Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Piece of Shat: Route 66 – “Build Your Houses with Their Backs to the Sea” (10/25/63) and The Fugitive – “Stranger in the Mirror” (12/07/65)

(Spoiler warning: Second verse, same as the first—the denouements to the episodes in this post are revealed so for those of you who are squeamish about knowing in advance how something turns out…run fast, run far…)

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
continues its participation in what online Internetters are calling “the blogathon event of the summer”…provided such remarks are strictly off the record, of course. Kidding…I’m just kidding—Shatnerthon, which is being spearheaded by Chuckie Award-winning She Blogged by Night chronicler Stacia Jones, has skyrocketed to the top of the list of blogathons in which I’ve had a tremendous fun being a part of. Today, TDOY ups the ante with two William Shatner showcases from two of the 1960s most memorable dramatic series…in which its principals often found themselves on the road less traveled (and for damn good reasons).

Route 66, the successful program that starred Martin Milner (as Tod Stiles) and George Maharis (Buz Murdock) as a pair of wandering nomads tooling around this great country of ours in a bitchin’ Corvette, was a Friday night staple on the CBS network for four years beginning in the fall of 1960. By the time Route entered its final season, Maharis had been replaced by Glenn Corbett (Linc Case)—and in the fifth episode that year, “Build Your Houses With Their Backs to the Sea,” His Shatness guest stars as Manomsha Faxon—which sounds like an alien Bill might have tangled with on a lost episode of Star Trek. (Once again, profuse apologies for the poor quality screen caps—Infinity Entertainment has released the first three seasons of 66 to DVD but the final year is still in limbo.)

Manomsha returns to the coastal Maine hamlet in which he was born and raised after a year of being AWOL, and his father Thayer (Pat Hingle) isn’t particularly happy to see him. “If it’s not too late, Papa…I’d like to apologize for my childhood, adolescence and early manhood,” offers the prodigal son. “Your mother thought you was dead,” Thayer returns during their reunion. Manomsha wants to bury the hatchet with his pop…but they end up coming to blows instead.

The reasons for the friction between the Faxons is a bit complicated. Father Faxon is a crusty old coot, set in his ways and unable to recognize that his son is just as much a stubborn essobee as he is. Manomsha is angry with his father because the old man, a fisherman, allowed his brother Robbie to go out lobstering with him even though Rob was terrified of the water. Robbie ends up dead from a drowning accident (shades of yesterday’s “Without Stick or Sword”!) and Manomsha is devastated as a result. (“They used to call me my brother’s shadow…because everywhere he went, I went, too. Now all that’s left is a shadow.”)

The Faxon family has also never fully accepted Manomsha’s wife Ella (Louise Sorel—the youngest I’ve ever seen her, I think) as one of their own…and in fact, one of the highlights of “Build” is a Sunday dinner in which Manomsha sits down to the proverbial fatted calf and he insists on Ella being breaking bread with his family as well. As might be predicted, there is a bit of ugliness that breaks out—which culminates in Ella being bitch-slapped by her mother-in-law Abigail…played by Audra “Mrs. Roper” Lindley as if she were channeling Jo Van Fleet and auditioning for a Tennessee Williams play. Quel catfight!

The tension between Faxon pere and fils continues to mount when an unknown individual begins “cutting” the lobster traps…and one of Thayer’s fellow anglers, Mayhew (Griff Evans), is shot by another fisherman who’s convinced Mayhew is responsible. Tod (Milner), who’s working with Ella while Linc (Corbett) assists Thayer in his trawling, discovers that it’s Manomsha who’s wreaking havoc with the traps…and before the episode ends, the Faxon son and father have a confrontation that results in the two of them realizing that they’re cut from the same bolt of cloth. They then push a boat into the water…a boat that is later discovered empty by a helicopter that hovers overhead. What happened to the two men? Well, it’s intimated that they’re now storing items in Davy Jones’ locker…and the episode ends with Tod and Linc dropping off Ella and her ten-month-old son (named after Manomsha) at Abigail’s, who now welcomes her daughter-in-law and grandson with open arms.

Route 66 was created by Herbert B. Leonard and Stirling Silliphant, two television veterans who also created the series I spotlighted in yesterday’s Shatnerthon entry, Naked City. Route had quite a bit in common with City—offbeat episode titles, on location shooting, superior scripting and the crème de la crème of acting talent (66 also featured memorable appearances from City regulars Horace McMahon and Harry Bellaver in a witty episode entitled “Where Are the Sounds of Celli Brahms”)—but by the fourth season, the show had (I can’t resist the pun) started to run out of gas. “Build” was scripted and directed by Frank Pierson, who was just cutting his teeth on the boob tube and would later go on to write/direct movies like A Star is Born (1976) and King of the Gypsies (1978). It’s not an overwhelming episode though it does feature some good performances from Shatner, Sorel and Lindley…and though I haven’t seen everything Pat Hingle ever did from what I have watched the man was simply incapable of giving a bad performance.

Some of the highlights of “Build” include:

Shat bleeds!

Shat drinks!

Shat auditions for the reboot of Sea Hunt!

During the 1960s, the other signature series about “life on the road” was Roy Huggins’ The Fugitive, the cult classic that starred David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, a pediatrician convicted of murdering his wife…even though Kimble knew that the real murderer was a one-armed man (Bill Raisch) hauling ass out of his driveway the night the murder took place. Sentenced to fry in the electric chair, a train wreck allowed Kimble to escape and he spent the next four seasons both hunting down the murderer (whose name was Fred Johnson) and eluding supercop Lieutenant Philip Gerard, the modern-day Javert obsessed with capturing Kimble and making sure he kept his appointment in the death house.

In the third season episode “Stranger in the Mirror,” the Shat man is on the scene as Tony Burrell, an ex-cop who now runs the Saturday Morning Club—a day camp for underprivileged kids and other juvenile delinquents. With his wife Carole (Julie “The Governor and J.J.” Sommars), Tony hires a man who calls himself “John Evans” as a custodian/groundskeeper…of course, we know Mr. Evans as the road-weary Kimble. Impressed with his credentials—and the fact that he can “hit against left-handed pitchers”—Kimble/Evans is hired by the Burrells as the audience looks on in amazement at how easily the on-the-run Kimble managed to find work.

Tony is asked to stop by the police station by crusty Lieutenant Ed Green (Norman “Mr. Roper” Fell), who informs his former colleague of the death of a police officer that had the pleasure of Tony’s company a short time before he was then bludgeoned to death with a big honkin’ rock (the two men were working on a baseball schedule). It’s the second of two deaths involving the gendarmes (with a third one on the way), and the chief suspect is a punk kid named Benny Bycek (Tony Fasce), an uncooperative unemployable whose ‘f**k you” attitude is giving Green ulcers…so Burrell offers to sit down and have a chat with the delinquent lad. But this really isn’t necessary…because although Tony isn’t aware of it, he’s the killer—he’s blacked out all memory of the murders due to a psychological disorder (that resulted in his being removed from duty).

Fortunately for Burrell, his new custodian is none too anxious to have a run-in with the police due to his fugitive status…giving Tony an ideal patsy on which to pin the murders when Burrell discovers that Kimble is packed and ready to put three states between him and the day camp. But Carole pieces together both the events and evidence that point to Tony’s guilt (he apparently was on a vendetta against the department, who was indirectly responsible for putting his cop father in prison and later having him killed in the jernt) and she dispatches Tony to the Great Beyond with his widdle gun.

One thing I noticed in this episode that I found particularly interesting was that the police department in this burg actually had a black plainclothes detective. So who gets mowed down when Tony goes a little funny in the head just before he’s ambushed?

That’s right—brother can’t catch a break. To add insult to injury, the cop is played by actor Jeff Burton, who’s also the token black astronaut that snuffs it first in Planet of the Apes (1968).

Highlights of “Stranger in the Mirror” include:

Shat sweats!

Shat smokes!

Shat gives a punk the third degree!

Shat sleeps!

Shat sweats some more!

Shat lectures on the proper use of firearms!

Shat gives his disapproval of the eggplant parmesan!

Shat works out!

…and in reference to this right-on-the-money observation on Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) from Bryce Wilson at Things That Don’t Suck

See Star Trek is supposed to be fun, which is something more or less every incarnation between the original TV show and JJ Abrams version forgot. Star Trek at its most basic is devoted to a formula that involves going out into space and finding something weird there. Maybe that weird thing will be some kind of monster who will force Shatner to take off his shirt. Maybe that weird thing will be a green alien bimbo who will force Shatner to take off his shirt. But whatever it is damn it, it will involve Shatner shirtless and cardboard sets!

Shat goes shirtless. Un…



(I don’t think the sets are made of cardboard, though.) Finally, these two poses should be familiar to any Star Trek fan:

Okay, I had an itty bitty fun at Mr. Shatner’s expense—but to be perfectly honest, I think his turn in “Stranger” is one of his better television showcases. His Tony Burrell is such a decent guy that it comes as quite a shock when you learn by the first half that he’s the one bashing in cop brains with a stone as big as his head. (Please…no Third Rock from the Sun jokes. --Mgmt.) Though there are a few similarities to the painter he played in the Naked City episode “Portrait of a Painter”—the man who’s croaked his wife and then has no memory of doing so—he’s far more engaging here…and not nearly as flaky. He also keeps the usual stage histrionics in check, even when he cracks up at the end.

Oh, I almost forgot. This is one of the rare Fugitive episodes where the star doesn’t do the patented “Kimble grimace.”

Tomorrow: Shatnerthon concludes here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear with two more prime William Shatner television gigs: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s “The Project Strigas Affair” {11/24/64) and 12 O’Clock High’s “I Am the Enemy” (11/08/65). I do hope you’ll join me.

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