawn of a new decade, Route 66 captured in a singular way the nation's passage from the disquiet of the fifties to the turbulence of the sixties, expressing a simultaneously troubled and hopeful vision of America.
Despite its uniqueness as a contemporary social drama, and its radical break from typical Hollywood telefilm factory practice, Route 66 has been largely forgotten amid the rhetoric of sixties-TV-as-wasteland. When the series is cited at all by television historians, it is as the target of CBS-TV president James Aubrey's attempts to inject more "broads, bosoms, and fun" into the series ("the Aubrey dictum"). Aubrey's admitted attempts to "lighten" the show, however, only serve to underscore its dominant tone of seriousness. What other American television series of the 1960s could have been described by its writer-creator as "a show about a statement of existence, closer to Sartre and Kafka than to anything else"? (Time, 1963). Silliphant's hyperbole is tempered by critic Philip Booth, who suggested in a Television Quarterly essay that the show's literacy was "sometime spurious," and that it could "trip on its own pretensions" in five of every ten stories. Still, Booth wrote, of the remaining episodes, four "will produce a kind of adventure like nothing else on television, and one can be as movingly universal as Hemingway's 'A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.'"
How often Route 66 matched the power of Hemingway (or the existential insight of Sartre) is debatable. That it was attempting something completely original in television drama is certain. Its footloose production was the antithesis of the claustrophobic stages of the New York anthologies of old, yet many of its dramatic and thematic concerns--even certain of its stories--echoed those of the intimate character dramas of the Philco Playhouse era. Indeed, one of Aubrey's CBS lieutenants, concerned with the show's "downbeat" approach to television entertainment, protested to its producers that Route 66 should not be considered "a peripatetic Playhouse 90"--capturing, willingly or not, much of the show's tenor and effect. Route 66 was trying to achieve the right mix of familiarity and difference, action and angst, pathos and psychology, working innovative elements into a commercial package keyed to the demands of the industry context. Even with its gleaming roadster, jazzy theme song, obligatory fistfights and occasional romantic entanglements, Route 66 was far removed indeed (both figuratively and geographically) from the likes of 77 Sunset Strip.
In 1993 the Corvette took to the highway once more in a nominal sequel, a summer series (on NBC) that put Buz's illegitimate son at the wheel with a glib Generation-X partner in the passenger seat. Although the new Route 66 lasted only a few weeks, by reviving the roaming-anthology premise of the original, it evidenced television's continuing quest for narrative flexibility (and Hollywood's inherent penchant for recycling). From The Fugitive to Run For Your Life to Highway to Heaven to Quantum Leap to Touched by an Angel, television has continued to exploit the tradition of the wandering samaritan, to achieve the story variety of an anthology within a series format. Route 66 established the template in 1960, launching a singular effort at contemporary drama in a non-formulaic series format. That the series mounted its dramatic agenda in a Corvette, on the road, is to its creators' everlasting credit.
Tod Stiles .................................................Martin Milner
Buz Murdock (1960-1963)...................... George Maharis
Linc Case (1963-1964).............................. Glenn Corbett
Herbert B. Leonard, Jerry Thomas, Leonard Freeman, Sam Manners
October 1960-September 1964 Friday 8:30-9:30
"A Knock Develops on Route 66." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 26 January 1963.
Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Bergreen, Laurence. Look Now, Pay Later. New York: Mentor, 1980.
Booth, Philip. "Route 66--On the Road Toward People." Television Quarterly (New York), Winter 1963.
Castelman, Harry, and Walter Podrazik. Watching TV: Four Deacades of American Television. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.
Chandler, Bob Chandler. "Review of Route 66." Variety (Los Angeles), 12 October 1960.
Dunne, John Gregory. "Take Back Your Kafka." The New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 4 September 1965.
"Have Camera, Will Travel." Variety (Los Angeles), 12 October 1960.
Jarvis, Jeff. "The Couch Critic." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 12 June 1993.
Jenkins, Dan. "Talk About Putting a Show on the Road!" TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 22 July 1961.
"Rough Road." Newsweek (New York), 2 January 1961.
Seldes, Gilbert. "Review of Route 66." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 10 February 1962.
"The Fingers of God." Time (New York), 9 August 1963.
"The Hearings that Changed Television." Telefilm (New York), July-August, 1962.