A brief appreciation of a classic television series (and L.A.) from my ‘blog’ around 1988.
I’ve been watching the old Kerouac-inspired show every night on Nick at Night with a passion. Stirling Silliphant, the principal author, is a brilliant character writer and scenarist with a poet’s heart. He always writes about people on the edge; alcoholic women drowning out their failed loves, children suddenly forced to grow up faster than they deserve, adventurers beginning to feel vulnerable to the presence of the grim reaper – people walking on tightropes at critical turning points in their lives.
Young bucks Tod (Martin Milner) and Buz (George Maharis) cruise into a new town each week and sweep us into the story. One’s a preppie (conscience and reason), one’s a street kid (instinct and volatility), and they act as a catalyst to the story, but quickly recede into the background for the telling. Silliphant used to go to some town, hang out for a week and get the feel of it, then hole up in some cheap motel for two days and write a script. The production crew and cast would follow the next week and, presto, a series is made with hip episode titles like “Hell is empty, all the devils are here,” or “Bird cage on my foot,” (with Robert Duvall as a heroin addict), and lines from children’s poems, etc.
So I get hooked on this vicarious traveling to the point where the show is really helping me through a dull period. I’m craving to leave L.A., but I’m trapped by economics, so this show becomes my way out. It inspires me. I start writing again. I’m 64 pages into a new script but, dammit, I still hate living in L.A. at this time. One night after work, I agree to meet a couple buddies in a new chi-chi bar/restaurant near the beach in Santa Monica. I get there at eight, my buddies don’t show up – but who does instead? … Buz (George Maharis), 25 years later.
I can’t resist but to go over and talk to him. We get into a nifty conversation about the show. I’m asking him about the writing of particular episodes and he’s getting off remembering and wondering about the actresses’ names – “What was her name… Audrey… something…” I go, “Totter.” His eyes light up. “Yeah!”
I ask him how old he was when he did the series. He says 25. I tell him he must have been on top of the world. He smiles and tells me he’s 59 now (which, I got the feeling, was my cue for me to say, “Wow, you look great for 59 – he was obviously very vain with a finely-coifed toupee and a fancy-trimmed sailing jacket). Then I realized the ages didn’t tally. If he were 25 years old when he did the show, which is what the character was supposed to be, he’d only be 49 now. But why would he lie ten years UP? Then I realize he must’ve lied ten years DOWN for the age he was doing the show at the time. The conditioned lie was that, when he was 34 and doing the show, he told everyone he was 25. My wife and I figured out from his physique that he was definitely in his 30s for the show. That’s an odd twist for Hollywood vanity; tell the truth about your current age and lie about something 25 years past.
Anyway, he goes to dinner, I go home to catch the 11 p.m. episode. I’m driving home feeling pretty excited. I ask myself what this encounter meant – what this was an omen of – the one night I go out in weeks I run into this particular character. The answer was obvious; this couldn’t have happened anywhere else. Only in L.A. can you have an experience like this.
— A. Wayne Carter