Heading Down Route 66: Adios, Martin Milner

ct-martin-milner-dead-20150907-001 I’ll take the opportunity of Martin Milner’s passing to comment on Route 66, and Route 66 to comment on Martin Milner.

Mr. Milner passed away this weekend at the respectable age of 83.

He had a long and worthy career as an actor behind him. Never a huge star (though he starred in two of the best remembered shows on TV, one of which is a bonafide classic), he was a competent journeyman actor.

Do not read that as a put down: Quite the contrary, it’s a tribute to his ability to show up, take an ordinary character / scene, and imbue it with life. He worked and worked a lot because of that ability. While his TV career overshadowed his film career, he had significant roles in several major motion pictures, four of them quite good.

He was the jazz musician fiancé of Burt Lancaster’s sister in The Sweet Smell Of Success, a much too laid back shore patrol officer from Alabama in Mr. Roberts, James Earp in The Gunfight At O.K. Corral, and Natalie Wood’s friend-zoned playwright suitor in Marjorie Morningstar.

What he is most famous for, depending on your age, is as the driver of two of the most iconic TV cars after the Batmobile and the Beverly Hillbillies’ truck.

The obituaries all mention Adam-12, which was a good show and used the easy rappaport between Milner and co-star Kent McCord to present a more personable view of police work than displayed in its companion series, Dragnet.

But the great shining jewel in Milner’s career crown was Route 66, arguably one of the most important TV series in American cultural history and one of the few that everyone should track down and watch, even if only for a few episodes.

Route 66 was created by producer Herbert B. Leonard and writer Stirling Silliphant in answer to the Chevrolet Motor Company’s musical question: “If we lend you a brand new Corvette, can you build a TV show around it?”

Leonard & Silliphant could & did, and the result was the incredible Route 66, a semi-anthology[1] that offers rare slice of life Americana, with stories taking place in less traveled parts of the country, involving occupations and true-to-life situations typically not explored in drama, much less network television.

Milner was convincing as Tod Stiles, son of a bankrupt industrialist who inherited nothing from his father except the Corvette he and his traveling companions drove. They were the consistent, friendly, appealing touchstones that enabled audiences to get into the surprisingly complex and insight stories that made the series a justifiable hit.[2]

One may argue that Maharis (who had to leave the show due to health reasons) and Corbett were more dynamic actors, but Milner made it possible to welcome the show into your home every week. He may not have been a dramatic showboat, but he got people to tune in.

Milner had a shockingly normal personal life: The child of a family on the fringe of show biz, he married actress / singer Judy Jones in 1957 and stayed married to her for the rest of his life, producing four children.

We’ll let him have the last word in his own memorial:

“I have no complaints on any level. I'm pretty happy about the way everything turned out.” -- Martin Milner

We are, too, Mr. Milner. 10-4 & RIP




[1]  Milner and his co-drivers George Maharis and later Glenn Corbett typically bookended every episode by arriving in a new town looking for work and thus getting involved with the characters & story of the week. Their contributions to the actual stories were often slight: Knights errant arriving in the nick of time to serve justice at the end of an episode, then hopping in their car to drive off to their next adventure.

[2]  Jack Kerouac felt Route 66 had ripped off his novel On The Road. While the basic idea of two young men drifting around the country, taking odd jobs where they could find them, is similar, the focus of the TV show was vastly different from the novel’s. Noetheless, credit where credit is due, and without On The Road there may never have been a Route 66.

Thinkage [updated]

Thinkage [updated]

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