When Robert Redford Worked at SIFCO

A nine-year-old boy (and future SIFCO Director) meets a future screen legend

Back when television shows were free and filmed in black and white, one of America’s favorite programs was “Route 66,” which was shown Friday evenings on CBS. The hour-long episodes were filmed at locations all over the contiguous United States.

Each week millions of Americans would see what adventures were in store for Tod (Martin Milner) and Buz (George Maharis) as they drove their iconic Chevrolet Corvette across America’s great highway—and sometimes taking detours off of it—in search of adventure.

For one episode in 1961, called “First-Class Mouliak,” the producers of “Route 66” decided to use Cleveland, Ohio, as the setting. They needed a real forge shop where Tod and Buz could work in order to help finance their four-year road trip. They chose SIFCO.

One lucky nine-year-old boy, Hudson Smith, waited, autograph book in hand, hoping to get the signatures of the two stars who defined mid-century American “cool.” The son of SIFCO president C.H. Smith Jr., Hudson wanted autographs, but he also wanted to see what nearly every other kid in 1961 would have loved to see: the red Corvette that Tod and Buz drove across the country.

Robert Redford and Nehemiah Persoff in SIFCO Forging Facility. A scene from "Route 66," Season 2, Episode 5, 1961.

Robert Redford and Nehemiah Persoff in the SIFCO Forging Facility. A scene from “Route 66,” Season 2, Episode 5, 1961.

During its four-year run, “Route 66” featured a who’s-who of established and up-and-coming actors, including a 25-year-old man whose only other role at that time was an angel on “The Twilight Zone.” His name was Robert Redford.

“First Class Muliak” was written by John Vlahos. Vlahos hailed from Springfield, Ohio, and had previously written episodes for “The Alcoa Hour” and “The United States Steel Hour,” so one might wager a guess as to how Vlahos wrote this particular episode of “Route 66” with such accuracy. Like the real SIFCO of 1961, it took place in a tightly knit, Eastern European neighborhood in 1961, where most of the town’s sons, as well as a few daughters, worked at the local steel factory.

While the exterior filming showed Jones & Laughlin steel (now the site of a shopping center named Steelyard Commons, complete with a Wal-Mart), the interiors of the workplace were all shot at Champion Forge, on E. 78th St., which was owned by SIFCO.

In the scenes inside the forge shop, Tod and Buz wore hardhats and carried metal lunch pails. On the way to their workstations, they passed the giant hammers that shaped the red-hot metal. The hammers were pounding so hard and so loud that folks watching might have thought their televisions were shaking. On their breaks, older workers kidded the new guys, as well as one another.

Robert Redford played the son of a hammerman. While the episode was being filmed, the real workers in the forge shop made sure SIFCO was immortalized on the small screen. “If you watch the episode, the factory guys at SIFCO—who must have been extras—got out pencils and drew SIFCO’s diamond S on the machines,” a grown-up Hud Smith observed.

In the story line, Redford’s character, “Janosh,” had been away at medical school, fulfilling the promise his father had made to his late mother: that Janosh would never have to work in the factory, as he did. The drama of the episode had been set up “Romeo and Juliet” style: Janosh ran after his girlfriend, trying to explain that his father would never approve of their marriage. After all, as the daughter of another of Papa’s friends, she wouldn’t be good enough for a doctor’s wife, or so Janosh reasoned. During the pursuit, the girl fell off a cliff and died. The whole community—especially the workers and families of the foundry—banded together in a show of support as they searched for her.

Note the Diamond S (SIFCO Logo) that the SIFCO Employees drew on the die blocks and equipment in the background.

Note the diamond S (SIFCO logo) that the SIFCO employees drew on the die blocks and equipment in the background.

Ultimately, the plot of whether Janosh pushed her was resolved (he didn’t), and Papa and Janosh had a wrenching, heart-to-heart talk.

“Did it ever occur to you that I wanted to stay right here and live on this hill where I belong?” cried Janosh to Papa. “I want to be strong and work with my hands, like you . . . it’s all I ever wanted!” Ultimately, the two men reconciled and faced the future together.

As for the real-life drama of the nine-year-old boy who wanted autographs of the two main stars, Maharis and Milner? He got them, but something else lodged in his memory.

“There was this other young actor, standing off to the side, looking like he wondered why no one wanted an autograph from him,” recalled Hudson Smith. “Years later, I saw the episode on video and I said, ‘Hey, that’s Robert Redford!’”

Hudson made another, understandable mistake back in 1961. Like everyone else in America, the youngster had only seen the show in black and white. “After I got their autographs, I told George Maharis and Martin Milner that I really wanted to see their red Corvette.”

“That’s a shame, kid,” replied Maharis. “The ’Vette is actually blue!”

Credits at the end of the TV program for "Steel Improvement & Forge Company" (SIFCO) but the picture is of J&L Steel.

Credits at the end of the TV program for “Steel Improvement & Forge Company” (SIFCO) but the picture is of J&L Steel.

While “Route 66” ended as a television show in 1964, its portrayal of a “fictional” SIFCO was true to the real company. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and salaried and hourly workers continued to share a place of employment and a piece of the American Dream.

And the young actor, Robert Redford, never did get a job at SIFCO, as his character Janosh had wanted. But he didn’t do too badly at all.