ROUTE 66: MY ROAD TO DAMASCUS by David Morrell

_08This first appeared in issue 8 of Crimespree. Sept/Oct 2005


by David Morrell

In ROUTE 66: MY ROAD TO DAMASCUS, best-selling author David Morrell reflects upon the hit 1960’s classic television show Route 66. The show and its writer,award-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, inspired the imagination of the then-troubled seventeen-year-old Morrell and led him to pursue a career in fiction writing, and sparked a strong friendship between the two.

Sadly, Stirling Silliphant – Morrell’s mentor, close friend and father-figure – succumbed to prostate cancer in 1996…

Morrell has collected every episode of the ground-breaking series Route 66 (which he presented to Silliphant after a devastating fire destroyed the screenwriter’s home in the mid-80’s) and is continually inspired by Silliphant, the show – and the ideas which changed his life.

Now the author of 28 best-selling novels and numerous short stories, many of them award-winning, Morrell’s much anticipated new dark-suspense thriller CREEPERS will be released September 6, 2005.

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 now, I can be quite specific about the time and date—8:30 p.m., Friday, October 7. The light was from my television; it was 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 (the U.S. had German P.O.W. camps in the South) and the local minister who tried to protect him. I’d never seen anything like it before—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 recently died, leaving such massive debts that when the creditors finished all Tod retained was a Corvette his father gave him—and Buz, a poor kid, tough as concrete, from Hell’s Kitchen, who worked for Tod’s father on the New York 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 country, 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 decided to film 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, often traveling far from what John Steinbeck called the Mother Road.

As I said, I couldn’t believe how real that opening episode seemed. I discovered that I was waiting 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 believed in, 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, the series dealt seriously with miscegenation, right-wing hate groups, LSD, Castro’s Cuba, and post-traumatic stress from Vietnam. At a time of 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 then (and now) for a TV series to dramatize these matters. 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 minds behind them, to the creative force that invented the dramatic situations and put the words (and sometimes poetry) in the actors’ mouths. Herbert B. Leonard: producer. Sam Manners: production chief. Okay. But still . . . Then I realized that one other name appeared prominently in the credits of almost every episode. Stirling Silliphant. Writer. My, my. New thought.

That grade 12 street-kid, 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 letter (handwritten, “scrawled” might be more accurate) to Silliphant and asked how a person could learn to do the wonderful things that he was doing. One week later (I still recall my surprise), 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 might write (partly for legal reasons), but he did tell me this: The way to be a writer is to write, and write, and keep writing.

Forty-five years and millions of words later, I’m still writing. One of my greatest pleasures occurred on a summer day in 1972 when Stirling phoned to thank me for sending him a copy of my first novel, FIRST BLOOD, and to say that he liked it. By then, he’d received an Academy award for the screenplay to IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, a film that influenced FIRST BLOOD. 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, Stirling and I became friends and colleagues. In the mid-1980s, Nick-at-Nite repeated ROUTE 66 on cable TV. I taped all the episodes and had the honor of giving a set to him, most of whose scripts for the series had been destroyed in a fire. “Let’s watch a couple,” he said. I couldn’t have been happier, feeling as if I was seventeen again. An equally happy night came in 1989 when Stirling was listed as the executive producer of an NBC miniseries based on my novel, THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE.

Thus, a circle was completed, even as the road continued, at first adventurously and then sadly. In the early 1990s, Stirling 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 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 his imagination stirring within me, urging me farther along my own creative road. I couldn’t have a better guide.