Route 66: My Road To Damascus

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In the fall of 1960, I was a street kid headed for trouble. Just starting grade 12, with no interest in anything but pool halls and television, I found myself (like a minor-league Saul on his way to Damascus) struck by a bolt of light that changed my life. Even many decades later, I can be quite specific about the time and date—8:30 p.m., Friday, October 7. The light was from my television and the first episode of a new series called Route 66.

That episode was titled “Black November.”  Its plot involved a Mississippi town haunted by a terrible secret from sixteen years earlier: the brutal murder of a German prisoner-of-war and the local minister who tried to protect him. I’d never seen anything like it—not merely the mystery, suspense, and action (not to mention the violence; scenes involving a buzz-saw and an axe remain vivid in my memory) but the characters and the feeling of reality conveyed by the writing.

The series was about two young men: Tod, a rich kid from New York whose father had recently died, leaving such massive debts that after the creditors finished, all Tod retained was a Corvette his father had given him—and Buz, a poor kid, tough as concrete, from Hell’s Kitchen, who worked for Tod’s father on the New York City docks, as did Tod during summer vacations from Yale. The two became friends, and with nothing to tie them down or to lose, they set out in Tod’s Corvette to discover America, its people, and themselves.

Because Route 66 was then the principal highway across the United States, its name was perfect as a title for the series. And because the series was about America as much as about Tod and Buz, the producers filmed each episode on the locations that the characters were supposed to be visiting: from Poland Springs, Maine, to Huntington Beach, California, from Seattle to St. Louis to Tampa and a hundred communities between, traveling far from what John Steinbeck called the Mother Road.

I waited eagerly for Friday night to come around again—and the next Friday—and the next. There was something about the way the characters talked, the emotions they expressed, the values they cherished, that spoke to me compellingly. To this day, I’m overwhelmed by the intriguing blend of intense action and philosophic speeches that sometimes lasted five minutes, with a flavor of Tennessee Williams combined with William Inge and Arthur Miller. Similarly, I’m amazed that from 1960-64, when TV was accused of being a wasteland (one episode “Most Vanquished, Most Victorious” was condemned in Congress), the series dealt seriously with miscegenation, right-wing hate groups, LSD, Castro’s Cuba, mercy killing, and the psychological effects of the Vietnam War. At a time of racial segregation in the South, one episode had an almost entirely black cast.

But I was innocent back then and didn’t realize how uncommon it was for a television series to be thoughtful as well as exciting. What I did know was this: my imagination was set afire. For the first time in my seventeen years, I began to study credits. Who on Earth was responsible for this wonderful experience? Martin Milner and George Maharis were the stars (Maharis later bowed out, replaced by Glenn Corbett), but despite their considerable talents, I felt more attracted to the inspiration behind them, to the creative force that invented the dramatic situations and put the words (and sometimes poetry) in the actors’ mouths. I soon noticed one unusual name that appeared prominently in the credits of almost every episode. Stirling Silliphant. Writer. New thought.

That grade 12 student, who formerly had no ambition, managed to find the address of Screen Gems, the company listed at the end of each Route 66 episode. I sent a handwritten letter to Silliphant and asked how I could learn to do the wonderful things that he did. One week later, I received an answer from him—two densely typed pages that began with an apology for taking so long to get back to me. “I’d have written to you sooner,” he said, “but when your letter arrived, I was out at sea in a boat.” He revealed no secrets and refused to look at anything I had written, but he did tell me this. The way to be a writer is to write, and write, and keep writing.

All these years and millions of words later, I’m still writing. One of my greatest pleasures occurred on a summer day in 1972 when Silliphant phoned to thank me for sending him a copy of my debut novel, First Blood, which became the basis for the Rambo films, and to say how much he liked it. By then, he’d received an Academy Award for In the Heat of the Night. In awe, I flashed back to 1960, recalled the first episode of Route 66, and realized that without him, my life would have been very different.

Eventually, Silliphant and I became friends and colleagues. In the mid-1980s, Nick-at-Nite repeated Route 66 on cable TV. I videotaped all the episodes and had the honor of giving a set to him. “I haven’t seen these in years,” he told me. “Come on, let’s look at a few.” I couldn’t have been happier, feeling as if I were seventeen again. An equally happy night came in 1989 when Silliphant was listed as the executive producer of the NBC mini-series based on my novel, The Brotherhood of the Rose, which was the only mini-series ever to be broadcast after a Super Bowl.

Thus, a circle was completed, even as the road continued, at first adventurously and then sadly. In the early 1990s, Silliphant sold all his belongings (he called it a Beverly Hills garage sale) and moved to Bangkok where, he told me in a whimsical moment, he had lived during one of his former incarnations. There, in 1996, he died from prostate cancer. But perhaps whimsy is truth and his numerous incarnations continue, for since then I have felt him with me as I move farther along my own road. I couldn’t have a better guide.

Postscript: Route 66 is available on DVD. Silliphant wrote many feature films as well, including the original The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Some deluxe DVD versions of those films have a ten-minute documentary about him. I felt honored to be interviewed for it.