DVD Review: Route 66: The Complete Series

Sometimes a photo can get you severely interested in a series. Such was the publicity picture of Route 66 that accompanied a press release for the launch of Nick At Nite. There was Tod (Martin Milner) and Buzz (George Maharis) posing next to a 1960 Corvette. They seemed like characters out of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road except a little more clean cut with a much nicer car. What were the duo doing with the car? There was a natural cool to the trio. Could the show live up to the image? Or was this one of those embarrassing shows over-hyped by nostalgia merchants? The photo proved the proper introduction. The release of Route 66: The Complete Series brings all the stories of America discovered by two men and a sportscar.

“Black November” introduces us to Tod, Buz and the car. Tod was a rich kid who grew up in a posh life. Buz is a rough and tumble character who hustled the mean streets of New York City. How did this pair come together? They worked together on a barge owned by Tod’s dad. However things didn’t work out too well for the old man. When he died, the banks took everything except Tod’s Corvette. The duo hit the road looking for odd jobs and fresh experiences around America. They find them immediately in “Black November” when they get lost in Mississippi. Even though they are clean cut and responsible guys, the locals treat them like troublesome hippies. They also have a dark secret eager to hide from outsiders.

While the show is named after the legendary highway that connected Chicago to Los Angeles, their journey took them all over America. They zipped to Boston, Key West and even poked over the border to Canada. “The Lance of Straw” takes them to Louisiana to work on Janice Rule’s shrimp boat. “The Swan Bed” swings into New Orleans for an unusual smuggling ring involving Henry Hull (The original Werewolf of London). Freaky casting includes Jack Lord (Hawaii Five-O) as a jazz trumpet player married to Anne Francis (Honey West)

The second season continues the journey with Tod and Buz being the strangers the change things up for the locals. There are a few repeat actors and actresses including Anne Francis playing a Broadway star hiding out in Butte Montana. Suzanne Pleshette (The Bob Newhart Show) flirts hard with Buz in “Blue Murder.” But her temptations must be balanced against her violent husband. “Good Night Sweet Blues” is an exceptional episode with performances from Ethel Waters and Coleman Hawkins. Robert Redford gets into a lot of trouble in “First-Class Mouliak.” Buz gets dosed with an LSD-like drug in “The Thin White Line.” To heighten the weirdness, he’s got to experience Al Lewis (Grandpa Munster).

What’s the point of owning a Corvette if you’re not going to lure the hottest actress of the ’60s into the bucket seats? “How Much a Pound Is Albatross?” brings on the Julie Newmar (Batman‘s Catwoman). She’s a messed gal dealing with the death of her family. She returns in the third season for “Give the Old Cat a Tender Mouse.” “Go Read the River” gives the star power trio of Russell Johnson (The Professor on Gilligan’s Island), John Astin (The Addams Family) and Harold Gould (Rhoda). The greatest road movie of all time is Smokey and the Bandit and the Bandit visits Tod and Buz during “Love Is a Skinny Kid.” There’s a young Burt Reynolds with an only middle aged Cloris Leachman (The Mary Tyler Moore Show).

The one series that felt like Route 66 was The Fugitive. Both shows featured outsiders roaming America and working odd jobs. The big difference is that Tod and Buz weren’t convicted of murder and being chased by the cops. They roamed freely. “One Tiger to a Hill” brings David Janssen (The Fugitive) gets a taste of the road before his own journey. The legendary Buster Keaton gets to show off his slapstick skills on “Journey to Nineveh.” Three horror legends join forces for “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wings.” Buz and Tod work at a Chicago motel near the airport spending their time flirting with female guests. Little do they suspect they’re setting up a conference room for Peter Lorre (The Raven), Lon Chaney Jr (The Wolf Man) and Boris Karloff (Frankenstein). The trio want to relaunch their frightening careers. This is one of the elite episodes.

There would be a major change in the third season with Buz vanishing from the road. Turns out George Maharis contracted hepatitis. He had to bail on the show. There would be plenty of solo Tod episodes before he would meet up with Linc (Glenn Corbett) during “Fifty Miles from Home.” Linc’s a decorated Vietnam vet who wanders cross country searching for a meaning to life. He was kinda of like the original Rambo found in First Blood except without killing all the townspeople. Linc does his best to keep his anger in check.

Season Four hadn’t previously been released on DVD. Linc’s more serious attitude allows Tod to be a bit more lighter of a character. He does find love on the road such as Diane Baker (The Silence of the Lambs). She confuses him during “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are.” Linc also gets to tangle with William Shatner (Star Trek) in “Build Your Houses with Their Backs to the Sea.” But sadly enough his time on the road would only last one season when the shows journey ended in “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way.” The two-parter seeks to marry Tod off to Barbara Eden. Tangled in her weird family is Roger C. Carmel (Harry Mudd on Star Trek). This was one of the first series to have a final episode so that fans didn’t think Tod was eternally cruising around the country in his Corvette.

The strangest unexplained element of the show that becomes obvious in the boxset is a character was not played by the same performer during the run. We’re led to believe that Tod’s Corvette was the only left to him by his father. That he had an emotional stake in those four wheels. Except each season, Tod’s Corvette was changed to the latest model. The Corvette from “ The Pilot” is not the same vehicle that rolls into Key West during “Where There’s A Will, There’s a Way.” While this might seem like a cheat, it’s just part of pleasing a sponsor. Chevrolet wants to make sure viewers were salivating over the new model in the showroom and not picking around used car lots.

Route 66 remains one of the great TV shows because it delivers on the promise of showing us around America. This was a time when regionalism ruled the land. Tod, Buz and Linc weren’t zipping around strip mall America with even stop on the way dominated by a Walmart, Olive Garden and McDonalds. They didn’t apply for jobs via Monster.com. People didn’t keep in touch with where they were on the road via Facebook. Route 66: The Complete Series boxes together a time when you could get lost on the road to discover your true nature. This is the perfect snapshot of a time captured over four seasons.

The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The black and white transfers bring out the beauty of the road. There’s a fine texture to seeing ’60s America in black, white and grey. The audio is mono. The mix fine for a series that was shot on location. The highlight is Nelson Riddle’s peppy theme song that uses the full dynamics of the soundtrack.

Highlights of the Paley Center for Media Paley Festival Event: Route 66 (42:45) brings together Arthur Hiller. Arthur Hiller’s hair must be seen. The gang seems at ease discussing the series which at this point had been around for 30 years. Marharis wears a leather jacket that makes it look like his part time job is working for the East German secret police. Creator Herbert Leonard lets it be known that two guys going on a cross country ride came out of his past. He was the poor kid from New York City. Leonard said the budget was rather high because of the traveling. “The Searchers” was the original name of show, but Warner Brothers wouldn’t give up the name from the John Wayne film. Marharis details how he had to quit the show because he caught hepatitis twice during the third season. Shame that Milner couldn’t attend. Leonard bankrolled the pilot to interest a sponsor. This panel does an amazing job answering questions including the mystery of where Buz and Tod kept their money.

Route 66 Commercials for Chevrolet (15:28) and Bayer Aspirin and Milk of Magnesia (9:49) are the original sponsor spots that include the show bumpers. Dig the groovy cars of the early ‘60s from an era when nobody cared about gas mileage. There’s a small girls with guns hooked on Milk of Magnesia.

Great Cars: Corvette (24:58) gives the history of the primo sportcar made in America. This was part of a series about all sorts of car models. This produced during the 50th anniversary of the Corvette in 2003. This was an America where the Corvette fanatics couldn’t keep in touch with each other through Facebook.

Route 66: The Complete Series boxes together a great road show. They could have faked the travels with B-roll and backlots, but instead we get a taste of what America really looked like from the window of a Corvette. Route 66 was as intriguing as the promotional photos.

Shout! Factory presents Route 66: The Complete Series. Starring: Martin Milner, George Maharis and Glenn Corbett. Boxset contents: 116 episodes on 24 DVDs. Released: May 22, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.

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