Actor Martin Milner was one of those celebrities at whom Chevrolet aimed the 1953 Corvette. Herbert B. “Bert” Leonard was an even bigger target. Leonard had risen through television’s ranks to become an executive producer, the man who developed and ran successful and popular series shows. In late 1953 he introduced a drama starring a German shepherd and a young boy, called The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. Milner had appeared in television’s Dragnet, and other series and films through the early and mid-1950s. Neither of them, however, was impressed enough to pay much attention to the car until they had to.
In writing schools, instructors teach young talents to “write what you know.” A slice of Leonard’s life, of what he knew from his youth, grew into a very popular series. In a 1982 interview in Emmy magazine with film writer Richard Maynard, Bert recalled a lunch with his friend, Naked City writer Stirling Silliphant in 1959 while that show was in production. As a child in New York, Leonard had a much wealthier friend who was a prep school student. Over lunch he and Silliphant imagined what it might have been like to hit the roads in his friend’s sports car. An idea gelled immediately and by the time lunch was over, they had their show name, The Searchers, and a pilot story roughed out. Leonard and Silliphant had created an idea that took another popular TV series of the mid-1950s Wagon Train into the next decade. In their proposal, they wrote:
The theme – search, unrest, uncertainty, seeking answers, looking for a way of life.
The people – are young enough to appeal to the youthful audience, old enough to be involved in adult situations.
The stories – will be about something, [Italics were Silliphant’s] will be honest, and will face up to life, look for and suggest meanings, things people can identify with, and yet there will be the romance and escape of young people with wanderlust.
The locales – the whole width and breadth of the U.S., with stories shot in the actual locations, a la Naked City. What we did for one city, we now propose to do for a country and for many of its industries and businesses.
In late 1959, Leonard and Silliphant pitched this idea to Columbia-Screen Gems. They were an acknowledged success; Naked City had established new standards for storytelling and cinematography in television. This idea, however, was different. As Screen Gems executives explained when they rejected the series initially, this was “about two bums on the road.”
The Searchers verged on late 1950s European Existentialism, a philosophy that questioned why humans exist. Because he suspected this was a bit too deep for television executives at the time, Silliphant brought it back to more comfortable territory. He concluded their pitch by promising that each episode would be “packed with at least two or three top-staged brawls (built into the character of Buz).” To demonstrate his faith in the idea, Leonard funded the pilot himself. In exchange, if Columbia bought the show, he would own 80 percent of the series.
Screen Gems execs reminded Leonard and Silliphant that New York’s Broadway had recently staged a play titled The Searchers, so the pair adopted the name of America’s emotionally-laden “mother road,” Route 66.
Regular viewers know that the 115 episodes over four years rarely found stories along U.S. Highway 66. That mattered only to those obsessed with detail. Leonard’s crew shot the pilot, called “The Wolf Tree,” in Concord, Kentucky, calling it the fictional Garth, Alabama, in February 1960. The show debuted on a Friday night, October 7, 1960, with the episode renamed “Black November.” By then the production crew was leapfrogging across the country. Leonard, Silliphant, and a production assistant scouted areas that gave them several nearby towns around which to craft two or three episodes. Four weeks later, the production caravan arrived and began filming. Silliphant sometimes wrote from hotel rooms near the locations, delivering script pages that day to the waiting cast, each story faithfully adhering to his promise to show America, its industries and its businesses, and a fist fight or two thrown in for good measure.
The premise of the show was that Tod Stiles, played by Martin Milner, had just lost his father, a New York City shipping company owner. Stiles, a junior at Yale, educated and thoughtful, well-bred and polite, came home for the funeral to discover a bankrupt business and a legacy that included nothing more than a new 1960 Corvette convertible.
“I’ve been seriously wrong about a lot of things in my life,” Milner admitted in an interview in 1998. “And I said to Bert Leonard, ‘A Corvette isn’t that exciting a car. Why don’t we do this in a Ferrari?’” Milner laughed.
“‘Well,’ Bert said to me, ‘we’ve got a pretty good chance of getting sponsorship from Chevrolet. And there’s a pretty good chance of not getting anything from Ferrari.’”
Milner related this story to documentary producer John Paget while they were completing a retrospective two-hour show tracing the actual route of Route 66. For that production Milner drove a 1960 Roman Red convertible (with white coves), which gave rise to yet another of the countless myths about the television series.
An actor Leonard had used and liked on Naked City, George Maharis, was hired even before Milner to play a dockside employee named Buz Murdoch. Maharis’ character Buz was a native of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, streetwise and cynical, equally quick to react or to joke. Now Buz was jobless. Suddenly uprooted in every sense, the two clean-cut handsome young men, friends from summers working on Stiles’ docks, took off to find themselves.
“Tod says,” Maharis announced in that first episode, written by Silliphant, “if we keep moving we’ll find a place to plant roots . . .. But with me, it’s fine just moving.”
Screen Gems and CBS picked up the series, and listings in publications such as TV Guide identified Milner and Maharis as the principal players. But there were four stars apparent to those who watched the show carefully: Maharis, Milner, the Corvette (often written in to Silliphant’s scripts as a character itself), and The Road Across America. As television historian Mark Alvey wrote in The Road Movie Book, “Route 66 is a tale both of search and flight, and as a serial narrative characteristic of American commercial television, its central meaning lies not in some finite goal at the end of the road, but in the discoveries made along the way.”
The show’s travels rooted much of America to their television sets every Friday for four seasons. The audience’s vicarious restlessness brought Chevrolet back year after year as principal sponsor. “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet,” was more than an advertising jingle for this show—it was close as existentialism was to being the show’s philosophical foundation.
Chevrolet’s advertising agency’s Los Angeles office provided Leonard a pair of Tasco Turquoise blue convertibles. As Leonard and Silliphant had promised, the show hit the road and travelled . . . and travelled. Maharis recalled recently that they covered 40,000 miles each year. Production manager Sam Manners ran a road train, as he explained to show historian James Rosin. A transporter carried the two Corvettes as well as a Chapman Crane, a truck with an arm capable of lifting the camera nearly 50 feet in the air. A station wagon supported the camera for moving front shots; a Corvair missing its front trunk lid served as camera car for rear views. Another dozen vehicles made up the convoy with portable dressing rooms, costumes, and the camera equipment, lenses, lighting gear, and generators cinematographer Jack Marta needed to get each episode on film.
For Chevrolet, it was the natural “vehicle” to promote their sports car. Similar motives attracted GM executives and viewers: There was no need to wait for a vacation to see the country in the family station wagon—hopefully a Chevy. Every week millions of individuals went on an adventure, imagining themselves as the third (or fourth or fifth) rider stuffed into the Corvette between Buz and Tod.
The show provided adventure, with Tod, Buz, and the Corvette as tour guides. Events, tumultuous and timely, befell the two young men just as they arrived in one locale or another. Silliphant, a writer profoundly in sync with America’s psyche, steered them to women’s rights, racial inequality, corporate malfeasance, land and water rights, international espionage, murder, theft, assault, marital and familial discord, war crimes, revolutionary terrorists, drug addiction and abuse, the role of the government in an individual’s rights, and the responsibilities of an individual to a town or nation. The episodes were self-contained, an anthology type of storytelling that introduced conflicts involving guest stars outside the Corvette. By the time the sleek luggage-encumbered convertible left town, all was right with the world and it was time to move on.
In an interview in Time magazine in August 1963, Silliphant said, “The meaning of Route 66 has to do with ‘a search for identity in contemporary America. It is a show about a statement of existence. If anything, it is closer to Sartre and Kafka than to anything else. We are terribly serious, and we feel that life contains a certain amount of pain.’”
The show caused some pain for cinematographer Marta, who worked hard to illuminate actors’ faces in bright sunlight against a pale blue car that reflected so much light. For the 1961–1962 season, the Campbell-Ewald agency provided the show with Fawn Beige convertibles. That darker color choice remained through 1964, when the series ended.
Some viewers picked up the difference between the tones of the cars, even filmed in black-and-white. They noticed that each year the seemingly penniless Stiles and Murdock (who often said they took jobs just for gas money) travelled in a current model Corvette. That question fit right in with, “How can they be in Maine if the show is called Route 66?”
As a title, The Searchers was not “catchy,” just as a Ferrari convertible would have been unbelievable—why wouldn’t Tod sell a car like that and go back to Yale? But Dad’s two-seat American-made Corvette enticed the two young men onto the road, letting Stiles search for roots and Murdock keep moving without taking much baggage or other passengers.
Chevrolet’s design studio began planning updates to the Corvette’s first-generation body even before introduction in 1953. Poor sales slipped the redesign back from the 1956 to 1958, when quad headlights appeared. Stylists Peter Brock, Chuck Pohlman, and others slaved away on the “next” Corvette, first called the “Q” and then nicknamed just “the next one.” In 1961 the car received a new rear end that hinted at The Next One. Quad headlights stayed through 1962 season and subsequent generations. The Sting Ray showed up for the 1962–1963 season and a new one carried on for the 1963–1964 programs.
About every 3,000 miles, Campbell-Ewald replaced the show’s cars, reconditioning them and sending them off to friendly dealers to sell as “executive” vehicles. Sam Manners remembered running though three or four cars per season. With each season’s renewal, new models arrived in time for the caravan to leave L.A. By 1963, that road show had grown to fifty vehicles on the road covering 40,000 miles each year. By then Chevrolet provided Corvettes to Milner and Maharis, Manners, and others for personal use as well.
The car shown here is not a vehicle from the show. Its white coves betray it, as does its unrestored survivor status. Pennsylvania owner Mike Nardo and his father know the history of the car and it did not include television stardom. But Nardo’s car is a survivor with 37,000 miles, a four-speed transmission, and the same factory steel wheels and wheel covers that Tod ended up with after Episode 22. In that show, “Eleven, The Hard Way,” the two men helped a small town confront the risks of gambling in order to save itself. To stake a loan to the town’s auditor in a make-or-break game of dice, Tod sold the wire wheels that drove the car through two-thirds of the premiere season.
The show itself was a gamble. There are reports that CBS didn’t care for it. Network president Jim Aubrey complained to Leonard that the show was “too downbeat,” and that he wanted more “broads, bosoms, and fun.” But, as Leonard told Mark Alvey, Chevrolet “liked the hard hitting show they bought . . . They wanted the reality, the drama, and the movement; not the sexy women and cliché characters.” GM’s marketing studies revealed that the show attracted huge audiences of young people between the age of 10 and 14, a prime target then and now. The show ran for four seasons, surviving the disappearance of co-star Maharis who was suffering with hepatitis brought on by the exhausting pace of travel and six-day shooting weeks. Milner drove on, searching for roots and meaning. The show finally slowed to a halt months after Glenn Corbett, playing Lincoln Case, replaced a still-ailing Maharis. “Linc” was more like Tod than Buz and the interplay and counterpoint that worked so well with Maharis and Milner never reappeared.
Critics have analyzed the show’s writing, its acting, and its stories. Some have compared it to beatnik author Jack Kerouac’s seminal travel story On the Road. Kerouac sued Silliphant and Leonard, accusing them of plagiarism. But as Paul Goodman explained in his book Growing up Absurd, “The entire action of On the Road is the avoidance of interpersonal conflict.” Route 66 was precisely the opposite, and viewer surveys commissioned in 1961 by Chevrolet and other sponsors learned that the audience understood the role of the stars as knights in shining armor, riding in week after week to save damsels—or entire towns—in distress. It is their co-star in this noble pursuit, their trusty steed, their white charger—well, first blue and then beige—that is the subject of this chapter.
… this abomination.