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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
Buz Murdock (1960-1963)...................... George Maharis
Linc Case (1963-1964).............................. Glenn Corbett
Herbert B. Leonard, Jerry Thomas, Leonard Freeman, Sam Manners
HISTORY 116 Episodes
October 1960-September 1964
"A Knock Develops on Route 66." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania),
26 January 1963.
Erik. Tube of Plenty. New York: Oxford University Press,
Laurence. Look Now, Pay Later. New York: Mentor, 1980.
Philip. "Route 66--On the Road Toward People." Television Quarterly
(New York), Winter 1963.
Harry, and Walter Podrazik. Watching TV: Four Deacades of American
Television. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.
Bob Chandler. "Review of Route 66." Variety (Los Angeles),
12 October 1960.
John Gregory. "Take Back Your Kafka." The New Republic (Washington,
D.C.), 4 September 1965.
Camera, Will Travel." Variety (Los Angeles), 12 October 1960.
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.
Gilbert. "Review of Route 66." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania),
10 February 1962.
Fingers of God." Time (New York), 9 August 1963.
Hearings that Changed Television." Telefilm (New York), July-August,