Route 66 was a misleading name. Sure, there was a cool car — a Corvette — and the open American road, but main characters Tod and Buz traveled all of the United States, from Maine to Louisiana to Oregon. The TV show's original title, The Searchers, would have been more apt, if it wasn't confused with the John Wayne film. But just as the driving duo were not on Route 66, they were not searching for anything in particular. The series, which premiered on October 7, 1960, was about something bigger.
Co-creator and principle writer Sterling Silliphant, who won an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night, brought beat-poet language and a John Steinbeck–like affinity for blue collar humanity. Symbolism and realism were in equal balance, which is what makes Route 66 such a vastly underrated television show.
Coming after film noir — it was a spin-off of Naked City — and the beatnik movement, and kickstarting many of the themes of the hippie 1960s, Route 66 was both groundbreaking and rich with cinematic Americana. Two men, on the road in America. It certainly sounded a bit familiar, especially to author Jack Kerouac, who had released his instant classic On the Road in 1957. In fact, Kerouac considered suing Silliphant, the network and Chevrolet.
Here are six great episodes that tell the history of the series and capture what was so sharp and cool about Route 66.
"The Man on the Monkey Board"
Season 1, Episode 4
Route 66 was one of the all-time greats when it came to episode titles. They were surprisingly literary and always intriguing. Take "How Much a Pound Is Albatross?" or "Hell Is Empty, All The Devils Are Here" or "Ever Ride the Waves in Oklahoma?" or "Like This It Means Father...Like This - Bitter...Like This - Tiger..." for example. There were nods to Shakespeare and rich lines of dialogue. In this suspenseful episode, Tod and Buz help root out a Nazi hiding on an oil rig.
"Mon Petit Chou"
Season 2, Episode 9
Much of the show's realism came from its location filming. Some of the fights were a little too real, as well. In this outing, Martin Milner's Tod gets into fisticuffs with Lee Marvin's character. While filming the action, directed by Western master Sam Peckinpah, Milner broke Marvin's nose. Marvin, cool as he was, was okay with it. He even credited the injury with improving his looks, giving him just the right dash of rugged. Marvin was one of many great, budding guest stars. William Shatner and Alan Alda appeared, too.
"The Thin White Line"
Season 2, Episode 11
Route 66 was ahead of the curve with the topics of the 1960s, and fearless when confronting issues of the day. This episode hit at the end of 1961 and saw Tod sinking into a psychedelic mania after drinking a beer spiked with hallucinogens. It's one of the earliest acid trips you'll find on television, with eerie camera tricks and disorienting audio.
"Even Stones Have Eyes"
Season 2, Episode 24
Buz contemplates taking his own life after a construction accident leaves him without his sight. The episode stood out as a favorite in the mind of George Maharis. He did not just act blind, he temporarily blinded himself for the episode, wearing a pair of special opaque contact lenses to hinder his vision. At a school for the blind, Buz learns to deal with his blindness — and finds love. It was a temporary impairment and love. His vision returns to him in a tearful ending.
"Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing"
Season 3, Episode 6
While looking forward, Route 66 also paid tribute to Hollywood past. This wonderful Halloween episode brought horror icons Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Lon Cheney Jr. back to the screen — in monster makeup! Weeks earlier, silent film genius Buster Keaton appeared in "Journey to Nineveh," one of his meatier late roles.
"Hey Moth, Come Eat the Flame"
Season 3, Episode 11
There's that jazzy cool with the episode titles again. But no talk of Route 66 would be complete without mention of the cars. The Corvettes seen on the series were swapped for new models each season. This season-three episode introduced Chevrolet's fresh new C2 model of the Vette, better known as the Stingray, with the pop-up headlights.
Bonus: "I'm Here to Kill a King"
Season 4, Episode 10
Two episodes took place outside the U.S. — this and "A Long Way to St. Louie" were shot in Canada. A tale of political assassination, "I'm Here to Kill a King" was knocked off the schedule, as it was slated to air days after the killing of President Kennedy. Eventually, it was shown in syndication. Sometimes art offers an eerie parallel to reality.