Kerouac considered suing “Route 66” TV drama

Today, on the 90th anniversary of “On the Road” author Jack Kerouac‘s birth, the New Times of Broward-Palm Beach in Florida contained this fascinating tidbit about his declining health until his death in 1969:

A legal squabble over the television show Route 66, which seemed to be modeled on the On the Road story line, drained him even further.

I thought the show’s overall theme of wandering from town to town was obviously inspired by “On the Road.” But I didn’t know that Kerouac was so agitated by it that he considered suing.

A Hartford Courant article in 1993 reported on the controversy, including a quote from the TV series’ executive producer:

Herbert B. Leonard, 62, says he read “On the Road” when it came out, and he loved it. “But I don’t think that was what I had in mind,” he says. “I visualized these guys as positive, young — little knights in shining armor. They weren’t beatniks, in the sense that they had some kind of sense of feeling of social injustice.”

Yet observers, including Kerouac’s longtime friend, poet Allen Ginsberg, and Kerouac biographer Dennis McNally (now director of public relations for the Grateful Dead) say Kerouac, who had hoped for a movie deal from “On the Road,” was bitter about what he saw as too many similarities between his novel and the TV saga of Todd Stiles (Martin Milner) and Buzz Murdock (George Maharis).

McNally, author of the 1979 Kerouac biography “Desolate Angel,” includes a chapter titled ” `On the Road’ in a Corvette Stingray,” which deals with the translation of beat culture into the mass media. “To have a best seller in the fall of 1957 about two guys driving around America in a car, and two years later [producers] start working on a TV show — it seems to me transparently obvious that there is a connection.”

McNally notes that the young Maharis bore an uncanny resemblance to the young Kerouac and that the first episode dealt with the search for a father — a thread in “On the Road.” Leonard says he originally used Maharis in the pilot for his other well-known early show, “Naked City,” which was shot before the “Route 66” pilot.

“TV cleans things up,” says McNally. “It’s not a battered 47 Hudson [as in the book]; it’s a Stingray.” But as he himself points out: “Two guys in a car — you can’t exactly copyright that.”

On a related note, Shout! Factory is about to re-release the entire four seasons on DVD.

And a few days ago, the trailer for the long-awaited film version of “On the Road” was released:

A release date in the U.S. for “On the Road” isn’t set. However, according to, several European countries are getting the film in May and June. So a summer or fall release in America seems certain.

Although the mention of Route 66 in the “On the Road” book is scant, the Kerouac anniversary and the film probably will inspire a smattering of travelers on the Mother Road this year and in 2013. (On a related note, the Beat Museum’s website  features a Route 66 shield prominently.) Route 66, after all, remains the ultimate road trip, and a number of “On the Road” devotees undoubted will choose it as their destination.

One thought on “Kerouac considered suing “Route 66” TV drama

  1. Stories like this piss me off… In that I am old and well read and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Rt 66 was a crass exploitation of On The Road… And nobody else seems to notice or care.. Nurse! Nurse! I need to be turned!

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