Martin Milner RIP
September 15, 2015
By Sam Allen
On the Friday night of October 7, 1960, folks watching CBS television heard the snappy beat of a Nelson Riddle tune as their black-and-white screens showed a Corvette convertible cruising through a misty countryside as the words "Route 66" floated across the screen. The camera focused in on Martin Milner, who was driving, then George Maharis, who was trying to make sense of a map. They were on their way to Biloxi, Mississippi and were lost. Martin Milner asked "How did we get off of US 66? So began Black November, the first of 116 episodes of Route 66 that aired over four seasons.
The show featured Todd Stiles, played by Martin Milner, and Buz Murdoch, played by George Maharis. Todd was the son of a formerly wealthy businessman who had died leaving Todd nothing but a Yale education and a new Corvette convertible. Buz was an edgy survivor of New York's Hell's Kitchen who had worked for Todd's father. The show chronicled Todd's and Buzz's adventures as they explored the United States in the Corvette taking odd jobs to pay their way.
Route 66 was unique in that it was shot entirely on location. Producer and writer Sterling Silliphant would travel with a location manager to find appropriate venues for filming. Silliphant would write the scripts as he traveled, and the production crew would arrive a week or so later to shoot the show.
Almost none of the episodes were on Route 66. But they captured the spirit not only of Route 66, but of America. It was a time of innocence and optimism now lost and largely forgotten. John F. Kennedy was elected as our 35th president a month after the first episode aired. No one had heard of Vietnam. Few people had heard of Martin Luther King. There was no internet, e-mail or cell phones. Nor was there a 24 hour news cycle; indeed, there were only three TV stations (and in our rural Connecticut house, we got only one of them). It was a time of opportunity and prosperity in which American audiences could understand a TV show about two young men traveling the heartland to find the country, and in the process, find themselves.
Marty Milner died of heart failure on September 6 at his Carlsbad, California home. He was 83.
Although many fans remember Marty for Route 66, he had an impressive acting career both before and after his stint on the show. He was active from 1947 to 1997. In those 50 years he appeared in over 60 movies and scores of TV episodes.
His film debut was in the 1947 movie Life with Father with William Powell. He also was in The Sands of Iwo Jima with John Wayne in 1949 and in Mr. Roberts with Henry Fonda, Jimmy Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemon in 1955. In 1957 he was in The Sweet Smell of Success with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. That movie was loosely based on the life of Walter Winchell, and in some quarters is believed to have been the catalyst that ultimately led to Winchell's disgrace and loss of influence in journalism.
Before starring in Route 66, Milner appeared on many of TV shows, including recurring appearances in Dragnet, The Life of Riley, Westinghouse Playhouse, The Millionaire and The Twilight Zone. After Route 66 was cancelled, he played Officer Pete Malloy for seven seasons in the Jack Webb series Adam 12. He also appeared in The Swiss Family Robinson, MacGyver and Murder She Wrote.
He had a remarkable personal life. He met singer/actress Judith Jones at a Hollywood dinner party in 1956. They got married in 1957, had four children and remained married until his death.
Martin Milner starred in a TV show that had a relationship with Route 66 in name only. But it was a powerful show that can take us back to a simpler time when America was about to lose a good deal of its innocence but still was fresh. I often have the theme song to Route 66 in my head and picture Todd and Buz in their Corvette as I ride across Route 66. I suspect I'm not the only one.
Sam Allen wrote The Motorcycle Guide to Route 66.He also created and operates www.route66mc.com, which is the most comprehensive source of information about Route 66 on the web.