May 26, 2012
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Spend all day on 'Route 66'
By Bruce Kirkland, QMI Agency


Some things linger from childhood, like significant books, haunting tunes, important movies and a handful of television series. For me, one of those ghosts is Route 66.

It is back with a stylish vengeance. Shout! Factory just released a 24-disc box set, Route 66: The Complete Series and it's like a narcotic. Each of the 116 episodes is compulsive viewing, whether for drama, melodrama, comedy or the joy of skilled writing that turned many of the 52-minute weekly episodes into mini-movies. Filmed in gritty black-and-white on locations across the U.S. -- with two episodes filmed in Canada -- Route 66 is the American Dream shocked into reality.

For its duration, Route 66 ran on Friday nights from Oct. 7, 1960, to March 13, 1964. It was an anthology-style series with recurring characters who took us on the road (although rarely the real U.S. Highway 66) in their Corvette for new adventures in the American heartland. The guest stars became as important, if not more so, than the leads.

So the series became famous, in hindsight, for secondary casting. The filmmakers nurtured the talents of George Kennedy, William Shatner, Walter Matthau, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Robert Redford, Ed Asner, Burt Reynolds, Gene Hackman, Lee Marvin, Martin Sheen, Jack Lord, Barbara Eden and Suzanne Pleshette. Occasionally, they engaged the power of stars, some of them fading. Among those names were Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Soupy Sales, Rod Steiger and Lon Chaney Jr.

Meanwhile, there were usually two men sitting in the car and taking us to a new destination each time. While the Corvette was a star in its own right as America's first sports car, the best-known face was prim and trim Martin Milner. For all four seasons, he played the college boy who made up half of the duo who jumped into his late father's car for the road trips.

Until he got seriously ill with hepatitis during filming of the third season, George Maharis played the dark side of the duo, a Hell's Kitchen refugee who settled with fists what Milner could not solve with finesse. Because of Maharis' illness, Milner travelled solo for a lot of episodes, then found himself an even darker, more complex sidekick, a U.S. Army veteran played by Glenn Corbett.


Their names were blunt and direct: Milner played Tod, Maharis was Buz and Corbett was Linc (for Lincoln). This being the 1960s, it was no accident that Maharis channelled Beat Generation novelist Jack Kerouac, who wrote the iconic and influential 1957 novel, On the Road. In the first episode, Maharis' Buz tells a car mechanic, "Like I say, you live it the way you feel it. When it moves, you go with it. Tod says I got unrest. What's wrong with unrest? It's as good as anything."

In a strange coincidence, I just saw the Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles' new adaptation of On the Road at the Cannes Film Festival this week. Kristen Stewart (the mope from The Twilight Saga movies) is now radiant as the woman who melds the energies of Garrett Hedlund's Neal Cassady and Sam Riley's Kerouac. Watching that film reminds me how crystal clear it is that Route 66 creator Herbert B. Leonard -- and especially co-creator and writer Stirling Silliphant -- unabashedly mined the same veins Kerouac had punctured with his prose.

That makes Route 66 the most significant Beat Generation television show Hollywood ever allowed to happen (probably by accident because they did not notice in time). It reverberates with layers of meaning that are relevant today. Even the black-and-white, film-noirish photography is interesting now. It is the colour of my childhood dreams and nightmares.

 




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