Route 66 : A Herbert Leonard and Sterling Silliphant Production, created by Sterling Siliphant.
Most television drama is ephemeral at best. The annals of TV history are littered with scores of forgotten shows. A few of these shows were praised by critics in their day, such as East Side/ West Side and ( to cite a show that was described a while ago in this space), Slattery's People, but are now forgotten by all but a few enthusiasts, and are probably doomed to languish in network vaults. However, there are also shows that are the stuff of legend, shows that somehow abide in the collective unconscious, falcons across the sky of memory. Two of these abiding dramas were created by one of televiion's handful of near-geniuses, a man named Sterling Silliphant.
Silliphant began his career in advertising in the early nineteen fifties, soon he was writing excellent scripts for television dramas such as Perry Mason and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In 1959, he came up with two ideas that made him almost immortal. The first was a detective drama, but it was a a very different kind of detective drama than the ones popular at the time, such as Peter Gunn. While almost all shows at the time centered on "hard-boiled " private eyes, this shows would be centered on policemen- plain clothes detectives. . And these policemen would would be different from those found in previous shows such as Dragnet and The Untouchables . These would be fallible, human, cops, in a film noiur setting: Modern- day New York City. Silliphant took the title of the show from a minor, but very good film noir of the late forties. Its name? The Naked City. The show was narrated by a man named Lawrence Dobkin, whose face was never seen, but whose clipped, ironic, vocal tones were unforgettable. In the first few minutes, he would set the stage for the evenings drama. At the close of each episode, he would utter the same, oddly haunting words, "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them..". The show began in 1959 in a half-hour format, starring stage, screen and television veteran John McIntire as a wise older cop, and a promising newcomer , James Franciscus, as a young detective whom he mentored. The episode were well directed, superbly and often poetically written ( especially when Silliphant himself was doing the writng.) Mcintire was eventually killed off, and Franciscus left the show before the 1960 season began, when the show took on a new, one hour format. The older, veteran policeman, now called Frank Parker. was played by an excellent, sad -faced actor named Horace McMahon. His younger associate was a college educated, surprisngly erudite young detective named Adam Flint, played by a fellow named Paul Burke. Soon, The Naked City was recognizecd as one of the greatest programs on TV. Almost every episode was powerful, superbly acted, well shot and eloquently written. Many actors who later became famous had their start on the show.
Silliphant, however, had an idea for a show that was even more off beat than The Naked City. When he first pitched it to Naked City producer Herbert Leonard, Leonard was highly skeptical . "This is a show about two bums in a sports car!". However, Leonard was wrong. The show was called Route 66. Iinspired, in part, by Jack Kerouac's "beat generation" epic , On The Road, Route 66 told the story of two very different young men, erudite, multi-talented rich boy Yale graduate Todd Stiles ( Martin Milner) and jazz loving, two-fisted orphaned street kid, Buzz Murdock, ( George Maharis). who, in search of their star, wander North America in a red Corvette, working at whatever jobs are available. On their wanderings, they visited every state in America, and met almost every kind of American; rich and poor, black and white, anglo and hispanic: Jazz Musicians, farmers, factory workers, beatniks, airplane pilots and race car drivers, among many others. In every episode, they ended up trying to help someone else. In some episodes, they were central figures, in others, they served as a kind of chorus.to unfolding human tragedies, played out on the TV screen.
I had heard of Route 66 for years, and even had vague memories of one or two episodes. ( I was born in 1958, so I was about three when it first premired.). Recently, I was flipping channels early one morning at about Seven o'clock, and I came across the show on my local Rero TV channnel. Since then, I have been definitely "hooked". A few episodes have been weak, at least one has been down-right silly. However, many of them are superb TV drama indeed. Of course, in almost every episode, two- fisted Buzz gets in a fight, and almost always wins. Of course, both our boys usually met pretty women and fall, however briefly, in love. At the same time, most of the epiosdes make serious moral points, and a few are even religious and spiritual allegories. There are no dirty words, no gratuitous sex, and . despite the frequent brawling, almost no blood and guts. In short, like Naked City, Route 66 was one of those rare Television shows that often managed to transcend it s medium and sometimes even approach the level of serious art. I urge alll of my (few) readers, to watch it on Retro Tv, if they get that channel. Failing that, they can search out DVDS, most of which are for sale somewhere in cyberspace. They will not regret it.
Verdict: Excellent classic television, and a modest contribution to American mythology as well. Four and a half stars, out of five.