Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Half-Century-Old Road to Today

IF there is such a thing as a visionary time capsule, the newly released boxed set of “Route 66” is it. Watch these discs (from Shout! Factory) and you are transported back to a version of the United States that was still basking in postwar success, a country rich in blue-collar jobs and industrial production and somewhat oblivious to its problems. But while enjoying that return to America as it was, you may also be struck by how often this half-century-old black-and-white television series tackled issues that seem very 21st century.

“Route 66,” which ran from 1960 to 1964 on CBS, was an earnest, ambitious serial about two young men on a random journey across North America in a Corvette. It was shot on location, something hard to imagine given the bulkiness of equipment at the time. Viewed today, a scene on a shrimp boat in New Orleans or at the half-built Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona prompts admiration for the producers, camera operators, electricians and others who made the shots feasible.

It was seat-of-the-pants television, demanding for everyone.

“You were always behind schedule, working 14, 15, 16 hours a day,” recalled George Maharis, who starred with Martin Milner in the initial seasons. “But it was fun. It was like being a pioneer, going over the mountains.”

There was pioneering in the structure of the show as well, and in its scripts. The series was created by Herbert B. Leonard and Stirling Silliphant, who earlier had combined on “Naked City,” and they seemed intent on shining a light into every out-of-the-mainstream corner of America.

Mr. Maharis played Buz Murdock and Mr. Milner was Tod Stiles, friends who embark on a cross-country odyssey after Tod inherits the Corvette. They are among the least fleshed-out lead characters in television history, jarringly so by standards today, when Tony Soprano has inspired entire books. Buz was a hard-slugging guy from New York (not unlike Mr. Maharis himself), and Tod seemed rather preppy, but their main purpose each week was usually to get the show, literally and figuratively, to a place where it could tell a story about someone else.

And what stories they were. This was an era when television hadn’t yet settled into the pattern of silly sitcoms and not-too-taxing dramas that would define it for decades. A TV script — Mr. Silliphant, who died in 1996, wrote many for “Route 66” — could still aspire to be literature. That made for some clunkiness. Writers hadn’t fully grasped that television shows were not stage plays. But even at its most awkward, “Route 66” reached high.

Take, for instance, this slice of dialogue from a 1962 episode called “Aren’t You Surprised to See Me?” A religious nut takes Buz hostage in Dallas and threatens to kill him if the city’s population fails to follow the Ten Commandments for the next 24 hours. The man (played by David Wayne) explains himself in a dizzying monologue that foreshadows both the anti-establishment mood of the Vietnam era and the current laments of the religious right.

“Drop the scales from your eyes,” he tells Buz. “Consider the present society of the world. Are we still individuals, or are we prisoners of bureaucracy? Insects in vast, grinding systems, carrying out antlike, apparently rational actions with no human idea of the ends they serve? Ours is no longer a guilt culture in which control of wrongdoing is self-imposed by conscience. Instead we have a shame culture, one in which acts are judged good or evil solely on the basis of whether one is caught or not, in which the worst punishment is public humiliation, not private guilt. Ours is a world, Murdock, in which conscious morality is treated with derision and reason with scorn. This is an age which no longer waits patiently through this lifetime for the rewards in the next, but instead mills anxiously about overindulging, driven to cheat, driven to crime. So I have killed six men.

“Well, let me tell you that each time, I died with them. Each time I killed myself, too. So what is that insignificant sacrifice against the gigantic moral collapse of the world?”

And that’s just an excerpt.

If that character sounds as if he could be any of today’s unbalanced zealots with a gun, he is not alone. The series was full of people and plot lines that would fit easily in 2012.

Those doomsday preppers who have been the subject of several reality shows would have had a lot to talk about with the central character in “A Fury Slinging Flames,” a 1960 episode in which a physicist expecting a New Year’s Day nuclear attack takes shelter in the Carlsbad Caverns with a group of followers. “Eleven, the Hard Way” (1961), about a small town that sends a gambler to Reno to try to win it a return to prosperity after the local mine goes bust, seems like a metaphor for all those states that hope a casino economy can replace their lost manufacturing revenue. “City of Wheels” (1962), about an embittered veteran in a wheelchair, feels like a precursor to any of the post-traumatic stress disorder plots that are so common in television drama today.

Mr. Maharis, now in his 80s, cited “City of Wheels” as among his favorites. In it, he plunges into a pool to stop a suicide.

Another episode that also involved an icy dip, “Even Stones Have Eyes” from late in Season 2, may be his least favorite, not because of the story but because of the aftermath. The script called for him to dive into a pond to rescue a blind woman.
“The water was like 40 degrees,” he recalled in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “They couldn’t get my clothes on over the wet suit.” So he went without the wet suit.

“It was 4 in the morning,” he said. “It was freezing. My jacket froze on me. They had to pour hot water on me; you can see it in the shot, the steam rising.”

He became thoroughly ill, and soon he found himself with hepatitis (later linked to a B12 shot, Mr. Maharis said). Though he continued to appear into Season 3, he said the lingering illness ultimately knocked him out of the series. Mr. Milner went on alone for a time, then acquired a new partner played by Glenn Corbett, but the show was never quite as strong.

“If I had it to do all over again, the only thing I’d change would be getting that bug,” Mr. Maharis said. Among the pleasures, he said, was working with numerous actors who would go on to have substantial careers. The doomsday character in Carlsbad Caverns was played by Leslie Nielsen, later so successful in, among other things, the “Naked Gun” movies. That gambler sent to Reno carrying his town’s hopes? Walter Matthau.

Martin Sheen, Barbara Eden, Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Julie Newmar and other now familiar names also make appearances. Most had yet to achieve fame, but as its reputation grew the series was able to attract a different order of star. “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing,” from 1962, features the horror greats Peter Lorre, Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff as themselves.

Mr. Milner, 80, went on to roles in “Adam-12” and many other shows. (He had a stroke a few years ago, acquaintances said.)

The other star of the series was the Corvette, which was actually a series of Corvettes. Though in references to the series the car has been described as red, Mr. Maharis said that was never the case.

He recounted how he ended up with a nice perk through a bit of subterfuge. “I said to them, ‘Listen, I would like to bring my car on location with us; is that O.K.?’ And they said, ‘What are you driving?’ And I said, ‘A Ford Thunderbird.’ ”

They gave him his own Corvette.

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