'Route 66': A Country-Crisscrossing Series Comes To Home Video

May 25, 2012
Originally published on May 25, 2012 5:24 pm

When you've seen a lot of movies where Toronto plays the part of New York, you come to appreciate location shooting. And on today's All Things Considered, you'll hear from the star of one of television's more ambitious series when it comes to location shooting: Route 66, which followed two guys around the country in a cool Corvette as they looked for a place to settle.

The show, which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1963, has just been released in its entirety as a DVD box set, which presents the entire run on 24 discs. George Maharis, who starred on Route 66 with Martin Milner, talks to NPR's Robert Siegel about all that travel.

"We never saw the schedule," Maharis says. "It was week-to-week. We didn't know where we were going and sometimes we wouldn't know what the script was until two days before shooting." In fact, sometimes, it might take a little longer than that to actually get the scripts, since they were sometimes in a city where they wanted to shoot more than one episode, but not all the scripts were done yet. "I remember we were in Cleveland doing the one with Nehemiah Persoff about the Russian Hill, and we were standing on the bridge, and we had no pages — we didn't know where to go yet. Luckily, they had to raise and lower the bridge, and in the meantime, the plane landed in Cleveland, and a car took the script and brought it to us, because we didn't know what clothes we were supposed to be in."

Getting to visit all those places was very much in line, Siegel points out, with the fact that at the time, the drive around the country was a common aspiration; something a lot of people wanted to try. "I can't tell you how many people wrote to me and told me that's what they wanted to do after seeing the show," Maharis agrees. "And they wanted to buy a car and toot around."

It wasn't just a show that tooted around, though. It was also one that featured a startling number of people who later became serious movie or TV stars, including Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Suzanne Pleshette, William Shatner, Tuesday Weld, Leslie Nielsen, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Ed Asner and Alan Alda.

Oh, and Lee Marvin, about whom Maharis says, "I remember. I went and pushed him off the fence." In fact, you'll find that Maharis can still identify just about any Route 66 clip you want to lay on him, including the one where Robert Duvall plays a drug addict. It's called "Birdcage On My Foot," and if you want to see it, it's right there on the box set.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. Let us now praise a TV program from the early 1960s.


SIEGEL: "Route 66" went on the air more than 50 years ago on CBS, and it did something few dramatic shows have ever done: it filmed entirely on the road, crisscrossing the United States, each week a new location, new characters, new situations. Well, this week the complete series has been released in a DVD box set. I watched a lot of these old shows, and there were a few key ingredients that held "Route 66" together. First, a great theme by Nelson Riddle.


SIEGEL: Second, great scripts by Stirling Silliphant; third, a cool car - a Corvette - and finally, actors Martin Milner and, in this clip, George Maharis.


GEORGE MAHARIS: (as Buz Murdock) Me and my buddy, we're conducting a private treasure hunt. We keep moving - place to place, town to town, Wyoming, Montana, Pennsylvania, Texas, the whole checkerboard. You see, we're looking, trying to find us that star. But when we do, we're going to grab a piece of it, stick it in the ground. Then we put up a sign: Home.

SIEGEL: George Maharis, who played Buz Murdock. Welcome to the program.

MAHARIS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: You actually went all over the country and it was shot on location.

MAHARIS: That's right.

SIEGEL: Very ambitious cinematography. I mean, the...


SIEGEL: ...it's unlike nearly all other television that I could recall. But how quickly were these being produced?

MAHARIS: Well, they originally slated them for seven days but none of them got done in seven days. It usually took between nine and ten days a lot of the time. And, of course, that put us behind schedule, so we worked seven days a week to stay ahead.

SIEGEL: Now, I want you to describe you and Martin Milner, your costar. His character's Corvette. I want you to describe the other premise, which requires a slight suspension of disbelief here - the two of you are riding around all over the United States one short-term part-time job to another part-time job.

MAHARIS: I was working for Marty's dad, and Marty's dad died and left him nothing except the Corvette. And I have a conversation with Marty saying let's get in the Corvette and see where we belong. So, basically what we were doing was searching for the right place to stop and spend the rest of your life. Because beginning, when we first started the series, it was not called "Route 66." It was called "The Searchers." And, of course, that name was already given to somebody else, so they changed it to "Route 66."

SIEGEL: Now, we should say here that even in the first episode, given the title "Route 66," one thing was clear.


MARTIN MILNER: (as Tod Stiles) How do we get off of U.S. 66, Buz?

MAHARIS: (as Buz) There's a town here. Maybe we can get through that way.

SIEGEL: You didn't follow the old Route 66, which went, according to the great song lyric, goes from Chicago to L.A.

MAHARIS: That's true. Guilty.


MILNER: (as Tod) Look for a side road up ahead now anywhere.

MAHARIS: (as Buz) What river is that on? Pascagoula?

SIEGEL: The joy of watching these old episodes of "Route 66" is not only seeing who the guest stars are but seeing who the actors who weren't big enough stars yet to even be credited as guest stars. You worked with everyone.

MAHARIS: Yep, that's true.

SIEGEL: Robert Duval appeared in a couple of them.

MAHARIS: Martin Sheen.

SIEGEL: Martin Sheen.

MAHARIS: Jimmy Caan, James Caan.

SIEGEL: And at the beginning of one episode you see a young man in a suit - I might add a man with dark brown hair - running after a woman through the woods. It's Robert Redford.

MAHARIS: Correct. Inga Stephens, Suzanne Pleshette, Tuesday Weld - all of these people were unknown at that point.

SIEGEL: You also wrangled with a crazed young Leslie Nielsen.

MAHARIS: Correct. Where he thinks the end of the world is coming.


LESLIE NIELSEN: (as Doc Duncan) Doctor Chris, but do you really believe it?

MAHARIS: (as Buz) I'm here, aren't I? I mean, if you really think there's something to all this, why don't you warn people?

NIELSEN: Because I'm told that in these times, there are certain things that are better left unsaid.

SIEGEL: Leslie Nielsen was still very serious.

MAHARIS: Yeah. Not only that, but he was wrong.

SIEGEL: You also had on the program an ornery Lee Marvin.



LEE MARVIN: (as Glenn Ryan) Why don't the two of you clear out of here? I was out late last night, up early this morning.

MAHARIS: (as Buz) Why don't we try something first? Why don't we put you in there?

SIEGEL: You remember that?

MAHARIS: Oh yeah, I remember. I went and pushed him off the fence.


MAHARIS: That's right. Lee Marvin did two shows.

SIEGEL: You remember all these plots?

MAHARIS: Oh sure. They were good shows. I enjoyed them.

SIEGEL: Your character, Buz Murdock, he's supposed to be street-smart. And you're a tough guy. You're a fighter.



MILNER: (as Tod) How's your lip?

MAHARIS: (as Buz) I've been hit harder by dames.

That's the pilot. That was Everett Sloan. He hits me in the mouth and Marty asks me, how's my lip. I said I've been hit harder by dames.

SIEGEL: That was three seconds. I could play anything from three years, three and a half years of this program, and you could call them right out what that was.


SIEGEL: Let's see. We'll challenge you.


MAHARIS: (as Buz) Look, you want any help from me, you're going to have to crawl to me, X1.

That's with Robert Duval. It's called "Birdcage on My Foot." He's a drug addict.


MAHARIS: (as Tod) You can't do it, packy(ph).

MARTIN SHEEN: (as Arnie) Can't do what job, man?

MAHARIS: I hear it's a five-hand hit for tonight.

That's the one with Martin Sheen and James Caan.

SIEGEL: But you do remember all of your lines from...

MAHARIS: Yeah. Well, pretty much.

SIEGEL: That's not bad. This was a time, 1960, 1961, '62, when the motor trip across the country, the drive around America, was a big deal. People were doing this at that time.

MAHARIS: Yeah. I can't tell you how many people wrote to me and told me that that's what they want to do after seeing the show and, you know, they wanted to buy a car and toot around.

SIEGEL: When you and Martin Milner would look at the shooting schedule for a season, would you say, oh wow, great, at least by week five we make it to Philadelphia.

MAHARIS: We never saw the schedule. It was week to week.

SIEGEL: You didn't know where you were going?

MAHARIS: No. We didn't know where we were going, and at many times we didn't know what the script was until two days before shooting.

SIEGEL: But I assume that for a run of a couple of months you would stay in one part of the country. I mean...

MAHARIS: Well, we would try to do three or four shows in the area but that didn't mean we had three or four scripts. And I remember we were in Cleveland doing the one with Nehemiah Persoff about the Russian hill. And we were standing on the bridge and we had no pages. We didn't know where to go yet. Luckily, they had to raise and lower the bridge. And in the meantime, the plane landed in Cleveland and a car took the script and brought it to us because we didn't know what clothes we were supposed to be in.

SIEGEL: It's a good thing you guys could pack all those clothes in the trunk of that corvette.

MAHARIS: Yeah. It was terrific. I enjoyed it. It really demanded that you make it work.

SIEGEL: Well, George Maharis, it's just been great fun talking with you and hearing all about the making of this terrific old TV show, "Route 66."

MAHARIS: Yeah, I'm a terrific old guy.

SIEGEL: You are, you are, if I may say so, too.

MAHARIS: Thanks a lot.

SIEGEL: Actor George Maharis. He's 83. He and Martin Milner starred in "Route 66," a TV drama from the early '60s. The complete series comes out on DVD this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.