September 1, 1928– George Maharis:
“One unique aspect about Route 66 was it was shot on location all over America. Nobody else ever did that, to my knowledge. We worked six days a week, sometimes seven, because we were always behind schedule. You got up at 5 in the morning and you get back to your motel at 7 or 9 at night, sometimes even later. And when we’d move the company from one location to another, sometimes we’d lose two or three days of shooting.”
On this very date, September 1, in 1974, I was present at an all-male, coke-fueled party in the Hollywood Hills. I was an invited guest of the host, a noted theatre and film producer, and hand selected, so to speak, to be the date for a certain Oscar winning, non-closeted screenwriter. The party was in honor of the birthday of hunky actor George Maharis, who in mid-40s was still the best-looking and sexiest man in a room of 50+ good-looking, sexy men.
Maharis was certainly friendly enough, but he was ‘hands-off” to me. I could not stop gaping and gasping at his strong sexual allure and perfect body, as he moved through the house and pool area accepting best wishes, wearing the tightest of pants and a shirt open to the navel. Maharis had just posed nude for Playgirl Magazine a few months before and having seen the whole package in print, I was finding myself a bit dizzy at seeing him in the flesh.
A few months after the party, Maharis was arrested and charged with committing a sex act with a male hairdresser in the restroom of a gas station in LA. Maharis was booked on a sex perversion charge and released on $500 bail. Six years earlier, he had been arrested by a vice squad officer for lewd conduct for an incident in the restroom of a Hollywood restaurant; the officer claimed Maharis made a pass at him.
I was well acquainted with his acting from my father’s favorite television show, Route 66 (1960-64), a series so filled with hot cars and hot bods that I watched riveted, one of the few shows that my father and I shared. I usually joined my mother for Peyton Place (1963-66) or any of the variety shows. On Route 66, Maharis played dangerous, hot headed- Buz Murdock, and the show reeked of the rebelliousness and restlessness of youth in the 1960s. I tried not to show my excitement when watching it with my father.
Route 66 was about a pair guys and a Corvette who roamed the country together, often dressed in coats and ties for no apparent reason. Buz’s buddy Tad was played by an equally hot, blond Martin Millner. Maharis received an Emmy nomination for this role in 1962.
Contrary to popular belief, the Corvette convertible the characters drove for the existential B&W series was not red, blue or white, but brown, so that it photographed better.
The series featured an amazing array of hundreds of cool guest actors, including from The Golden Age: Sylvia Sidney, Buster Keaton, Joan Crawford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Rin Tin Tin, and newcomers Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, William Shatner, and little Ronnie Howard. Julie Newmar was especially memorable as a motorcycle riding free-spirit, a role she reprised in another episode. Ethel Waters guest-starred in a 1962 episode and was nominated for an Emmy Award, the first ever Emmy nomination for an African-American female.
Route 66 also boasted a silky cool jazzy theme song from Nelson Riddle that was a big hit on the pop charts.
An unusual element of the show was that it featured a sort of Shakespearean soaring dialog using free-verse poetry. Take this one from season one, episode four, The Man On The Monkey Board:
“Tod, I hope you live a long life and never know the blistering forces that sear and destroy, turn men into enemies and sweep past the last frontiers of compassion. Once you’ve seen that dark, unceasing tide of faces of the victims, the last spark of dignity so obliterated that not one face is lifted to heaven, not one voice is raised in protest even as they died…”
Route 66 made an imprint on American Pop Culture, however, Maharis left the wildly popular show before it ended its run. Glenn Corbett finished the season as Tod’s new buddy, Linc Case. The series lasted only one more season with the new combination. There has been much speculation as to why Maharis was gone from the series. Rumors were rampart that Maharis had left the series over a salary dispute, that he was difficult, or that he and Milner were having problems getting along.
Maharis now says the he had contracted hepatitis in 1962 and that the long shoots were so grueling that to continue would risk his health. He asked the producers to give him a less arduous schedule, but they refused.
But, others in the know claim that Route 66 producer Herbert B. Leonard discovered that Maharis was gay and was having a hard time keeping his star’s sexual activities away from the press. Leonard and Milner also claimed that Maharis used his illness as an excuse to break his contract so that he could break into movies.
Maharis eventually did break into movies, mostly forgettable B-films. He also worked on stage and had a nightclub act, but nothing ever matched his success as Buz on Route 66, and the series never recovered from his departure.
Maharis also had a recording career, releasing seven albums between 1962 and 1966. He regularly appeared in Las Vegas in the 1970s and 1980s.
Maharis left acting in 1993 and is now an impressionist painter with gallery shows on both coasts. The still trim, talented and handsome, he is single and lives in both LA and NYC. I really desired him on that Sunday afternoon, 40 years ago, but maybe I still have a chance with him.
This 1973 photograph is by Ken Duncan, torn from my much treasured After Dark Magazine, it was on four different fridges in four different apartments, until it yellowed and turned brittle, like me.