Season 3, Episode 6
Original Airdate: October 26, 1962
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Director: Robert Gist
Producer: Mort Abrahams, Leo Davis
Cast: Martin Milner, George Maharis, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Lon Chaney Jr.
“Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing” is a fantastic, wrapped present to fans of 1930s and 1940s horror classics. I hesitated for a while to write up an article about this episode because I don’t really think that it fits the definition of “great television” in the way the other shows I have written about here do. The writing here isn’t the best and it’s tonally different than the other “Route 66” installments I’ve seen. But that’s before you insert what I like to call the “awesomeness” factor at play here. I’m just a tad obsessed with those old classic horror movies I mentioned earlier, so to get to see Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr. not only interact with one another, but don some of the most iconic film make-up of all time makes me happy in ways I can’t begin to articulate.
The episode opens with a young boy asleep in his bed when what appears to be a hunchback walks in. Turns out it’s just Lon Chaney Jr. (“The Wolf Man” himself, “The Son of Dracula”) wanting to tuck his grandson in, and he’s wearing his father’s get-up from the silent version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” At this point I checked my DVR to make sure this was really “Route 66” and it told me it was. Then we cut to a three-way phone conversation between Chaney, Peter Lorre (perhaps history’s greatest character actor, but know for golden age of horror roles like “Mad Love”) and (cue the Angel chorus) Boris Karloff (“Frankenstein,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” “The Old Dark House,” “The Black Cat,” “Isle of the Dead” and so many others, but most horrifyingly the “Mr. Wong, Detective” series for Monogram). At this point I figured I must have accidentally DVR’ed the wrong show. This must have been writer Stirling Silliphant’s idea for a tricky, surprising teaser, and fifty years later it still works like a charm. In fact, this type of fake-out teaser has been copied many times since in horror series – just think of the “Humbug” episode of “The X-Files.”
The plotlines for the episode are light as a feather and done with an ample amount of good dialogue. Tod (Martin Milner) and Buzz (George Maharis) get a gig at a fancy hotel outside Chicago. Karloff, Chaney and Lorre (playing themselves) have come to discuss a possible television series they would star in and argue about whether they should stick to the old ways (Universal horror) or go the new route (Hammer horror), and Tod must act as their liaison to the hotel…or something. Buzz is in charge of a women’s lib convention and immediately falls head over heels with one of the secretaries there, who is depressed after her boss left her for his fiancé. Seriously. Though the A and B stories couldn’t seem more dissimilar, Silliphant finds ingenious crossovers between them. To prove the old scares are still viable, Chaney dresses up in Wolf Man garb and causes every woman in sight to faint in horror, and Karloff has a surprisingly sweet scene with the depressed secretary where he gives her love advice.
The real attraction here is getting to see the three legends interact with one another, with “the normal people” and dress up as the old favorites. Also, a quick shout-out to Lorre’s suitcase, which is alligator skin, has an actual alligator head as its handle (I’m not kidding) and almost steals the show. It’s always a thrill to see Karloff play a nice guy since his image is so synonymous with grotesquery, and here, playing a version of himself, he has a surprising amount of comedic timing, landing every punchline thrown at him. Lorre had long perfected his depressed-annoyed persona and seems to be having a horrible (meaning wonderful) time onscreen. Chaney is rarely out of make-up here, but I’m sad to report that when he is, he looks absolutely miserable. He can barely land any line other than grunting and seems to have trouble doing, well, anything. I have no idea whether it was his rumored alcoholism or what, but someone definitely needed to give him a Red Bull or something.
Chaney does do a decent job seeming very tortured while dressed up as the aforementioned Hunchback, the Mummy (though Karloff originated the role, Chaney played it in one of the sequels) and, of course, the Wolf Man. I got goosebumps when I saw Karloff in full-on make-up as Frankenstein’s monster, and how can you not? Since “Mad Love” was an MGM vehicle, Lorre must do his best with an evening jacket and evil glare. What makes it even more exciting is that it is the classic Jack Pierce make-up and not some second-rate knockoff.
It’s odd that I’ve come this far in the article with barely a mention of the two main characters, but they are ancillary to the episode at best. Maharis does a good job at being handsome (harder than it seems, I’m told) and has a neat little bit of physical comedy involving a pool. Milner interacts with the horror stars the most, but does the smartest thing possible here: He gets out of their way. The dialogue between the guys is smooth and well-written, and though they both are excellent actors who showcase their talents in other episodes, this isn’t one of them.
Silliphant was a co-creator of “Route 66” and also a show called “Naked City,” which I’m looking forward to sampling soon. Looking at his IMDB page, the diversity of his work and his output is almost staggering. This man wrote for “The Mickey Mouse Club,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and also penned the features “Village of the Damned” and “The Towering Inferno.” In what universe are those works related? Oh, and he was BFF’s with Bruce Lee! This is a writer I need to know more about, and pronto.
I love road trips. When I moved out to Los Angeles to attend the AFI Conservatory, I decided to try and travel down Route 66. I quickly found out that most of the highway is either very out of shape or just gone now, abandoned or paved over by the freeway. It’s a sad state of affairs when gas station attendants don’t actually know that their station is located on Route 66. And yet that time traveling out west remains one I will always remember fondly. I’ll always wonder what that highway, what that world, was like in its heyday, and feel lucky to get a little picture of what it might have been through this series.