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Route 66: The Complete Series (DVD Review)

4 Jun, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Shout! Factory
$129.99 24-DVD set
Not rated.
Stars Martin Milner, George Maharis, Glenn Corbett.

Back when it was a mainstay of CBS Friday nights (and also the 9 p.m. show that set the table for “The Twilight Zone,” which immediately followed), young viewers in the mainland 48 were thoroughly enticed by the idea of two presentable guys in a Corvette convertible zooming across the country each week and falling into fresh jobs — while also frequently romancing locals in the process. In the earlier and most popular of the 116 episodes of “Route 66,” the protagonists were Buz (George Maharis) and Tod (Martin Milner), and you never got the sense that they or their motel rooms were saving themselves for marriage.

Today, of course, the viewing dynamics skew in another direction. The idea that two unschooled drifters could even bankroll the gas to cross the Rockies or Mason-Dixon at will — or immediately find gainful new employment on a dime — seems itself a “Twilight Zone” experience. Thus, Shout! Factory’s new box of the full series run (1960-64) has a heavily nostalgic component — or at least one to make younger viewers envious if they weren’t around to view the show at the time. It is, however, pricey, considering that the utilized prints aren’t as pristine as the ones we’ve seen of vintage CBS shows released by CBS/Paramount — and that three of the “66” seasons have been previously available, which means that those buying the set just to get season four are paying the equivalent of, say, eight bucks a gallon. Some will do this, though.

The series’ dominant writer was also one of its co-creators (Stirling Siliphant), who, before the decade ended, would win on Oscar for penning the script of In the Heat of the Night. Thus, it’s pretty intriguing that the very first episode here (“Black November”) also dumps on Mississippi, though not in any racial way. In Bad Day at Black Rock fashion, straight-arrow Tod and hipper Buz (though Tod is the one who has inherited the Corvette) have a car mishap in one of those hellhole burgs with a Deep Dark Secret and run by an unbenign dictator (Everett Sloane) with everyone under his thumb. Typical of many dramatic TV series of the early ‘60s, the casts are often a terrific mix of veterans and those on the way up. So in addition to Citizen Kane’s Sloane, the ever-ubiquitous Whit Bissell and a newly matured Patty McCormack (previously the child murderess from The Bad Seed), we also get Keir Dullea eight years before 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Kennedy seven years before his Oscar for Cool Hand Luke.

For an even heavier casting payload, see season two’s “Love Is a Skinny Kid,” in which Tuesday Weld comes back to her Texas town wearing a grotesque Japanese mask to make a point about how the local populace (her own mother included) treated her when she was growing up. Future Oscar winner Cloris Leachman is mom, the younger Weld is played by the supreme child actress Veronica Cartwright (then in a period when she was working for both William Wyler and Hitchcock), and the wannabe hood mixing up fists with Maharis for a trip to the police station is … Burt Reynolds. Eventually, Weld takes off the mask — and is as drop-dead great-looking as she always was, and the final shot is of her, Maharis and Milner in the Corvette’s front seat, driving off for what we hope is some kind of Design for Living ménage.

Not likely. There are always other women — and even older women. In one two-parter (which is more than its story can sustain), Maharis falls for a nightclub vocalist who’s still carrying a torch for a surprisingly dashing but estranged crop-duster husband (Michael Rennie, looking as he’d look natural wearing an ascot to a kids’ T-ball contest). Dorothy Malone plays the singer (whoever dubbed her singing had a good voice), and with this pilot husband plus Malone as a ground-down but still dishy wife, there are possibly intentional echoes of Douglas Sirk’s cult aviation drama The Tarnished Angels. Later in the series, Milner gets involved with a singer himself — an on-the-run (from a bounty hunter) Vera Miles, who is so good here that I thought she might have gotten an Emmy nomination. As it turns out, only Maharis (once) and guest star Ethel Waters were the only ones who pulled off that feat.

By the time of the Miles episode, health reasons had forced Maharis out of the series — and this particular show (a good one) starts out unpromisingly with a long phone conversation where Tod is calling Buz to “see how he is.” As the story goes, Marharis’s departure was precipitated by a scene where Buz jumps into freezing water rescuing a blind woman played by Barbara Barrie. An errant B-12 shot during an illness that ensued gave the actor hepatitis, and that was that.

After a few weeks, Maharis simply disappeared from the show, and a new character (Glenn Corbett’s Linc Case) was written into the series — albeit one with enough demons to make him an unlikely regular. Five years before Hollywood even touched the Vietnam War (and then only with John Wayne’s jingo-istic The Green Berets), Linc was a character who’d been to the Big Muddy and come back very scathed — one with enough of a temper and specialized military training to beat up a half-dozen guys who’ve attacked him, one very seriously. In later shows, however, Linc softened to such a degree that in an episode where two jokers (Rip Torn, Albert Salmi) pick him up as a hitchhiker and then implicate him in their motel robbery, he proves surprisingly patient and compliant until he can make his escape. The series casting rewards, by the way, are still evident in this episode. Playing a passing motorist Linc tricks into stopping is a fairly young-looking (as much as this was ever possible) Gene Hackman.

As with other dramatic series, the leads had enough things happen to them over, say, a two-week run to fill a lifetime (in the episode where Buz rescues the blind woman, he has been struck blind himself in a construction accident). The writing could be heavy-handed, and even the show titles were pretty florid or at least heavy-breathing; can you imagine a single season giving you “Birdcage on My Foot”; “Mon Petit Chou”; “How Much a Pound Is Albatross”; “Shoulder the Sky, My Lad”; “Kiss the Maiden All Forlorn” and “Hell Is Empty, All the Devils Are Here”? But the shows were grown-up in a way that not many TV comedies were at the time. I’ve always been struck with how CBS went from “The Gene Autry Show” to “Route 66” in a decade — and NBC went from “Sid Caesar” to “I Dream of Jeannie” in a little more than a decade.

“Route 66” was never the same after Maharis had to leave, but it isn’t one of those shows that didn’t flame out early, either. Nelson Riddle’s great title theme for Capitol didn’t become a Billboard charter until the summer of 1962, well into the series’ run. And if you somehow ever get to see CBS’s footage of its Nov 22, 1963, broadcast of “As the World Turns,” the network is still promoting what you’ll see on “Route 66” that coming evening even after it has announced during a preceding network interruption that President Kennedy has been shot. (All nighttime programming, of course, ended up being pre-empted.)

But by March of 1964 (welcome to the Beatles era), the series came to an end, and even “The Twilight Zone” would expire by mid-year. Replacing them the next season were “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” “The Smothers Brothers Show” (a short-lived sitcom, not the landmark variety hour) and “Slattery’s People” (a critically praised flop with Richard Crenna). The mix didn’t work, and before too long, CBS was running old (but not very) theatrical movies in the time slots.

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