The Iconic Stars of Classic TV’s “Route 66”
“Having covered some half a hundred cities, towns, villages and wide spots in the road…George and I fairly wallowed in the comfort of our own home base.” — Martin Milner
Driving down the TV byways of Route 66 (CBS, 1960–1964), George Maharis as Buz Murdock and Martin Milner as Todd Stiles were an interesting combination of street-smarts and artistic aspirations. Maharis could get into a fistfight at a moment’s notice and recite poetry to the thug he had just pummeled into submission. His dark, Greek good looks coupled with his wrong-side-of-the-tracks accent made him an audience favorite. It was the perfect marriage of actor and role that he never managed to duplicate once he left the series (due to a serious bout with pneumonia, when he was replaced by Todd’s new driving partner, Lincoln Case, as played by Glenn Corbett).
It was Maharis’s portrayal of Buz that made him the show’s heartthrob. Buz was street-wise and tough, while Milner’s Todd was refined, rich enough and off-center enough to own that Corvette that he drove into one adventure after the next. Route 66 was never the same after Maharis left, but when it was good — it was great — and the original duo was dynamite with their own individual take on the bad boy image.
“66" in the Sumer of ‘90
In the summer of 1990, George Maharis and Martin Milner were interviewed by Corvette Quarterly magazine. They talked about what it was like to work on the series, what made it unique, and how giving the home viewer a front-row seat to the country’s panorama contributed to the television landscape. When asked about the show’s controversial topics, Milner credited show writer Stirling Silliphant and Route 66 producer Bert Leonard for having the courage to push the envelope:
Stirling always had a finger on the pulse of what was happening before the general public seemed to know about it. We did [an episode] on LSD called “The Thin White Line,” when nobody really knew what LSD was. I had certainly never heard of it, but Stirling had. I think he was kind of in the vanguard on things like that. And Bert Leonard had the good sense to go along with him on those [decisions]… I thought it was wonderful. I thought we were breaking new ground. I was always very happy with the storylines on the show…The fact that we were pioneering a very innovative way to make television — to do it on the road, in the actual locations. We were doing something nobody else had ever done, and nobody really has done it since [by 1990], either. But one of the sad things is that we weren’t in color, because we were in so many beautiful spots [around the country], like being in Vermont in the fall when the leaves were changing.
Maharis said that playing Buz allowed him the opportunity to “express things” that he personally believed, but from the perspective of the character he was portraying, “a philosophy of the way I believed this particular person lived his life.” And that was “important” for him to convey, as opposed to what he says “was going on in other shows.”
Maharis went on to talk about his personal best episodes of the show, including “Even Stones Have Eyes,” in which Buz is blinded, which allowed the actor to utilize his theatrical muscles more than his physical stamina. As a result, he says, this episode “was always really a nice one for me.” One of his other favorite segments was titled “The Mud Nest,” and that’s because of his two brothers, Bob and Paul, performed in a story in which they played siblings in search of their mother.
Getting to the “Route” of the Matter
Another aspect of Route 66 that remained embedded in the backroads of George Maharis’ memory was how with every subsequent season on the series Buzz and Todd would get to drive a different shiny-new high-end vehicle. “We never would explain how these poor kids had a brand-new Corvette every year,” he mused, “but it was called ‘dramatic license’ and we left it at that.”
Veteran TV writer Larry Brody has been involved with several classic shows, including Police Story, an anthology that aired on NBC in the 1970s. He chatted a little bit about Route 66, which aired while he was still in high school:
I watched a few episodes but never got into it because, contrary to my family’s fears, I had too much to do outside in the real world. My particular peer group — I was the drummer-leader of a very popular band that played all the school dances and such — did talk about the series quite a bit, but 99% of that conversation was about what a sensationally beautiful and fast car the heroes’ Corvette was. I fell in love with it as well, and the first car I ever considered my own was a 59 Corvette that I bought for $1500 used when I was a sophomore in college. Unfortunately, it was white instead of red like the Route 66 ’Vette, so it didn’t give my shallow self the full satisfaction I’d hoped for.
At the time, I was an audience member just turning on the TV in order to see an interesting story and relax. I never noticed whether the stories featured the heroes and their problems or the guest cast and its particular tribulations, and neither did anyone else I knew. A TV show was a TV show, and as good as Route 66 may have been, at the time it looked the ultra-tough/ultra-cool kickass heroes I really wanted to see…and, I suppose…be.
After Burt Reynolds paved the way for male nudity in print with his visual spread in Cosmopolitan in 1972, George Maharis followed with a similar layout in the newly formed Playgirl magazine. He was hoping to revive a career that had somewhat stalled since exiting Route 66. And to some extent, he was successful. He made guest appearances on TV shows like McMillan & Wife, and in TV-movies including ABC’s The Victim (1972, starring Elizabeth Bewitched Montgomery).
Martin Milner’s career proved to be significantly more successful with a costarring spot opposite Kent McCord on Jack Webb’s Adam-12, on ABC’s short-lived but critically acclaimed Swiss Family Robinson, and a season of that same network’s groundbreaking family drama, Life Goes On.
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This article is edited excerpt from the book, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR: TV’S TOP MALE ICONS FROM THE ’50s, ’60s, AND ’70s. For more information, please visit www.HerbieJPilato.com.