On October 7, 1960, the first episode of the one-hour television drama “Route 66” airs on CBS. The program had a simple premise: It followed two young men, Buz Murdock (George Maharis) and Tod Stiles (Martin Milner), as they drove across the country in an inherited Corvette (Chevrolet was one of the show’s sponsors), doing odd jobs and looking for adventure. According to the show’s creator and writer, Stirling Silliphant (best known for his acclaimed “Naked City,” an earlier TV series), Buz and Tod were really on a journey in search of themselves. “Call ‘Route 66′ ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’” Silliphant told a reporter. “The motive power driving our two characters is not a Corvette: it is the desire for knowledge–and for sentience; it is a quest through the perennially fascinating cosmos of personal identity.”
“Route 66″was different from every other show on television. For one thing, it was shot on location all over the United States instead of in a studio. By the time its run was up in 1964, the show’s cast and crew had traveled from Maine to Florida and from Los Angeles to Toronto: In all, they taped 116 episodes in 25 states. (Silliphant himself arrived at all the show’s locations six weeks before anyone else. When he got there, he would acquaint himself with local culture and write the scripts on-site.) The show was a serious drama with social-realist pretensions, but its nomadic premise meant that it could tackle a new issue–war, mental illness, religion, murder, drug addiction, drought–every week. By contrast, police procedurals and hospital dramas necessarily had a more limited range. The show’s stark black-and-white cinematography was likewise suited to its serious tone.
The real Route 66 was a two-lane highway that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. From its completion in the late 1930s, it was one of the major routes across the American Southwest. It was also probably the most famous: John Steinbeck called it the “Mother Road” in his book “The Grapes of Wrath,” and Nat King Cole’s version of songwriter Bobby Troup’s 1946 song “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66″ is still familiar to many people today.
In 1993, NBC developed a peppier, less gritty remake of the show–in fact, about the only thing the two “Route 66″shad in common was the Corvette–but it went off the air after just a few episodes. Today, fans of the original can watch it on DVD.
READ MORE: 8 Things You May Not Know About Route 66