Death of ‘Route 66’ star rekindles blacktop memories

Martin Milner (right) as Tod and George Maharis as Bud with the Corvette driven in ‘Route 66’ | CBS TV
Martin Milner (right) as Tod and George Maharis as Bud with the Corvette driven in ‘Route 66’ | CBS TV

Martin Milner, who played Tod Stiles in the 1960s TV drama “Route 66” and helped raise the Mother Road to iconic status, died Sunday at 83 of heart failure at his home in Carlsbad, California.

Milner’s career was launched behind the wheel of the Chevrolet Corvette in which he and his traveling buddy, Buz Murdock, played by George Maharis, drove across the western United States in search of adventure, which they inevitably found each week.

The show played from 1960 through 1964 and was shot entirely on locations all over the country. A movie remake of “Route 66″ is reportedly in the works.

The stylish “Route 66” also served to put the rural highway and Chevy Corvette on the map for millions of Americans while taking up many social issues of the day. In every program, the handsome Corvette roadster appeared front and center, no doubt helping to boost recognition and sales for Chevrolet.

The Corvette was as much a leading character in ‘Route 66’ as the actors
The Corvette was as much a leading character in ‘Route 66’ as the actors

Before the TV show, most people associated Route 66 with the western migration of hordes of people to California during the 1930s Dust Bowl era, immortalized in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, or else the 1940s pop song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66.” The TV show helped change the perception of the famed highway, imbuing it with glamour and a spirit of adventure.

Part of the credit for the show’s basic plot line of two rootless buddies and their endless wanderlust can be traced to Jack Kerouac and his landmark book On the Road, which inspired a generation to shuck the bounds of convention and head out to search for freedom and self discovery. Beatniks, hippies and motorcycle gangs all find common ground on the highway, and while the adventures of Buz and Tod were far less radical, they were nonetheless part of the foundation .

The image of Route 66 has become powerfully connected with the collector-car culture, especially among those who favor post-war American iron, hot rods and custom cars. Pilgrimages to drive on the surviving segments of the highway are popular outings for car clubs and rallies, and the Route 66 highway marker sign – reproduced millions of times – immediately conjures up impressions of driving great old cars on the open road.

There is a nostalgic flavor of longing for a time before modern interstates rolled past old Route 66, and the small towns along the way dried up as traveling folks no longer stopped off for a piece of pie and a homespun place to stay overnight. Pixar’s landmark animated film Cars dwells on that theme, so that even those far too young to remember the heyday of cross-country blacktops could relate to that sense of loss.

Those of us at a certain age can easily remember the sweeping theme song of “Route 66” as Buz and Tod wheeled away in the Corvette

Before landing his part as Tod in “Route 66,” Milner played minor roles in films and early TV shows, including “Dragnet” and “The Lone Ranger.” Afterward, he went on to play his popular role as Officer Pete Malloy in “Adam-12,” as well as making guest appearances in a number of subsequent TV shows. His clean-cut looks and earnest expression made him a natural as a good-guy protagonist.

Just recently, a dusty drive across central California with a buddy on less-traveled back roads – not in a vintage Corvette, unfortunately, but a modern SUV – rekindled some of that sense of windswept freedom away from the crowded interstate and the pressure of high-speed driving.

We cruised through small towns and past local landmarks, and visited a shrine-like homage to the late James Dean. Sadly, Buz and Tod were nowhere in sight.bob sig-2

 

14 thoughts on “Death of ‘Route 66’ star rekindles blacktop memories”

  1. I was 10-11 when I got hooked to Route 66. I’m 66 now have my own Corvette and VCR recordings of the series. Sad to think of him as 83 and gone.

  2. My parents moved us to California in the early 60s. We made many trips from California to Michigan on Route 66. This was during the time they were building highway 40 and 44. Many hours watching for twin arrows, and other places to stop, like Shamrock Tx or Cuba, Mo.

  3. As briefly as I can. In late 1956 and all of 1957, my family lived in Pasagulia, Mississippi because my father (a merchant seamen and marine enginner) had been assigned to the Ingles Shipyard where the very last two American built and flagged passenger ships, the SS Brasil and SS Argentina) were built for the company my father worked for, Moore-McCormack steamship lines.

    Well a few years later after my family returned to my hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey, my mother and I were watching TV on a Friday night in late September/early October 1960 and she happened to have heard the name Pasagulia mentioned in the opening scene of the first episode of Route 66. So she yold me to watch this new program and as soon as I saw that 1960 Corvette flash across our black and white TV screen, I was hooked. I faithfully watched every single esposode of the show for the next five years, gluded to the TV every Friday night. But until recently, I never saw the complete 1st esposode until the Decades channel ran their Route 66 marathon a couple of months ago.

    As a 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 year old kid, I wanted to be either Tod or Buz.

    Robert Gill
    Fords, New Jersey

  4. A friend of mine took Martin Milner and George Maharishi sailing on Lake Harriet when they were in Minneapolis, MN filming one of their many shows. They portrayed as workers on a Raspberry Farm in Hopkins,MN. The two also made appearances at the annual ‘Aqatennial Festival” during the filming. My friend was the staff PR guy for the festival. I later went on to buy my own 1962 Corvette; my favorite car of my life.
    Don De Laria
    Hometown, Minneaplois

  5. I was stationed in Germany with the USAF from 1961 to 1964. TV stations were few and far between for the military over there, so I never saw Route 66 until I got back to the “WORLD”. I loved that show and in 1966 I bought my first new car, a 1966 Corvette convertible. When Martin Milner started doing “Adam 12″ I was always glued to that show. A few years later, Martin would show up at Corvette shows throughout the country if he happened to be in the area. I’m glad to see that I can watch Adam 12 on Netflix. I hope I can buy the whole series of Route 66 on DVD soon. RIP, MM….

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