The lost “Route 66” episode

WGRZ-TV in Buffalo, N.Y., has the fascinating story about a 1963 episode of the “Route 66” television series that was shot in nearby Niagara Falls, edited and ready to go. But CBS never aired it.

Here’s what happened …

In October 1963, the cast and crew of the CBS drama Route 66 came to Niagara Falls to film three episodes, including one which was shot entirely on location called: “I’m Here To Kill A King”.

The story line centered around a plot to assassinate a fictitious Arabian Potentate by gunning him down while he visited the world famous waterfall.

Hours before the episode was originally set to air on the night of November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was himself assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

Due to continuing news coverage, networks pre-empted their prime time lineup and the Route 66 episode was bumped to the following Friday, November 29th.

But faced with an all too real episode of life imitating art, it was decided that airing even a fictional account of a national leader felled by an assassin (wielding a high powered rifle while standing on a grassy knoll no less) wouldn’t be prudent before a still-wounded American public.

Eventually, the episode was consigned to a storage vault, presumably to never be seen.

The New York State Parks Department, much to its surprise, was able to acquire a print of the episode from Columbia Pictures in 1988 and show it at the new Niagara Falls Visitors Center. It was screened several times in one weekend, to large — and stunned — crowds.

Colangelo also remembered that while it may have been  25 years after the fact, many left the theater chilled by the haunting irony of what they’d waited so long to see.

“The silence was deafening. People watched and were just shocked by some of the irony in this thing. If you follow this thing through you’ll find 5 or 6 weird ironies that could be translated to the JFK assassination, ” he said.

They include parts of the dialogue from the show, particularly when the King’s bodyguard, conspiring against his leader, advises the hired assassin:

” …he wears body armor, at my insistence …but a high velocity bullet” — only to be cut off in mid sentence by the assassin who assures him he’s got that covered, because: “I’m shooting him through the head.”

“When I heard that the first time I got tingles up my spine,” Colangelo said.

There were other coincidences. The main character remarks to the assassin that “my father’s name was Lee” — drawing parallels to JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. The motorcade scene, where the king waves to crowds from a limousine, bore a resemblance to the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas. When the king first arrives in Niagara Falls, he is told of a threat on his life; a State Department official suggests to the king that perhaps the flight should be diverted to Dallas.

The link provides access to a video that includes footage of that unaired “Route 66” episode.

The episode was part of Season 4 — the final season for “Route 66.” Roxbury/Infinity hasn’t yet released episodes from that season to DVD, but will in the coming months. I’m skeptical, however, that particular episode will ever make its way to home video. Columbia Pictures gave a print of the film to Niagara Falls officials and told them it could be never reproduced for sale, nor should a fee ever be charged for airing it to the public.

8 thoughts on “The lost “Route 66” episode

  1. You’re wrong in stating that “the episode was consigned to a storage vault, presumably to never be seen” and describing it as “unaired.” It was simply postponed a few months and aired on 20 March 1964.

    1. A story by the Niagara Falls newspaper in March 1964 specifically quotes a CBS executive who said that the episode would never be aired. And James Rosin, who wrote a book about the television series, says the March 20, 1964, air date isn’t verified.

  2. But about 25-28 years later, it did air on the cable channel ‘Nick at Nite’ at 11pm ET. I saw the last 5 minutes of the episode, as it showed downtown Niagara Falls before its urban renewal, and a license plate that showed New York. Then, during the closing credits was a still shot of the old Seagrams Tower (now called the Minota Tower) from Niagara Falls, Canada.

  3. And here it is Dec 1 2014 and I just watched this episode on MeTV Albany NY after watching Naked City and followed Route 66 with Peter Gunn….love these old black and white programs!

  4. “Here to Kill a King” was NOT scheduled to air Nov 22 1963. That night, the schedule called for the Stefani Powers episode where she’s running away from her crook boyfriend in Colorado or somewhere. IN FACT….THAT promo for that episode was a commercial on CBS just before Walter Cronkite came in with the JFK news on camera….. with Walter having spent the prior 16 minutes giving the jfk shooting news only as voice over a black “cbs special report” sign,,,,,during which time the Route 66 promo for the Friday night episode (which didn’t actually air until the next week). Go watch the entire sequential CBS coverage (4 days of continuous coverage) which begins a little bit into the Friday live performance of “As the World Turns”. Watch the Route 66 promo there for yourself. By the way, that was a pretty good episode…. would’ve been better if Maharis had still been in the show.

  5. You are correct. Walter Cronkite’s first bulletin is followed by a commercial for Nescafe instant coffee, a bumper for “As the World Turns” then a “Route 66” promo: “Follow Todd and Linc to a mountain adventure with a pretty girl on Route 66, tonight on the CBS television network.” The episode is called “Cage in Search of a Bird.” It stars Stefanie Powers (“pretty girl”) and takes place in Denver (“mountain adventure.”)

  6. Remember all the ‘line noise’ during the station break after the Route 66 CTN on ATWT? You could see projectors being cued up, along with some wild audio in places? This break–which should have been :33–was actually :37 (before the program title started in again.

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