Friday 24 April 2020

Route 66 season one (1960)

Route 66 ran on CBS for four seasons from 1960 to 1964. It initially starred Martin Milner and George Maharis. The show was a major hit. Maharis departed midway through the third season and that was the beginning of the end for the series.

The opening episode gives us the basic backstory. Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) was a rich young man with an Ivy League education until his father died. Instead of leaving him with a fortune the father left him nothing but debts, and a brand new Chevy Corvette. He paid off the debts and kept the car, then he set off in the Corvette with his working-class buddy Buz Murdock (George Maharis). They’re going to find themselves, or find America, or something.

The road movie, in which the open road represents both freedom and a quest for knowledge, was a new American mythology which started to replace the old Wild West frontier mythology in the 50s (although of course it borrows very heavily from the frontier mythology). Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road provided the template although in movies the road movie appeared in prototype form much earlier in films like It Happened One Night (1934) and Sullivan’s Travels (1941).

Route 66 is also a variant on the buddy movie formula, increasing popular at that time.

There’s also a bit of an odd couple vibe. Tod is highly educated, sensitive and even just slightly arty. He’s an intellectual. Buz is from the wrong side of the tracks, a graduate of the school of hard knocks. He’s more the two-fisted action hero type. He’s the man of action. The contrast between the two characters is one the show’s major strengths (as is the acting chemistry between Milner and Maharis).

Buz was an orphan and doesn’t even remember his parents. Tod lost his parents not long before he took to the road. At the moment they just want to wander across the country but they’re both ultimately looking for somewhere to fit in, somewhere to settle down and put down roots. It might take a few years but they both know that they don’t want to wander forever.

Tod and Buz are not really the main characters in the stories. At most their presence serves as a catalyst that sets certain events in motion but the real focus is always on the people they meet along the way. We don’t find out anything more about Tod and Buz than we already knew. And often they’re not even catalysts but merely observers.

This is a series that often tries too hard, it’s overly earnest at times and it does get preachy. It takes itself a bit too seriously. It tries for serious drama but usually only manages rather contrived melodrama.

The strength of Route 66 is that many of the stories are original and offbeat, and they’re certainly varied. The weakness is the excessive reliance on sentimentality and a certain humourlessness. There are also too many unconvincing happy endings in which everything suddenly works out for the best.

Of course two good-looking young guys driving around the countryside in a cool sports car are going to meet girls. And the series has to have some romance. The difficulty is that these affairs of the heart are going to have to be very temporary in nature. After all if one of the guys decides to get married that’s the end of the series. At the same time it can’t look as if Tod and Buz are the love ’em and leave ’em type. They are the heroes and they have to be decent and honourable (this was 1960). Which means the writers have to come up with clever ways to explain why Tod and Buz keep meeting really swell gals but it never works out for them. And of course it can’t be implied that they have sex with any of these girls.

Episode Guide

In the opening episode, Black November, Tod and Buz end up in the town of Garth. It’s a mighty unfriendly place but they’re stuck there after their car breaks down. They may not get out alive. Paranoid hatred of rural people, portrayed as evil inbred rednecks, is one of the staples of American popular culture. This is a particularly extreme example of that staple.

A Lance of Straw is a definite improvement. Tod and Buz have arrived in Louisiana and are taken on as crew of a shrimp trawler. The captain is a fiery young lady named Charlotte Duval. Charlotte is being courted by another skipper, Jean Poussin, but Charlotte doesn’t want to give up her independence. This is a Taming of the Shrew episode which is interesting in that it could never get made today. A hurricane adds some excitement. Not a bad episode.

The Swan Bed takes Tod and Buz to New Orleans where they find themselves mixed up with a nice girl with a crazy mother, an old drunk living on a broken-down showboat and an exotic dancer with parakeet. The parakeet is the key. Oh, and there is a swan bed as well. It’s an intriguing offbeat story and it’s very good.

The Man on the Monkey Board is a truly abysmal episode. The setting - an oil rig - is excellent. Unfortunately the story, about hunting for a Nazi, is tedious and obvious. And it’s all very preachy and earnest.

The Strengthening Angels begins on a rainy night with Tod and Buz giving a girl a ride. The story actually began eight months earlier on another rainy night but they don’t know that yet. They stop to eat at a town called Sparrow Falls although the girl tells them it’s a bad idea. She’s right about that. There’s the little matter of a murder charge and a very unsympathetic sheriff. It’s all rather contrived and predictable but at least it doesn’t fall into the obvious traps that you keep expecting it to. Well it doesn’t fall into all of them anyway.

In Ten Drops of Water Tod and Buz are in drought-stricken Utah and trying to help three young people struggling to keep an obviously failing ranch going. The boys get involved because they got soft-hearted over a mule. An OK episode but too sentimental and too contrived.

In Three Sides Tod and Buz get mixed up in a family drama. Rancher Gerald Emerson has big problems with his two teenaged kids. Daughter Karen (memorably played by 16-year-old Joey Heatherton) is a bit of a wild child and a would-be party girl. Her brother Curt has a chip on his shoulder the size of Oregon, a drinking problem and worst of all a quixotic determination to defend Karen’s honour. These two spoilt teenagers just cause more and more problems and since Mr Emerson can’t deal with them it falls to Tod and Buz to do so. It’s another episode that is a mini-Social Problem Movie with a Moral Message. It’s worth watching just for Joey Heatherton in full-on bad girl sex kitten mode.

In Legacy for Lucia Tod and Buz get mixed up with a young Italian woman fresh off the boat from Sicily. During the war an American soldier, just before he died, left her a legacy. Unfortunately the legacy is not what she thinks it is. Like most episodes of this series it’s very sentimental but it’s OK.

Layout at Glen Canyon could have been fun. It’s a fun idea. Tod and Buz are working on a dam construction site. There’s a company town built to house the workers. A thousand men, and no women. The men haven’t seen a woman for months. And now all hell is about to break loose. Four supermodels are about to arrive to do a fashion shoot on the dam site. Tod and Buz are given the job of keeping those thousand guys away from the four gorgeous babes. Actually the bigger problem might be to keep the four girls away from the thousand guys!

Unfortunately it gets bogged down in domestic dramas and sentimentality. It does have its moments though. The explosive finale (literally explosive) is very good. And it is fun to see the naughtiest of the models, Betsy, let loose among the men. You might think the thought of a thousand men would be too much for any girl but if you think that you haven’t met Betsy. A bit of a mishmash but not a bad episode.

The Beryllium Eater is about an old prospector who has finally struck it rich. And that’s where his problems begin. Buz’s problems begin when he meets Wendy. Wendy is very attractive, she’s obviously on the prowl, she obviously likes But. And she’s married. The boys almost get rich themselves in this episode, and they almost get themselves killed. But that’s life on the road. An OK episode.

In A Fury Slinging Flame it’s the end of the world. At least that’s what a top American scientist believes so he’s taken shelter in the Carlsbad Cavern, deep beneath the earth’s surface. He has a motley group of true believers with him. Tod and Buz get involved accidentally. It’s a story that could have been played for humour or for thrills but instead it’s played as a moving human drama about a brilliant man who has somehow lost the plot. A surprisingly effective episode.

In Sheba Tod and Buz are in Texas where they befriend a woman just out of prison. She blames rich cattleman Woody Biggs (Lee Marvin) for all her troubles. Her problems are biblical - she has found herself caught up in a modern version of the story of David and Bathsheba. An interesting and original episode.

In The Quick and the Dead Tod decides it might be fun to enter one of the support races, like the production car race, at the upcoming Grand Prix. Rather to his surprise it looks like he might end up driving in the Grand Pix himself but that lands him in the middle of an acrimonious family squabble. And he meets a girl and thinks he’s fallen in love, which is a lot riskier than racing in a Grand Prix. If you can buy the far-fetched notion that some guy off the street would be allowed to drive a Formula 1 car then it’s an enjoyable enough episode.

Play It Glissando is told in flashback. The boys are in Malibu with money in their pockets and life is good, and then they get mixed up with famous jazz trumpeter Gabe Johnson and his wife Jana. Gabe and Jana have a troubled marriage. More than just troubled. One of them is crazy. Bad crazy. Dangerous, paranoid, obsessive crazy. But which one of them is the crazy one? Either way Tod and Buz are about to be caught in the middle. This episode has an awesome guest cast, with Jack Lord as Gabe and Anne Francis as Jana. This is Route 66 with a bit of a film noir flavour and it’s good stuff.

The Clover Throne is an offbeat episode. Tod and Buz are helping out on Adam Darcy’s date ranch in California. Adam, unable to walk since an accident, spends all day on the porch with a rifle. Partly he’s protecting his property from a road construction company but mostly he’s guarding Sweet Thing. Sweet Thing is his teenaged ward (and yes her legal name really is Sweet Thing). He hopes to marry her. Sweet Thing is remarkably pretty, perhaps too pretty for her own good. Perhaps too pretty for anybody’s good. Sweet Thing is a whole lotta woman. Sweet Thing wants money and she thinks Adam has a lot of that hidden away somewhere and she also wants to be a movie star. Buz is just the latest in a long line of men who’ve fallen for Sweet Thing’s charms. It’s a situation that could get real messy and real dangerous. It’s all very overheated and contrived but it’s worth it for Anne Helm steaming up the screen as Sweet Thing.

In Fly Away Home Tod thinks it would be fun to be a crop-duster pilot so the boys try to talk themselves into jobs with the Windus crop-dusting outfit. Mr Windus taught Tod to fly but he’s dead now and the company is run by his widow. The chief pilot is a haunted ex-RAF pilot named Summers who may have flown one too many combat missions. Also on the scene is Summers’ ex-wife Christina, a singer. These are all seriously crazy messed-up people. The best thing for the boys to do would to jump back in the Corvette and drive away from there as far and as fast possible. But of course they don’t. And of course Buz falls for Mrs Summers. The only thing that could make things even worse would be if Tod were to fall for the widow Windus’s 19-year-old daughter (who is also crazy) and of course that’s what he does. Summers knows how it will all end. It will end in death. Everything ends in death for Summers. Not a bad episode.

Sleep on Four Pillows is a nicely whimsical little episode. Buz and Tod meet a girl and she spins them a story about her father being a Mafia don and about the Syndicate being after her. The boys aren’t stupid enough to believe that story but the girl is pretty so they allow themselves to be roped into whatever it is that she’s really up to. Patty McCormack (best known as the chilling evil child in The Bad Seed) plays the girl and she’s charming and amusing. Larry Gates is wonderful as the chief of the Baer Detective Agency, a man who prides himself on running a professional outfit that is nothing like the private eyes on TV. It’s a very good episode.

An Absence of Tears suffers from a surfeit of sentimentality. Tod and Bus meet a young blind woman whose husband has just been murdered. She intends to take her revenge. How can a blind woman take revenge on a couple of thugs? She has her own ideas about this and Tod and Buz as usual get caught in the middle. This one is a bit too contrived.

Like a Motherless Child is one of the episodes that goes perilously close to over-indulging in sentimentality. Tod and Bus pick up a ten-year-old boy hitch-hiking. He’s run away from the state orphanage. Tod insists on taking him back, Buz (with unhappy memories of his own childhood in an orphanage) violently disagrees and their friendship looks like it might be at an end. They also encounter Jake Hunter’s Girls, a travelling busload of chorus girls. Hannah looks after the girls for Jake. Hannah is middle-aged and has spent her whole life regretting giving up her son for adoption. Not surprisingly a bond develops between Hannah (a woman looking for a long-lost son) and Buz (a guy looking for the mother he never knew). While there is a lot of emotional melodrama here it at least avoids offering us easy contrived answers.

Effigy in Snow takes the boys to ski country. Tod joins the Ski Patrol, Buz gets a job in the ski shop. This is Tod’s world, the world of the rich (or at least it had been his world). There are two women the story, or rather there are three. Two of them are dead. Soon all three might be dead. This is one of the episodes in which Tod and Buz are mere spectators. It’s not a bad story, perhaps a little contrived but basically it works quite well.

In Eleven, the Hard Way the town of Broken Knee is dying now that the mine has shut down. The only hope is to turn the two into a tourist destination. To do that they’ll need to build a road and that will cost $35,000. They’ve managed to raise $2,700. So they’ve come up with an ingenious plan. The town’s most disreputable citizen, broken-down gambler Sam Keep (Walter Matthau), will take the $2,700 to Reno and turn it into $35,000 at the craps table. Tod and Buz find themselves acting as combination bodyguards and babysitters for Sam. This is an episode that skirts the boundaries of sentimentality but does so successfully. It’s pretty good.

Most Vanquished, Most Victorious is yet another story that manages to push lots of emotional buttons and more or less gets away with it. Tod discovers, to his surprise, that his Aunt Kitty is still alive. But she won’t be for much longer. She wants him to do one favour for her before she dies - to find her daughter. What Tod finds is not what he expected.

Don't Count Stars is another pulling-at-the-heartstrings story. The boys fish Mike McKay (Dan Duryea) out of the water after he falls off his boat in a drunken stupor. Mike is the legal guardian of his nine-year-old niece Linda, a very rich little girl. She owns a hotel in San Diego. Not a fleabag hotel, but a seriously big luxury hotel. She loves the hotel because it’s the only link she has with her deceased parents, and also because even at nine the hotel business has gotten into her blood. The hotel is pulsating with life. Now banker Mr Hammond wants to get the court to remove Uncle Mike as her guardian and force her to sell the hotel.

But Mr Hammond is not a villain. He really thinks it’s for Linda’s good. And Uncle Mike really is an irresponsible drunken bum. But he’s also basically a kind decent man who cares about his niece. He is also not a villain. There are no easy answers to this one but somehow Tod and Buz (who like everyone else have fallen under Linda’s spell)  have to find some answer. A very good episode.

Tod and Buz rescue a pregnant Indian girl from a wicked rancher in The Newborn. Her story is complicated and tragic. She just wants to die, which the boys of course cannot accept. This one’s a bit too contrived and obvious.

In A Skill for Hunting Tod and Buz find themselves cast as the hunted and they don’t like it. They decide they’d prefer to be the hunters. It all begins with an aggressive businessman shooting game in a game preserve, which the boys take exception to. They take even graver exception when he starts shooting at them. The businessman’s wife, known as Trinket, tries to warn them that her husband will kill them. That makes the boys even more annoyed. Quite a good episode.

In Trap at Cordova Tod and Buz encounter a wagon that has overturned and trapped a young boy. But it’s actually a trap for Tod and Buz, or rather a trap set to catch an educated man. Why an educated man? The boys find out when they are taken to the small village of Cordova in New Mexico. A village that needs an educated man very badly. And having found one the village intends to keep him. The beginning is nicely offbeat but then it becomes another somewhat contrived and sentimental tale.

The Opponent is a boxing story. Buz suggests a detour so he can see his old hero Johnny Copa fight. He and Tod rather unwisely bet all their money of Johnny. Then they meet Johnny and discover he’s a broken-down slightly punch-drunk has-been whose job is to lose all his fights because that’s all he can do. But Buz thinks he can turn Johnny into a winner again. It’s another exercise in putting us through the emotional wringer but it’s saved by moving performances by Darren McGavin as Johnny and Lois Nettleton as the sweet girl who’s decided she loves Johnny even if he is a loser (or maybe because he is a loser).

Welcome to Amity is about a girl named Joan (Susan Oliver) who returns to her home town, Amity, to bury her mother. Again.  Her mother died ten years ago and is buried in a pauper’s grave but Joan wants to move her to a nice spot in a proper cemetery. Everybody in the town is determined to stop her. There’s obviously a Deep Dark Secret here but it takes a long time to be revealed. Tod and Buz, as outsiders, are the only ones willing to help her. The biggest fault in this series is the way things usually get wrapped up too neatly and too implausibly at the end but this time the ending is fairy convincing. A decent episode, a bit melodramatic but the melodrama works this time.

Incident on a Bridge suffers from preachiness and too much cringe-inducing speechifying but it has its moments. It’s all told in flashback. It’s the story of Anna, a mute Russian girl in Cleveland, her ignorant oppressive father and the brutal Orlov who is going to marry her. And it’s the story of Dvorovoi, a man regarded as a monster and a killer. Dvorovoi has kidnapped Anna and they have both vanished and Tod and Buz are trying to explain to the homicide lieutenant how maybe nothing is as it seems to be. This is one of the rare episodes with a totally satisfying ending.

Final Thoughts

Route 66 is perhaps not my cup of tea. There are too many messages and too many unconvincing plot twists and (especially) endings. It does however have some strengths and the two leads are excellent.

My advice would be to rent a few episodes first. You might like it a lot. You might not.


  1. The show does have a tremendous jazz theme song by Nelson Riddle.

    I think a lot of the show was shot on location in the places they were visiting. I was surprised to see some local landmarks in El Paso in one later episode.

  2. The one great accomplishment of this show was the fantastic location shooting introducing all the different areas of America to the audience. It's too bad the Vette was never given real screen time. Like the horses in westerns, it was just a way to get from A to B (except for Roy Rogers and The Lone Ranger). Like many TV shows, idiotic fist fights permeated the scripts. The Joey Heatherton episode could never be filmed today.

    1. The one great accomplishment of this show was the fantastic location shooting introducing all the different areas of America to the audience. It's too bad the Vette was never given real screen time. Like the horses in westerns, it was just a way to get from A to B (except for Roy Rogers and The Lone Ranger). Like many TV shows, idiotic fist fights permeated the scripts. The Joey Heatherton episode could never be filmed today.

      I agree with you on all counts.

      It's amazing how much of the great television of the '60s and '70s could never be filmed today.

  3. Kudos on a very well written and entertaining blog. I have vague memories of this series from its broadcast on Nick at Night decades ago, but after having recently worked my way through The Fugitive series DVD box set (and still hungry for another semi-anthology series), I took a chance on the Route 66 box set and am enjoying it immensely. I think I
    have more patience for the hokey and implausible aspects of this series than you seem to in some of the episode synopses, but I can tell that this endeavor is a labor of love on your part - and I appreciate your efforts.

    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      I've only seen the first season of Route 66. I must try to get hold of the later seasons.