Television Takes on the Beat Generation

In the late 1950s, television was dominated by Westerns: Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, and Bonanza. At a time when there were only three channels, 15 to 17 million households a week were tuning in to these shows. To give a sense of the allure of the Beat Generation, in a short two year span, from 1958 to 1960, three new shows premiered with strong, Beat-inspired characters that were soon drawing a respectable 10 to 12 million households a week.

Cover of 77 Sunset Strip Dell TV Mystery

The first of these shows was 77 Sunset Strip. The star was Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as an ex-government agent from WWII who turns private eye and sets up shop in Los Angeles. To America’s teenagers the show belonged to a new actor, Edd Byrnes, who created a character named “Kookie.” In the pilot episode, Kookie was a wanna-be hitman who was arrested and sent off to prison, but Byrnes had created a character that was so right for the times the producers saw fit to bring him back. At the beginning of the 2nd episode, Zimbalist broke the fourth wall to tell the audience Kookie had become such an overnight sensation, they were tossing out the plot of the pilot episode and bringing Kookie back as a carhop valet parking hepcat who called everyone “Dad.”

Sue Randall and Edd Byrnes (as “Kookie”) in 1964

Indeed Kookie had become a cultural phenomenon. Edd Byrnes had taken it upon himself to constantly comb his hair in almost every scene he was in. Teenage girls swooned over him like they did Elvis, and he even made a top selling song with Connie Stevens called, “Kookie, Kookie Lend me your Comb.” In retrospect, the resemblance of Byrne to Neal Cassady is unmistakable as he parked cars at Dean Martin’s restaurant, Dino’s Lounge, next door to the PI’s office. All in all, 77 Sunset Strip clocked in at 206 one-hour episodes on ABC and set Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. up for his next big series, The FBI.

Dobie Gillis opening

The second show to premiere was a half hour sitcom called The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Although the series premiered in 1959, it was based upon a book of the same name by Max Shulman, published in 1945. Dobie Gillis was played by Dwayne Hickman and it was the first show on television to feature teenagers as the primary characters. Dobie’s best friend was an oddball by the name of Maynard G. Krebs, played by Bob Denver. The “G” stood for Walter because, as Maynard explained, “My mother didn’t spell too good.”

Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs
Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs

Maynard became the quintessential “beatnik” that America came to know. He abhorred work, was always unwashed, sported a goatee, and he went to school wearing a sweatshirt with holes in it. He often carried bongo drums, spouted bad poetry, and spoke in a language his parents couldn’t understand. Maynard and Dobie lived in Central City, USA, a spot somewhere in the Midwest. After five seasons and 147 episodes, Dobie and Maynard moved on, with Bob Denver eventually landing on Gilligan’s Island as the titular character.

The third show of that era with a heavy Beat Generation theme was Route 66. The show starred Martin Milner as Tod Stiles, a clean cut Neal Cassady type, though born into money and privilege. His friend was Buz Murdoch played by George Maharis, and a dead ringer for Jack Kerouac. Instead of driving a ’49 Hudson cross country, these boys were sitting in a 60, 61, 62, 63 Corvette Convertible. Chevrolet was a main sponsor of the series and wanted to be sure to showcase their newest premier sports cars to the first postwar generation with disposable income.

Route 66
George Maharis and Martin Milner as Todd and Buz

Every week, Tod and Buz would find themselves driving in new scenery (they traveled to 40 different states) as restless youth looking for meaning, and finding adventures with a continually changing cast of characters. Jack Kerouac was upset at the violence in the show because he and Neal were not violent men, and biographer Dennis McNally states in Desolate Angel that Jack even considered suing CBS for making a perversion out of On the Road, but lawyers told him there was no way he could win such a case.

By 1963 and 1964, all three of these shows had run their course. America was changing. There were new sounds in music and new looks in fashion. It wouldn’t be long before the leading edge of the Baby Boom turned twenty, and the world came to embrace a new counterculture fueled by drugs and filled with psychedelic images—just in time for color TV!