Monday, December 28, 2009

On the Road Again: The Great “Road” TV Shows of the 1960s

What’s a “road” TV show? Well, it’s a TV series where the protagonist travels from place to place—sometimes because he’s being chased, sometimes because he’s chasing someone (or something), and sometimes because he’s trying to find meaning in life. A TV series where the hero has a home base, such as Paladin’s San Francisco hotel in Have Gun Will Travel—doesn’t count. No, in a “road” show, the hero has to be constantly on the move. It also doesn’t count if traveling is a part of the protagonist’s job, as in Wanted: Dead or Alive, where Josh (Steve McQueen) goes to various places tracking down his quarry as a bounty hunter. Now that we’ve defined the genre, here are my picks for the most memorable “road” shows of the 1960s:

1. The Fugitive (1963-67). David Janssen spent four seasons on the road as Dr. Richard Kimble, a physician wrongly convicted of killing his wife. Kimble escapes during a train crash and tries to find the elusive one-armed man who may have killed his wife. Barry Morse is the only other regular, portraying Kimble’s “relentless pursuer” Lt. Philip Gerard. A clever updating of Les Miserablés, the series benefits from brilliant writing, Janssen’s low-key performance (his slight smile is understated acting at its finest), and consistently strong guest stars. This may be one of the first TV series to intersperse a continuing storyline with stand-alone stories: some episodes focus on Kimble trying to prove his innocence; others focus solely on the characters that Kimble meets along the way.

2. Route 66 (1960-64). Stirling Silliphant created this “road” show about two young men driving across America in search of “something”. The protagonists are college-educated Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) and street-smart Buz Murdock (George Maharis). They take to the road when Tod’s businessman father dies unexpectedly and leaves a pile of debts. Once Tod pays them off, all that remains of his inheritance is his father’s Corvette. Shot on location throughout the U.S., Route 66 is a portrait of the country in the early 1960s—the big cities, the rural towns, the motels, the factories, and the docks. Silliphant wrote the majority of the scripts, which often sounded like stage plays—but very good ones. Tod and Buz frequently took a back seat to the guest stars’ characters; in fact, in some episodes, the two stars were downright peripheral to the plot!

3. The Invaders (1967-68). Architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes) accidentally sees a flying saucer land and learns that aliens are plotting to take over the world. Unfortunately, no one believes David. It doesn’t help that the aliens glow orange and disappear when they die! For its first half-season, this reverse variation of The Fugitive (both were exec produced by Quinn Martin) benefits from inventive stories (e.g., in the episode “The Mutant”, Suzanne Pleshette is an alien who feels emotions…unlike the majority of her race). In the second and final season, Vincent linked up with other believers to form an organization to fight the alien intruders and the show became less interesting (though there were still a few standout episodes).

4. Run for Your Life (1965-68). Ben Gazzara played Paul Bryan, a successful lawyer who learns that he has a terminal illness and only two years to live. He quits his job and goes on the road to live life to its fullest. This TV series was spun off from the episode “Rapture at Forty-Two” on the anthology series Kraft Suspense Theater. Gazzara received Emmy nominations for two of the series’ three seasons. Martin Milner from Route 66,guest starred on a couple of the episodes. Roy Huggins, who created The Fugitive (and many other shows), produced Run for Your Life.

5. The Loner (1965-66). Rod Serling created this "adult Western" that downplayed action in favor of human interest stories. Like The Twilight Zone, the series had a social conscience, this time in the form of hero William Colton (Lloyd Bridges), a former Union officer searching the West for a meaningful existence. This wasn’t the first Western about a drifter nor the last. Nick Adams played an ex-Confederate soldier roaming the West in The Rebel (1959-62), which featured a title tune sung by Johnny Cash. In the late 1960s, Walter Brennan and Dack Rambo looked for Dack’s father (who abandoned his son as an infant and became a gunfighter) in The Guns of Will Sonnett.

Honorable Mentions: Then Came Bronson with Michael Parks (in a role not unlike Buz on Route 66) riding his motorcycle throughout the country; The Immortal with Chris George as a race car driver being pursued by those who want his blood—literally, because it contains antibodies that prevent aging.

5 comments:

  1. Rick, I loved this post! I am a true fan of "The Fugitive" and "Route 66." I also like the earlier episodes of "The Invaders." I am not familiar with Ben Gazzara's show nor the Rod Serling Western. I find it fascinating seeing who the guest stars turn out to be. Excellent post!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Rick, The Fugitive is one of my favorite TV shows. Awesome!! post..I'm trying to remember my favorite Fugitive episode.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rick, "Run for Your Life" was my favorite because I loved Ben gazzara. I was lucky enough to spend 3 weeks on the set of the show at Universal in 1967 as part of an Independent Study Project offered by my college for 3 weeks in Jan or Feb. The school had a bunch of its own programs (I went to Great Britain for 3 weeks the prior year), but you could submit your own idea. It was a revelation about how tv shows are filmed! Of course, The Fugitive was destination TV. Wonderful nostalgic post!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Rick, Great picks.And I love the fact that you have two shows with themes by the underrated Pete Rugolo, The Fugitive, and Run For Your life. BTW I found a clean copy of the epilog from the last episode The Fugitive"The Judgement Part II. I'll post it at the cafe.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Paul, I didn't know Pete also did the RUN FOR YOUR LIFE theme, but both it and THE FUGITIVE are memorable. Saz, I'm jealous of your college programs! Dawn, my wife and I are watching season 3 of THE FUGITIVE on DVD and loving it. Toto, you are so right--the guest stars on shows like THE FUGITIVE and ROUTE 66 are incredible.

    ReplyDelete