When that sweep of orchestral strings and jazzy piano line flowed from the TV speaker every Friday night on CBS, it sounded like freedom on the open road, which of course made NelsonRiddle’s theme perfect for setting the mood of “Route 66.”
Created by Academy Award-winning writer Stirling Silliphant and producer Herbert Leonard, the series, which ran from October 1960 to September ’64, at first starred Martin Milner as Tod Stiles and George Maharis as Buz Murdock, a pair of adventurous young dudes who set out to explore America along the storied “Mother Road” — Route 66. Their ride: Tod’s shiny new Corvette convertible, “America’s sports car,” inherited from his once-wealthy, late father. Buz — a native of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen — and Tod had become friends despite their vastly different backgrounds, while working for Tod’s father.
Each week, the duo stopped off in a different town or city long enough to work at various jobs for gas, grocery and rent money, at the same time becoming embroiled in the problems and conflicts of the people they would meet. The situations ranged from dramatic to romantic to comedic to dangerous, the latter being the case more often than not. The various individuals they encountered were played by a galaxy of current and future stars, including Rod Steiger, Lee Marvin, Joan Crawford, Cloris Leachman, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Walter Matthau, James Caan, Burt Reynolds, Suzanne Pleshette, Julie Newmar, Barbara Eden and Ron Howard, to name a few. Even horror veterans Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr. turned up in one of the sillier episodes.
All the shows were filmed on locations across the country, often ranging far from the title highway to visit such places as New Orleans, Oregon City, Cleveland, and other far-flung locales.
The scripts — many penned by Silliphant — were for the most part literate, engaging and full of well-drawn characters, while Milner as the clean-cut Harvard grad and Maharis as the tough, street-savvy survivor, were a well-matched and likable pair of protagonists. Unfortunately, the very popular Maharis left midway through the third season due to a lingering case of hepatitis, leaving Milner to drive solo for several episodes before he was joined late in the season by Glen Corbett as Linc Case, a Vietnam veteran searching for what to do with his life. But alas, the series ran out of fuel (audience interest, that is) and was canceled after the fourth season.
The 116 black-and-white episodes are now parked in a 24-DVD box set, with extras that include vintage commercials (mostly for Chevy products), the documentary “Great Cars: Corvette,” and a rare 1990 William S. Paley Television Festival panel with series casting director Marion Dougherty, directors Arthur Hiller and Elliot Silverstein, writer-producer Herbert B. Leonard and George Maharis.
— Gene Triplett