Sunday, March 20, 2011

Season One, Episode 9: Layout at Glen Canyon

Air Date: December 2, 1960
Director: Elliot Silverstein
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Cast: Charles McGraw, Bethel Leslie, Zhora Lampert, Richard Shannon, Lane Nakano, Elizabeth MacRae, Donna Douglas

"Layout at Glen Canyon" is done in by its convoluted and implausible plot. The acting isn't bad, but - like its immediate predecessor episode, "Legacy for Lucia" - it just, well... for lack of a better word... sucks. It starts off with a stupid fistfight between Buz and Grady the foreman at the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona where the boys are working. It goes downhill from there.

The fight is apparently a test. Grady wants to make sure the boys are up to the task of escorting around a group of models working for a New York fashion magazine who are coming to the area near the dam for a photo shoot.

The plot is much too intricate to describe here. So here it is in a nutshell: Models show up with chaperone Jo Galloway (Bethel Leslie). We later learn she used to be married to Grady the foreman. Buz and Tod escort the models around. The duo becomes enmeshed in the personal lives of a few of the models. One of them, Sue (Zhora Lampert) is plagued with emotional problems and disappears from the shoot. There is lots of dynamiting going on in the area, so the boys have to track down Sue before she gets blown up. While searching for Sue, the boys learn from Jo why she and Grady separated (their son died, and his death broke up the parents). Ever idealistic, Buz and Tod seem to hold out hope that Grady and Jo will get together again. They eventually find Sue. She doesn't get blown up. The models get back on the plane for New York City. Jo and Grady can't save their marriage, despite the best efforts of Buz and Tod to help. The plane takes off and Buz and Tod drive away in their Corvette. Poor, forlorn Grady is left standing there, all alone.

"Layout" is not a complete waste of time. No Route 66 episode is. But if it's the only Route 66 episode you ever see, then you'll never understand the appeal of the show. It's got a bizarre plot. Lots of Route 66 episodes have bizarre plots, but they're saved by Stirling Silliphant's often magnificent writing. I say often because in "Layout," his writing blows. It's marred by unsympathetic characters. It contains zero tension. Nada. Zilch. Absolutely none.

It is blessed by breathtaking northern Arizona countryside. And there is a little bit of pathos in the show. It's hard not to feel bad for Jo and Grady once you learn what they've been through together. The scene at the end, with the plane lifting up into the sky, taking Jo back to New York City and ruling out a reconciliation with Grady, is haunting. And, as mentioned earlier, the acting is decent.

But, make no mistake: "Layout" is a mess. A jumbled mess. It doesn't hold together at all. It fails to maintain viewer interest. It goes nowhere. It felt as if Stirling Silliphant was running out of ideas and it's only the ninth episode of the first season, for frick's sake. To make matters worse, Buz and Tod are completely wasted. The characters don't engage them. They don't even need to be in it. In short, it's one of the weakest Route 66 episodes ever made.

Incidentally, I'm not the only one unimpressed by "Layout." Below is a review of the episode published in The Los Angeles Times three days after it aired that was quite negative. Click on it to get a better look. A highlight: "If this is the kind of thing taking place on Route 66, alternate highways are suggested for televiewers with weak stomachs."

Rating: 4 out of 10

Tap on the Los Angeles Times review (above) for a closer view.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Season One, Episode 8: Legacy for Lucia

Air Date: November 25, 1960
Director: Philip Leacock
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Guest Stars: Arlene Martel, John Larch, Jay C. Flippen

"Legacy for Lucia"
is one of those contrived Route 66 episodes where most of the elements come together except for its basic premise. The episode works on some levels - splendid acting, spectacular scenery - but it falls completely flat in the story department.

While Buz and Tod are working at a logging mill in small-town Merlin, Oregon (well, it's really Buz doing all the work - Tod is off tooling around in the Vette), a young and very religious Sicilian woman named Lucia Trapani (Arlene Martel) arrives in town on a bus. Seventeen years earlier, in 1943, while the war was raging across Italy, an American serviceman named Alec Haines (who grew up in Merlin) comforted Lucia (who'd recently been orphaned) by telling her that he owned the state of Oregon and if anything happened to him, she'd inherit the state upon his death.

If you guess that Alec ends up getting killed (by Germans), you guessed right. So eventually Lucia goes to Oregon because she wants to sell her state so she can raise enough money to purchase a new Madonna statue for her poor village. A do-gooder foreman at the logging mill named Morrison (John Larch) hears her story and wants to help her. He knows that local yokel curmudgeon Nathaniel Hobbs (Jay C. Flippen) was Alec's foster father back in the day. Nathaniel is an old grump who doesn't like Eye-talians much.

But Lucia drifts into his life and he slowly develops a fatherly soft spot for her. Very slowly. Before that happens, Hobbs makes her feel like sh!t and is actually the first man on a Route 66 episode to knock out Buz in a fight (!). Morrison convinces Hobbs to cut down the lumber on his land and sell it and give the proceeds to Lucia so she can buy her Madonna statue. Morrison balks at first and then eventually caves. Lucia learns more about him and discovers that Alec didn't really own Oregon and that Hobbs is really a compassionate guy under that gruff exterior. Buz and Tod, of course, join in to help. The money goes to Lucia, who gets on the bus to return to Sicily.

One thing that you can say about Route 66 episodes: It's next to impossible to keep the plot descriptions short.

Everything about "Legacy for Lucia" feels contrived. Too bad, because Arlene Martel, who'd later go on to play Spock's Vulcan bride T'Pring in the Star Trek episode "Amok Time," is outstanding in the role of Lucia. John Larch is back, too, after recently appearing in "The Strengthening of Angels." What can I say about Larch? He's always wonderful. I've never seen a bad John Larch performance. And character actor Jay C. Flippen, veteran of countless movies and TV shows (most memorably, he played Marvin Unger in Stanley Kubrick's '56 noir masterpiece The Killing) is believably gruff and believably compassionate, a testament to his fine acting skills. And it's amazing to see him kick Buz's ass. That doesn't happen often.

Add to all that the breathtaking Oregon countryside and the effective scenes where men are chopping down trees and you've got all the elements of a first-rate episode.

So where did it all go wrong? The premise sucks. It doesn't work at all. Not for a minute does the viewer believe that a woman - even from a tiny village in Sicily that's not on the map - could be so naive as to believe that an American soldier owned the entire state or Oregon, or that his verbal commitment to leave it to her constitutes a proper legal transaction. Even the most starry-eyed, naive, semi-literate, Sicilian country bumpkin would utterly reject the idea of crossing the ocean and the entire United States for something so insubstantial.

Which leads to another flaw in the episode. It's unbelievably maudlin. I don't mind maudlin in controlled amounts, but "Legacy for Lucia" has it slathered on thick to the point of being sickly sweet. Stirling Silliphant's writing, which is typically tight, powerful, emotional and edgy, just feels preachy and flabby here. There's no real tension in the episode. Sure Nathaniel Hobbs (Flippen) is kind of a jerk and doesn't like Lucia at first and is bitter, but he has every right to be bitter, and Larch's character is an ass for pestering and pestering Hobbs to sell all of his lumber to help Lucia.

Who cares about her village needing a Madonna statue? Listen, lady, try living in Laos! They've got a lot worse problems there than not having a Madonna statue. Oh yeah, and why in the hell doesn't Larch's character just leave Flippen's character alone? Quit bugging the man. Leave him be. Don't preach to him. He lost a kid who was more or less the equivalent of his son.

Where's the conflict? With whom are we supposed to sympathize? And Buz and Tod are wasted in this episode. They just stand around and act like they think Lucia is the greatest damned thing since sliced bread. Why does she have such a hold over everybody? Sure, she's kinda cute and all. But, my God, by the end credits, all of the people in this episode are ready to elect her president of the United States.

"Legacy for Lucia" is not the worst Route 66 episode ever made. The one that followed it, "Layout at Glen Canyon," is worse. But "Lucia" remains a melodramatic episode that fell apart because there just wasn't a good story to tell. Too bad, because there are a finite number of Buz episodes in the series, and I wish each one could be as superb as "Ten Drops of Water" or "The Man on the Monkey Board." No TV show bats one thousand. Even Seinfeld had that cruddy-ass final courtroom episode and the hokey clips episode at the very end to bid the show farewell.

As uneven as "Lucia" is, it's better than many of the Tod Stiles solo episodes. So maybe this entry contains too much grousing and bellyaching. If so, I am sorry. But even among those who prefer to catch their flies with honey instead of vinegar, "Legacy for Lucia" will probably never be remembered as a superb Route 66 episode. Luckily, by the end of the show's four-year run, there would be plenty of those.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Monday, February 21, 2011

1960 Corvette Commercial

The third star of Route 66 is, of course, the Corvette. Here is an advertisement for the 1960 Chevrolet Corvette. Also featured prominently in this ad is the '60 Chevrolet Impala. Unlike some of my earlier posts, this commercial was not broadcast during Route 66 episodes. By the time Season One began in the fall of 1960, CBS was already airing commercials for the 1961 Chevrolet cars. Still, the commercial is fun to watch to catch a glimpse of Buz and Tod's co-star, the '60 Corvette. Buz and Tod's light blue Corvette became all the rage across America after the show aired, and apparently Chevrolet couldn't keep them in stock. When you see how snazzy this set of wheels is, it's not too hard to understand why.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Season One, Episode 7: Three Sides

Air Date: November 18, 1960
Director: Philip Leacock
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Guest Stars: E.G. Marshall, Stephen Bolster, Joey Heatherton, Johnny Seven, Paul Genge

Tod and Buz drive into scenic Grants Pass, Oregon, a small town west of Medford. They end up intervening in a bar fight between tough guy Becker (Johnny Seven) and weakling Curt Emerson (Stephen Bolster), who happens to be the son of a prominent local businessman, Gerald Emerson (E.G. Marshall). They're fighting because Becker is getting fresh with Curt's sexy sister, Karen (Joey Heatherton, pictured left), and Curt - who is always trying to prove his manhood - doesn't like it one bit. Becker throttles Curt (Curt is no match at all), but Buz intervenes. And... Well... Do you really think Becker stands a Popsicle's chance in hell of beating up Buz? My money is on Buz. Hell, my money is always on Buz.

Buz kicks Becker's ass. Pouty, spoiled rich wimp Curt (right) is all sore because he was no match for Becker, and he doesn't like that Buz routed him so easily.

Buz and Tod end up bringing Curt and Karen back to their big house, where father Gerald, the respected owner of a huge local hop farm, lives with them. Poor Gerald. The guy must have three or four ulcers from the pressure of running his business combined with his lousy, ungrateful kids. He is dealing with a sex kitten daughter who's always showing off her body and teasing local yokels, and pathetic Curt, who's getting into trouble more or less constantly as a result of trying to show the world that he's strong and resourceful. Problem is, Karen is truly hot while Curt is mind-numbingly inept and does nothing to help his father's hop farm. In fact, he ends up hurting it. Not only does he keep fighting with Becker (and losing), he gets in a rowboat race on a local river against Becker that almost costs him his life. Curt's boat capsizes and the only reason he survives is because Becker jumps in and saves his waterlogged ass.

Later, Curt - trying to be macho - insists on driving a truckload of hops down a treacherous road that is avoided by motorists. His father's assistant, Galloway (Paul Genge), who is beloved by all the workers, insists on going with him. Sure enough, Curt wrecks his truck and Galloway is killed. Curt emerges from the wreckage relatively unscathed. The workers back at the hop farm hear of this and all of them walk off the job, leaving Buz and Tod alone to help Gerald.

Karen comes through by rallying her friends to pitch in and help her dad. She is reunited with Becker and she teases him and he gets all riled up and tries to have sex with her. Curt intervenes. He once again has the shit beaten out of him by Becker. Becker once again has the shit beaten out of him by Buz. It dawns on Curt that he has spent his whole life hurting, not helping, his patient father. He finally realizes he has to do the right thing. For the first time in his life, he rolls up his sleeves and pitches in to help on the farm. Buz and Tod join the others and they end up helping to save the harvest. Gerald (right) is grateful that his son and daughter have finally assumed some responsibility.

Buz and Tod hit the road again, in search of new adventures. The show ends with an interesting exchange that involves Tod sharing a profound insight:

Tod: I just remembered something.
Buz: Is it good for bruises?
Tod: Knowing Mr. Emerson and Karen and Curt brought it to mind. Something dad used to say.
Buz: What's that?
Tod: Whenever you reach an impasse, look at the third side of the coin.
Buz: Third side?
Tod: Yeah.
Buz: I thought there was only two sides to a coin.
Tod: The third side is the edge, the place the two sides come together. The meeting place of heads and tails. Dad used to say that was the best side because it welds opposites together. And it's a circle, a continuing circle, closed and perfect, as endless as understanding itself.

Buz flashes Tod "a look" that can either be interpreted as "Wow, that's profound" or "What in the hell is this guy talking about?"

"Three Sides" is one of those solid Route 66 episodes that is a real credit to the series. It's not one of the masterpieces, like the previous episode, "Ten Drops of Water." But it's effective and believable and touching. It owes its success to smooth directing by veteran Philip Leacock, a splendid script by Stirling Silliphant, and excellent acting, particularly by E.G. Marshall, one of those great method character actors who appeared in so many TV shows and movies. Today, he is perhaps best remembered as Juror #4 in Sidney Lumet's gripping Twelve Angry Men (1957). His quiet performance in "Three Sides" burns with intensity and he makes the episode a must-see. The rest of the actors are in top form, too, particularly Stephen Bolster as the spoiled son Curt. Bolster went on to become a soap opera star, appearing in such series as The Guiding Light, As the World Turns, One Life to Live and Another World.

Add to that a couple of really excellent Buz Murdock fistfights, a beautiful Oregon backdrop and actress/singer/dancer/model Joey Heatherton (left), a woman of many talents, in her first role, before she became famous. Heatherton is only sixteen in this episode. She looks much older. And best of all, she is a decent actress. According to Internet Movie Database (IMDb), this was her big breakthrough performance.

Bottom Line: "Three Sides" is a splendid episode on so many levels. Unfortunately, the next three episodes that aired after it, "Legacy for Lucia," "Layout at Glen Canyon" and "The Beryllium Eater," were three of the more mediocre entries in the series. It would take until January of 1961 for the show to regain its momentum.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Friday, February 18, 2011

Clippings: An Informative Article During Season One from the Hartford Courant (01/29/1961)

Have a look at this article about Route 66 from the January 29, 1961 issue of the Hartford Courant. It's a fascinating piece on the challenges of filming the series on the road, in different parts of the United States. Cast and crew members from Route 66 often spoke of the logistical challenges involved in traveling from location to location. Lots of people and lots of equipment had to be moved each time filming began on a new episode. Some of the shows fans have speculated that the gruelling demands of the show took a tremendous toll on George Maharis.

Writes the article's author, Steven H Scheuer: "Since there are different rules among the states as to union jobs, the crews will vary. In the Chicago area, Illinois crews will be used; in Oregon, Portland crews will come in. The only people from Hollywood will be the actors, directors, grips and electricians...."

There is a fascinating discussion in the article about the filming of the pilot episode, "Black November." Have a look at the article by clicking on it, then click it again to enlarge it. Martin Milner and Herbert B. Leonard were interviewed at length for the piece. Not surprisingly, all-American Milner plays up the fact that Buz and Tod aren't "bums," and that he is really a family man. This was to offset some of the mumblings and grumblings of older viewers who thought Buz and Tod were just a bunch of spoiled Beatnik kids looking for kicks.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Season One, Episode 6: Ten Drops of Water

Air Date: November 11, 1960
Director: Philip Leacock
Writer: Howard Rodman
Guest Stars: Tony Haig, Burt Brinckerhoff, Deborah Walley, Robert F. Simon, Sara Haden, Oliver McGowan, Don Beddoe

"Ten Drops of Water" is the one of the reasons I fell in love with Route 66. It may be my very favorite episode of the show. It certainly falls within my Top 3 all-time favorite episodes.

Buz and Tod are driving over a rough dirt road through southern Utah canyon country on their way to work for a man who owns a horse ranch in the area. On the narrow road, they come across young Homer Paige (magnificently played by 12-year-old newcomer Tony Haig), who is towing his beloved pet mule Overjack to the same place where Buz and Tod will be working.

Homer ends up selling Overjack to the kind-hearted local rancher. Homer sets off for home, leaving Buz and Tod to do their good deed for the day. They buy Overjack from the rancher to take him back to Homer. With Overjack in tow behind the Corvette, Buz and Tod head to the Paige ranch where Homer lives.

The ranch is run by two brothers, Homer and Virgil (Burt Brinckerhoff, pictured right), and their sister, Helen (Deborah Walley) - all orphans whose parents died working on the land. The land is arid and rough and inhospitable. The Paige ranch is in the midst of a terrible drought. Virgil is infuriated when Buz and Tod bring Overjack back to the ranch because the young siblings are on the verge of starving and cannot afford to take care of the mule. But Homer is thrilled to see his dear friend. Buz is mystified as to why Virgil yelled at him and Tod.

"This ranch, there's been drought here for two years," explains Helen. "Do you see that?" She points to a windmill pump. "That's what gives us water. Last year we got water at 900 feet. But suddenly it stopped. We got ten drops of water an hour. We took our last savings and we drilled down 400 feet more and water came. You see that alfalfa across the road? Without water, it dies. You see those steers? Without water, they die. There's me and Homer and Virgil and that ranch is all we have. We won't have it anymore if we don't have water. It was done and you undid it. There isn't enough water here for Overjack, too. He doesn't pull his weight here anymore and he has to go. Do you understand? How many times do you think you can ask a 12-year old boy to give up the thing he loves the most in the world?"

To make matters worse, the water soon stops coming out of the ground. Tod drives Virgil into town - Kanab, Utah - to see if he can borrow money to repair the pipe under the ground by pulling it up and fixing it. His request is turned down, although the banker offers to buy Virgil's land. Virgil refuses. Tod and Virgil return to the ranch, and Buz and Tod end up rigging the Corvette to help by taking off the tires and turning it into a pulley that can be used to raise the pipe from the ground.

As if things weren't bad enough, a wind storm hits. In a fit of frustration, Virgil whacks Overjack on the hind end, sending the mule running off into the swirling dust. When the wind storm dies down, Homer runs off after the mule he loves. Eventually, Homer finds Overjack lying in the dirt, covered with dust, weary, dehydrated and near death. Overjack eventually dies, leaving Homer distraught. Meantime, Tod drives the Corvette to a nearby ranch and chews out an older couple, the Pepperells, for not helping the Paiges. Mr. Pepperell (Robert F. Simon) tells Tod that they didn't help the Paiges because the Paiges never asked for help.

The Pepperells and other neighbors pitch in to help the desperate Paiges. Thanks to the assistance, the well is fixed and running again. But the Paiges realize that this desolate land offers no real future. Virgil, long the most stubborn of the siblings, finally gives in and offers to sell his land to the banker. The Paiges and Buz and Tod leave for greener pastures. Before the Paiges drive off to their new home, Homer stops at the grave of his father, tells him he loves him, and says goodbye.

Route 66 episodes don't get any better than "Ten Drops of Water." It is often unjustly neglected by fans, despite the fact that it would be impossible to find another episode with its raw emotional power. All of the performances are incredible, especially Burt Brinckerhoff as the determined Virgil. He later became a well known television director, gaining fame for directing numerous episodes of the WB series 7th Heaven. He was also a veteran of many sixties' anthology shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Fugitive. The other siblings, played by Tony Haig and Deborah Walley, turn in equally strong performances. Convincing child actors are not plentiful, but Haig is particularly authentic as a little boy who grows up much too fast.

Philip Leacock's masterful direction makes splendid use of the scenic southern Utah countryside. Even though this area is often thought of in popular culture as John Ford Country, Leacock's resourceful approach brings out the harshness and the barren existentialism of this dry terrain. In "Ten Drops of Water," it becomes a landscape of despair, driving the Paiges off the land before it kills them the way it did their ancestors.

Interestingly, "Ten Drops of Water" is the first non-Stirling Silliphant teleplay. The episode was written by Howard Rodman, one of the key behind-the-scenes figures responsible for Route 66 (he doesn't always get credit; he is often overshadowed by Silliphant and Herbert B. Leonard). But I challenge you to find an episode with better writing than "Ten Drops of Water." You can't. The dialogue rings true in every single scene. Rodman's script displays a familiarity with the region that only could have come from somebody who spent a lot of time there or researched the area carefully or both. He knows the history. He gets it right.

Rodman and director Leacock also very wisely put Buz and Tod in the background in this episode. They wisely refrain from the Silliphantian Beatnik Lingo, which wouldn't have gone over like a led balloon in this episode.

Ultimately, "Ten Drops of Water," like the Paige siblings, shows a tremendous amount of courage. At a time - 1960 - when Hollywood celebrated winning and winners and rarely showed people failing, "Ten Drops" depicted three spirited youths who struggle against enormous odds, sacrifice almost everything and are broken by the land. They have no other choice but to pack up and move on. But luckily, they haven't sacrificed quite everything. They still have each other. And their departure from this barren land, shown in the end credits without the iconic Nelson Riddle theme, represents a hope for a new beginning and a second chance.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Season One, Episode 5: The Strengthening Angels

Air Date: November 4, 1960
Director: Arthur Hiller
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Guest Stars: Suzanne Pleshette, John Larch, Harry Townes, Warren Stevens, Tom Reese

Buz and Tod drive through a dark and rainy night with the Corvette's top up. Little do they know, in this part of the country (Needles, California) there is a Christian tent revival going on, where Lotti Montana (Suzanne Pleshette, left) is about to bear her testimony. Suddenly, to the shock of Reverend Wylie (Harry Townes) and the big audience of Christians in the tent who braved the harsh showers to hear Lotti speak, she ends up bolting out of the tent into the pouring rain, leaving her daughter behind. She gets a ride with Buz and Tod, who end up motoring into a fictional town called Sparrow Falls.

As is the case on so many Route 66 episodes, Buz and Tod get sucked into the personal life of a complete stranger, this time Lotti. She's a woman with a secret past. Our heroes discover that she murdered a man who happened to be the brother of local lawman Sheriff Hingle (John Larch). It's clear that Hingle has it in for Lotti. He has a hate-on for her. He wants to lock her away for good. He hauls her in to the local jail and interrogates her. The iron heel comes down hard on poor Lotti.

Buz and Tod get closer to Lotti. They hire a local attorney, Richard Crown (Warren Stevens), to come to Lotti's aid. Shit keeps happening. Lotti seems strangely indifferent or even downright hostile to the help she's getting from Buz and Tod. Then Buz gets in a fight with Hingle and is about to kick the sheriff's ass, but one of the deputies knocks out Buz cold with a blackjack. Buz ends up in the hoosegow, but it's only temporary. He and Hingle end up developing a sort of macho respect for each other. Hingle releases Buz, who is reunited with Tod. The two buddies encounter Reverend Wylie, who shows up in Sparrow Falls to help Lotti. Buz and Tod, meantime, find out there was a third man who was with Hingle's brother the night Lotti murdered him.

Without giving too much away, Tod and Buz relentlessly pursue all the clues until they discover the identity of the mysterious "third man" who was with Lotti and Hingle's brother on the night of the murder. No spoilers here. Names won't be named on Andrew's Route 66 Blog. Suffice it to say, the identity of the mysterious figure who witnessed the crime will surprise you.

"The Strengthening of Angels" is a damn good Route 66 episode. It is often considered to be a favorite of fans (author James Rosin lists it as one of his 25 faves in his Route 66 guidebook). Like "The Man on the Monkey Board," "Strengthening" is tense, well written and contains some powerhouse performances. Years before landing a starring role as Emily Hartley on the Bob Newhart Show, Suzanne Pleshette showed off her extremely impressive acting skills in "The Strengthening of Angels." Pleshette had been guest starring in TV shows since '57, which included a role on the Silliphant/Leonard collaboration Naked City. Despite her gorgeous looks (she resembles a young Elizabeth Taylor in this episode), Pleshette plays the role with a kind of gritty realism that is thoroughly believable. And then there is John Larch as Sheriff Hingle (pictured above right). For my money, Larch is one of the greatest TV actors of all time. He's one of those solid performers like Frank Overton, who really throws himself into each and every one of his roles with a convincing intensity. Incidentally, Larch and Overton are both veterans of multiple Route 66 episodes. Larch would appear in three over his career, "The Strengthening of Angels," "Legacy for Lucia" (1960, also in Season One) and "Go Read the River" (1962, Season Two).

Like "The Man on the Monkey Board," there is a lot of tension in "The Strengthening of Angels," but a very different kind of tension. "Strengthening" is not as suspenseful as "Monkey." There is a fantastic fight scene pitting Sheriff Hingle against Buz. It's truly one of Buz Murdock's best fistfights. It looks almost real.

The episode is not so much a Whodunnit (we know Lotti committed the murder). It turns out to be more of a Whydunnit. And the resolution at the end is satisfying and plausible. And I like that Silliphant shows so much respect for the traveling tent-show Christians. They're real people, with a deep yearning for the spiritual, not cardboard, fire-breathing caricatures of Evangelists.

Warning: This isn't the best episode to watch if you're a Tod fan. Tod ends up laying pretty low in this one. He's there in much of "Strengthening," but he's content to play a largely supporting role for Buz. The story is told much more from Buz's P.O.V.

Director Arthur Hiller, a Canadian-born filmmaker, would go on to enjoy a highly successful career directing such films as Love Story (1970), The Hospital (1971), Man of La Mancha (1972) and Silver Streak (1976), and he'd serve as head of the Director's Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was also one of the most prolific directors on the Route 66 payroll, helming no fewer than twelve episodes.

He shows off his skills to full effect in "The Strengthening of Angels." The end result is a potent episode that is a definite asset to the series. While it may not pack quite yield the same emotional knockout as the episode that preceded it, this is still one hell of a good way to spend slightly less than an hour.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Would Somebody Tell the Damn Kid What a Biscayne is???

Here's a commercial that aired regularly during Season One of Route 66 for the Chevrolet Biscayne. Appearing on boob-tubes across America in the Fall of 1960, the commercial features the cast from the then-new sit-com My Three Sons. One of the show's stars was William (I Love Lucy) Frawley, whose character Michael Francis "Bub" O'Casey predated William Demarest's Uncle Charlie. Frawley was on the show for five years, finally departing due to health reasons. Stanley Livingston also appears as Chip (these early episodes predate Ernie, played by Stanley's real-life younger brother Barry).

How do I know all this stuff, you ask? Because I grew up watching too much TV.

Oh yeah, in this commercial, Chip keeps asking - over and over and over - what a Biscayne is. He does it in such a low-key way that it's not as obnoxious as you might think. Soon, a little girl comes along, asks the same question and instantly gets an answer from Bub. The Moral of this Story is that if Chip wants attention, he'd better seriously explore the possibility of cross-dressing.

Season One, Episode 4: The Man on the Monkey Board

Air Date: October 28, 1960
Director: Roger Kay
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Guest Stars: Lew Ayres, Alfred Ryder, Frank Overton, Bruce Dern, Ed Asner

One of the best episodes from Season One (not to mention the entire series), "The Man on the Monkey Board" is one of those amazing Route 66 experiences that gets you hooked on the show.

Buz and Tod park the Corvette and board a helicopter bound for an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, where they go to work with a crew that includes a mysterious man named Bartlett. Bartlett is an aloof bookworm played beautifully by Lew (All Quiet on the Western Front) Ayres, pictured above in the helicopter and right, philosophizing on the deck of the oil rig.

Buz and Tod are immediately drawn to Bartlett. At first, they're suspicious of him, and they soon learn he's not exactly who he appears to be. Turns out, the man is not your average oil rig worker. He is a man with a past, who is infiltrating the rig, posing as a roughneck to search for a Nazi Holocaust criminal.

What makes his job harder is that there are no extant photographs of the villainous figure. They've all been destroyed. All he has to go on are some fragmented descriptions of the man. He could be anybody on the oil rig.

So Bartlett begins playing a suspenseful game of Cat and Mouse with his coworkers. One by one, he scratches their names off of his list of suspects (left). At no point does he suspect Buz and Tod. They're too young. Eventually, when they find out about his past and his purpose on the rig, they decide to play an active role in helping him. Soon, Buz and Tod are thoroughly wrapped up in Bartlett's relentless quest to find the elusive Nazi before it's too late. As they close in, like a noose, the episode grows more and more suspenseful. They finally track down the culprit and a confrontation ensues.

To give away any more than that would be to undermine the excitement of watching one of the finest episodes of the series.

Everything about "The Man on the Monkey Board" works, from Ayres' brilliant, understated acting to the writing to the episode's gripping pace. The guest appearances include a veritable Who's Who of Anthology Show Greats, including Ed Asner (veteran of five episodes), Bruce Dern, Alfred Ryder (veteran of two episodes) and Frank Overton (veteran of four episodes).

The writing is, without question, some of Stirling Silliphant's finest. He gets a message across without preaching or clobbering the viewer over the head. As a suspenseful episode, this one ranks up there with some of the best from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and The Fugitive. Setting the tale on an offshore oil rig was a brilliant move. The place adds to the tension, giving the episode a claustrophobic feel (despite the wide-open spaces and spectacular views of the Gulf of Mexico in several scenes).

Most Route 66 episodes tend to be somewhat slow-moving character studies, but not "The Man on the Monkey Board." If suspense is what you're looking for, you'll have a difficult time finding a more gripping Route 66 episode than this one. Like Rod Serling's scathing indictment of Naziism "Deaths-Head Revisited" on The Twilight Zone, "The Man on the Monkey Board" is a taut and effective statement about the lingering evils of the Third Reich, which was still in power 15 years before this episode aired. The episode is brimming with humanity and it contains a simple, yet potent message: Justice is not automatic. Good people must fight for it or run the risk of allowing evil to continue and perhaps even flourish somewhere else.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Clippings: Bill Fiset's Oakland Tribune Column on Stirling Silliphant

Have a look at this piece by Bill Fiset, a columnist who wrote for The Oakland Tribune for about 350 years. This is a profile, which ran in the Tribune on February 27, 1961, on Stirling Silliphant, who was to Route 66 what Rod Serling was to The Twilight Zone. Some highlights from the article:

  • Silliphant wrote the first 32 scripts for the Herbert B. Leonard's gritty police series Naked City.
  • Silliphant wrote the first 24 of 32 scripts for Route 66.
  • Silliphant's typical writing schedule involved 10 hours of writing per day, six days a week.
  • Silliphant would go to filming location sites (and potential locations) to get ideas for stories.
  • Silliphant on Route 66: "With this 'Route 66' series older viewers have complained the two central characters are bums. They're not. They're 'going.' They're moving, restless, working for something. Maybe it's an outrageous dramatic premise, but it's a way of getting to say something. A viewer must accept such a premise with many TV shows in order to get to the commentary. The show is a success. The commentary I'm trying to write is the lack of people's ability to communicate with each other. We say it in different ways because there are no restrictions in the format. Tod and Buz are the central characters but may have minor roles, because the story is the important thing."

Stirling Silliphant (pictured left), born on January 16, 1918, was 42 when Route 66 went on the air. Like Martin Milner, he was born in Detroit and relocated to Hollywood with his family. He was a prolific author. By the time he died in 1996, he had more than 700 hours of television writing credit to his name. His masterful script for 1967's In the Heat of the Night netted him an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.

After In the Heat of the Night, Silliphant never had a shortage of writing gigs, but nothing would ever match the power of In the Heat of the Night (or Route 66, for that matter). His last screenplay was for the film The Grass Harp in 1995, a low-key costume drama set in 1940s Alabama. It had an all-star cast (Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek and Mary Steenburgen).

Silliphant died in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1996. In the not-too-distant future, I'll run one of his detailed obituaries on this Blog. He was a remarkable writer. He belonged to that generation of brilliant TV writers - including Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky - who were too brilliant and too talented for television.

I am not one of those overly nostalgic types who insists that such outstanding writing can't be found anywhere today. But you won't have an easy time finding it on America's big television networks. The place to go these days for outstanding writing is cable, especially HBO. The best cable TV shows have somehow managed to hire many of the heirs to Stirling Silliphant's brilliant writing tradition.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Season One, Episode 3: The Swan Bed

Air Date: October 21, 1960
Director: Elliott Silverstein
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Guest Stars: Betty Field, Zina Bethune, Henry Hull, Murray Hamilton

There are lots of episodes of Route 66 that begin a certain way and you have no idea where in the hell they're going. "The Swan Bed" is one of those. It opens with the familiar Nelson Riddle theme and Buz and Tod driving the Corvette across a bridge into New Orleans. Seconds later, we end up in the sweltering little shack of a place where Carrie Purcell (Zina Bethune) lives with her nasty mother, Mrs. Purcell, played by Betty Field (most famous for her role as Mae in Lewis Milestone's 1939 version of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men; Bethune and Field are pictured above).

From there, the episode spirals into all kinds of unpredictable - borderline implausible - directions. Buzz and Tod link up with Carrie at the store where she works in New Orleans. They ask her out on a date (good move - she's a total babe, one of the best looking women ever on a Route 66 episode). Then the episode cuts to an old man named Amery Grant who's played by Henry (The Werewolf of London) Hull. Hull is a crusty old coot in this episode, thoroughly believable. He's a fisherman who lives on a big, old boat and seems to contract out with fisherman.

Cut back to Carrie. She has a big fight with her possessive mom, who doesn't want her to have anything to do with Buz and Tod. She runs out on her mom. Carrie eventually visits Old Man Grant to borrow money for her date with Buz and Tod. Grant is conked out when she arrives. He's an old-school lush who got shitfaced and passed out. She borrows the money to help pay for her date. She thinks she only borrowed a little bit. She is shocked to find out she has inadvertently borrowed thousands of dollars.

Wait, wait, there's also a subplot involving a Parrot Fever (a.k.a., psittacosis) epidemic in New Orleans and a public health physician named Dr. Stafford, portrayed by Murray Hamilton, the guy who played the mayor in Jaws (1975) and poor, cuckolded Mr. Robinson in The Graduate (1967).

Are you following this??? There's going to be a quiz afterward...

Tod and Buz take Carrie out in what has to be one of the most awkward scenes ever in a Route 66 episode. They go to a joint to watch an old friend of Buz, who happens to be an exotic dancer. Buz and Tod (especially Buz) ogle at the woman on the atage while she dances to brassy stripper music. Eventually, thank God, Tod is sensitive enough to go on a walk with Carrie, leaving Buz to continue drooling over his exotic dancer friend.

This plot description is dragging, I realize, so I'll hurry it up: Two Bad Guys show up who want to take over Old Man Grant's boat for illicit purposes. Turns out they're running an illegal operation breeding and selling exotic birds. There are lots of birds in this episode. One of their birds is responsible for the Parrot Fever outbreak.

Tod, Buz and Carrie end up crossing paths with the Bad Guys. It gets ugly. Tod tries to fight them. Tod gets his ass kicked. Buz fights them. He kicks their asses. That public health guy played by Mr. Robinson enters the picture again and figures out the source of the parrot fever. The Bad Guys are busted. Carrie makes peace with her mother, who apologizes for what a lousy mom she's been. At the end of the episode, Buz and Tod are kind enough to remove her old bed from her house (there's a swan's head on the headboard, hence the episode's name), and we watch the duo hauling it out to the trash heap as the Nelson Riddle score plays over the closing credits.

Did you get all that? I'm not sure I did.

In a word, "The Swan Bed" is convoluted. So many things are happening in this episode. But, unlike "A Lance of Straw," the payoff makes it worth slogging through all of the twists and turns, all of the head-scratching moments where you wonder what the hell is going on. Henry Hull (pictured left) turns in a first-rate performance as the old man. Betty Field seems much older than 47 (which she is in this episode). She would return in one of the best Route 66 episodes ever made, Season Two's "The Mud Nest" in the fall of 1961, and after that she turns up in Season Three's "Across Walnuts and Wine." And I know I said this before, but Zina Bethune as Carrie Purcell - whose career never really took off - is so beautiful that you wonder why in the hell crazy Buz is watching the exotic dancer with the thousand-yard stare instead of drop-dead stunning Carrie.

There is also a spectacular fight pitting Buz against the Bad Guys in stingy-brimmed fedoras. They wallop Tod, but they're no match for Buz. Unlike some Route 66 fights, this one holds up well after the passage of forty years. Finally, the footage shot on the docks of New Orleans makes for one of the most intriguing backdrops ever used in a Route 66 episode. These rundown parts of the city add an air of suspense and mystery to the episode. The end result is an asset to the series, and a strong early episode to counteract "A Lance of Straw."

It's not perfect, though. Betty Field, an enormously talented actress, is not put to good use like she'd later be in "The Mud Nest." Alas, she isn't in enough of the episode. The subplot involving Parrot Fever seems strangely superfluous, and the scenes with the public health specialist just end up slowing everything down.

Zina Bethune is the best part of the episode, with her innocent yet sensual performance. She would go on to appear in another Route 66 episode, "Kiss the Maiden All Forlorn" (hey, you can't accuse the show of having mundane episode titles). I looked up her credits. Her acting career never really took off. She would go on to appear in a number of TV series. Apparently she was a dancer who suffered from scoliosis when she was young and later went on to become an advocate for the disabled.

Incidentally, director Elliot Silverstein would later go on to direct the 1965 comedy-western Cat Ballou, starring Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin. He'd also briefly assume the role of teenage heartthrob David Cassidy's stepfather.

Bottom Line: "The Swan Bed" brought the series back on track, after the dubious "A Lance of Straw." While it's a very good episode, it would be followed by one of the best in the entire four-year run of the series.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Clippings: Early Article on Martin Milner (1960)

This is an excellent article on Martin Milner from The Lima News (based in Lima, Ohio), dated October 15, 1960. I've read several articles on Milner from this period and they all seem to play up his family. He had a young wife named Judy and a two-year-old daughter named Amy and when the show premiered in 1960, his wife was pregnant with their second child.

Milner and Maharis were a real study in contrasts, just as their characters Tod and Buz were. At the time, nobody knew that Maharis was gay (he was still way inside the closet, as most gays were in 1960). Newspaper writers in the early 1960s, therefore, did not emphasize this point. But they did focus on other differences: Milner was a more experienced actor than Maharis. Maharis also happened to be a singer (and a damn good one), but Milner wasn't. Maharis was from a working-class neighborhood, but Milner tended to be more middle class (he was born in Detroit in 1931, but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was fourteen and hired a personal acting coach for him). He landed a part in the 1947 hit Life With Father (starring William Powell). Milner would go on to attend the University of Southern California for a time, then he'd join the Army and eventually, in the 1950s, return to acting.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Season One, Episode 2: A Lance of Straw

Air Date: October 14, 1960
Director: Roger Kay
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Guest Stars: Janice Rule, Thomas Gomez, Nico Minardos

Good thing Stirling Silliphant and Herbert B. Leonard used "Black November" instead of "A Lance of Straw" to sell Route 66 to CBS, otherwise there might not be a Route 66.

Unlike the pilot episode, where everything came together so well, "A Lance of Straw" is one of the show's weaker episodes.

Buz and Tod drive into Grand Isle, Louisiana, where they go to work on a shrimp boat. The place is filled with people who have lousy Creole accents (some sound Portuguese, others Italian, with occasional traces of French). The wandering pals go to work for a female shrimp trawler skipper, Charlotte Duval (Janice Rule). She is involved in a tumultuous on-again, off-again relationship with a pretty boy named Boussard (Nico Minardos). Boussard thinks he's a badass. In the opening scene, he's beating up on some hapless soul who can't fight worth a damn. Boussard is jealous of Duval and the two butt heads, though they're clearly attracted to each other.

Throughout the episode, Buz becomes smitten with Duval. Big mistake. We all know where this is going, right? While Buz and Tod are out trawling for shrimp with Duval, a big hurricane blows in and sends the vessel bobbing up and down like a toy boat. There are a few tense moments when Duval is struggling to navigate her ship back to shore through the waves and rain. Meantime, back on dry land, Cabateau (Thomas Gomez), who works with Duval, listens on a Coast Guard radio for updates on the fate of the missing boat. At last, Duval makes it back to the pier and - surprise surprise! - links up with Boussard. Those two gravitate to each other like magnet and steel, leaving broken-hearted Buz watching from the sidelines as Boussard gives a lovey-dovey speech in broken English (that sounds more like an ersatz Italian accent).

The episode ends with Buz and Tod driving out of Grand Isle. They stop for a cigarette. Tod says to Buz: "Say, aren't you the fella who once said - speaking about girls - 'they're all nice kids'?" Buz nods. "Yeah, I'm the fella. That's me." They reflect on their experiences, share a chuckle, and get back in their car, headed elsewhere.

"A Lance of Straw" is not necessarily a bad episode of Route 66 (believe me, there are a few of those). Rule gives a decent performance as the strong skipper who ultimately folds under the pursuit of her possessive suitor. Thomas Gomez, a veteran of so many movies and TV shows (he plays one of Rocco's goons in Key Largo), is always pleasant to watch in these anthology TV shows, although in this episode his accent sounds vaguely Portuguese. There are a few other good things happening in this episode. The moments out at sea, with Buz and Tod and Duval working on the boat are quite effective. The storm scenes are believable. The episode contains some fine dialogue here and there.

But, ultimately, "A Lance of Straw" simply doesn't deliver the same rewards as some of the better episodes of the series. We never really come to know the other characters or care for them very much. Buz broods at the end over losing Duval, but they were never very intimate in the episode to begin with. There were just lots of scenes of her being a strong skipper and Buz watching her with dreamy eyes. It doesn't exactly add up to a passionate romance.

You aren't likely to find "A Lance of Straw" on anyone's Top 10 list. Silliphant's writing falls flat in many scenes. The dramatic tension is too weak (often nonexistent) to sustain the episode. And the performances are satisfactory (in a going-through-the-motions kind of way), but not great.

Believe me, the show gets better. Hang in there.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Clippings: Early Article on George Maharis (1960)

This early article on George Maharis from the Salina Journal (July 27, 1960) is very informative. The Salina Journal is from Salina, Kansas. Before Route 66 went on the air, the newspaper ran a story by television and movie historian Steven H. Scheuer, who clearly interviewed Maharis in some depth for the article.

According to this article, Maharis and Buz Murdock actually had quite a bit in common. Maharis wasn't from Hell's Kitchen, but "his family still lives in Astoria, Queens, a lower middle-class neighborhood." Like Buz, Maharis was a complex mixture of sensitive and tough. He loved singing, but he also wasn't afraid to go kick someone's ass when the occasion called for it. A highlight from the article: "He is actually quite similar to the character he plays, and writer Stirling Silliphant and producer Bert Leonard had him in mind when they created the show."

To demonstrate that he was the genuine article, Maharis showed Scheuer one of his war wounds. "See this scar on my knuckles. I got that when I hit a guy with buckteeth with an uppercut during a street brawl. But that scar taught me something. When your opponent has buckteeth, use a hook not an uppercut."

You don't mess with Buz Murdock. And you sure as hell don't mess with George Maharis.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Part One of "Black November"

Here is Part One of "Black November." The entire episode appears to have been posted on YouTube. I realized in my last post that I didn't give adequate praise to Nelson Riddle's iconic musical score, another ingredient that made the show so wonderful. The first ten minutes of "Black November" (shown here) will give you a good idea of the highly atmospheric nature of this episode.

Season One, Episode 1: Black November

Air Date: October 7, 1960
Director: Philip Leacock
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Guest Stars: Everett Sloane, Keir Dullea, Whit Bissell, Patricia McCormack, George Kennedy

"Black November" is a compelling start for Route 66. It's a dark episode, and I'm not just talking content-wise. For some reason, so many of the scenes come out looking dark. Perhaps it is the print used by Infinity Entertainment on this DVD set. But I get the impression it was shot in a dark tone. According to James Rosin, this was the episode that was used to sell the series to CBS. Everything about the episode is taut. Director Philip Leacock got his start in B-movies and graduated to steady gigs in television. He'd go on to direct lots of episodes of The Waltons, Eight is Enough, Fantasy Island, Dynasty and Falcon Crest.

No surprise here that Stirling Silliphant wrote the teleplay. Before that, Silliphant had established an impressive track record as a TV writer, knocking out teleplays for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Alcoa Theater, Markham (a detective show starring Ray Milland) and another Herbert B. Leonard show, Naked City. He's in top form here. Route 66 really was his baby. His typewriter brings these characters to life.

Most Route 66 fans already know by now that "Black November" is a slight variation of John Sturges' Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). The Plot: Buz and Tod drive into a Mississippi town called Garth. Everybody is acting real weird, as if they're hiding a secret. Only Jenny Slade (Patty McCormack), the blonde girl who works at a local store, acts like a normal human being. Everybody is else seems to be terrified of their own shadows. Turns out the town is run by a tyrant who, like the town itself, is also called Garth (played by Everett Sloane, who was Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane). Buz and Tod find out that a P.O.W. camp used to be located in this town and a German prisoner of war was lynched many years earlier. Eventually, the mystery is revealed in flashback form, and Garth's son Paul (Keir Dullea) ultimately saves Tod and Buz from being lynched and helps redeem the traumatized town.

There is a lot about this episode that stands out. Sloane's performance is intense. It's also fascinating to see Keir Dullea in a pre-2001: A Space Odyssey role. Dullea is a method actor who was never given the roles he deserved, and he did not really go anywhere after Stanley Kubrick's 1968 outer space magnum opus. This is too bad, because Dullea is a very impressive actor who shows his depth in this episode. The rustic southern locale sets the stage for the on-location feel that came to define Route 66. The episode was filmed in Concord, Kentucky, just over the border and to the west of Nashville, in February 1960. Also watch for Whit Bissell (co-star of 1957's I Was a Teenage Werewolf with Michael Landon) as store owner Jim Slade.

The most fascinating thing about "Black November" is watching Buz and Tod . Unlike most TV shows, where characters need at least one season to form their personalities, Buz and Tod emerge as fully realized characters, exhibiting the personality traits that would define them over the course of the series (Buz = tough Hell's Kitchen kid with a touch of Kerouac; Tod = cool, calm, rational, slightly hip - but not as as hip as Buz - and ultimately very moral). You could actually drop "Black November" into the middle of Season Two or Three and it would fit in perfectly with the tone and style of the other episodes. There aren't very many shows that start off with the characters fully developed. This owes entirely to Milner and Maharis as actors and Silliphant as a writer.

Not surprisingly, "Black November" often ranks in the Top 10 of episodes for most Route 66 fans (I won't tip my hand yet in that regard). It's a gritty episode, slightly contrived at times, but mostly it - like Buz Murdock - packs a terrific punch.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Clippings: The Big Announcement (1960)

From The San Antonio Express, April 12, 1960.

Ten Minutes of Route 66 Commercials from Season One

I love these commercials. They are featured on Infinity's DVD set of Route 66's Season One episodes. I thought before I start Blogging about episodes, we should have a few more commercial breaks. There are several interesting things about these commercials. The first Chevrolet commercial, in particular, has an ethereal, almost dream-like quality, and the music - a mix of haunting, elegant and upbeat - is very much the product of the times. In the next commercial, it's hilarious to see the woman in the second commercial taking Bayer Aspirin to help her sleep at night. And the Corvair Monza commercial is uber-charming and makes me wish I was at the beach instead of sub-zero Ontario. My favorite is the Chevrolet Impala convertible commercial, with the guy leaving his job at the end of the day as a high-tech cameraman recording images of outer space rockets to go tool around the highways and byways of America with his family.

Watch these commercials. You'll love 'em, I promise!