George Maharis recalls his wild ride on Route 66

Maharis (left) and Milner in that classic Corvette

George Maharis rode Route 66 in search of fame and fortune. Instead it led straight to hell.
I spoke with Maharis last week on the phone as he made himself available to promote the release of Route 66: The Complete Series, a 24 disc boxed set from Shout! Factory. I have a story about it here and in Saturday’s Toronto Star.
The Los Angeles-based actor, long retired from show business at 84, spoke candidly about his days on the black and white CBS anthology series, which ran from 1960 to ’64.
Maharis admits he was a virtual unknown before Route 66 began. “Marty [co-star Martin Milner, who had top billing] was much more established than I was. He started in movies as a child. I was fresh off Broadway.”
He was spotted in a play by producers Herbert B. Leonard and writer/producer Sterling Silliphant and was cast as an occasional guest star on their previous series, Naked City.
The word on Maharis has always been that he became a handful, that somewhere on the road to Detroit or Cleveland or Chicago or Buffalo or Miami or to any of the 40 States Route 66 traveled he went all Hollywood. The truth is Maharis contracted hepatitis during the second season and could no longer cope with the grueling road schedule. He took time off under doctors orders, ventured back for part of the third season but finally decided the series just wasn’t worth putting his life at risk. He could always get another show, he figured. Another kidney, not so easy.

As we spoke, he did not get specific about his reputation during the series, but hinted that he did get sucked into the fame game. “I guess the best way to put it is, when you’re an young actor, you’re flying a Piper Cub, and all of a sudden they stick you in the cockpit of a 747 jet. You really can get killed quick because, all of a sudden, you’re in the fast lane.”
Maharis felt the producers never had his back when he got sick. “The mistake I made,” he says, “is that when you’re dealing with people on a higher level, you assume they are more honorable and trustworthy. I made the mistake of thinking that, as you went up the ladder, the morality got better.”
Stories spread that Maharis wanted out of the series to make movies. The head of CBS at the time, James Aubrey, told producer Leonard that Maharis was vital to the series and had to return. Maharis says he rushed back and had a relapse in St. Louis “and the doctors told me to go home or you’ll be dead.”
There were lawsuits and a settlement out of court. Route 66 was renewed for a fourth season with Glenn Corbett suddenly in the passenger seat next to Milner but it wasn’t the same. Ratings dropped without Maharis and the series ended.
Recently released medical documents from the time seem to vindicate Maharis’s version of events. “The culprit in all of this wasn’t ‘Bert, wasn’t Sterling, wasn’t James Aubrey, wasn’t George Maharis, it was hepatitis,” he says. “That changed everything.”
The chemistry between Maharis and Milner works on the series because they are so opposite. Maharis’ Buz was the edgier guy, the roughneck from the streets of New York. Milner’s Tod was the college kid driving his dad’s cool car.
The series is fascinating today as a moving social history of the United States. A true anthology, every episode is set in a different city with different guest stars, including up and comers Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Gene Hackman, James Caan and Martin Sheen. But it is the train stations, hotels and downtown street scenes that add a lost America, documentary feel to the series. It is a portrait of Mad Men America at mid-century, a cruise Don Draper could have made with Roger Sterling.

The ‘Vette, upgraded every season by GM, was the real star

Maharis did have some fun shooting Route 66. He says meeting movie legends such as Buster Keaton, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr., was a kick–although he was shocked at the language Lorre used on the set. “He swore up and down the line and the language that he used!” recalls Maharis. “I would never have suspected that.”
Karloff, Lorre and Chaney appeared together in ther third season episode “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing.” Chaney really hams it up in full Wolfman gear. The appearance marked the last time Karloff wore his old Frankenstein’s monster makeup.
A fourth season episode, with Corbett not Maharis, was shot in Toronto and provides a fascinating glimpses at the city in 1963. More about that in today’s Toronto Star story.
Maharis had an older brother, Harold, practically a twin, who worked on the show behind the camera. Sometimes Harold would drive the Corvette to and from location shoots when the actors flew on ahead to do publicity work. Recalls Maharis, “He’d stop off someplace to eat, get the bill and the cashier would say, ‘That’s okay Mr. Maharis, it’s on the house.’ By the time I got to town there was nothing left!”
When George would confront Harold about it, the brother would say, “Well, I am Mr. Maharis…”

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26 Responses to “George Maharis recalls his wild ride on Route 66”

  1. I loved the show when it ran originally and knew that when Maharis left, the popularity would wane and it did. The show was ahead of its time. Another show that was similar was “Then Came Bronsen” but the series was short lived, and I don’t know why, but always looked forward to seeing it. It starred Michael Parks and he traveled from town to town on a motorcycle and helped people along the way. Vinnie

    Reply
    • Joel Oberstone

      Vinnie, you are correct! What a great memory. Michael Parks was kind of a James Dean redux. Very cool character at the time. Did not seem to get many good parts after that series. Mostly as heavies. Thanks for the recall.

      Reply
  2. I remember watching Route 66 as a kid growing up in the early 60’s. I always thought how neat it would be to drive around the country in a Corvette and living all the adventures that Tod and Buz did. The show also made me want a Corvette someday….now I have one. I actually have the Route 66 theme song, done by Nelson Riddle, as the ring tone on my iPhone. It was a great show, and now I have the complete set of all four seasons, so I can watch whenever I want to.

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  3. Gracesm

    I’m so fascinated w/ the stories and excellent scripts. Route 66 is truly ahead of its time. I loved tod and buz, real best friend relationship!!

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  4. cyber

    I enjoy the show. I wish that I could have met and talked to George Maharis. I showed up at the Hillsdale Mall in San Mateo in 1963, but there were “too many” excited girls. George looked worried and left.

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  5. Does anyone know what happened to their corvette? I’m sure today its worth a fortune?

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  6. George Maharis is a National Treasure and America needed more of him. God bless you, Mr. Maharis, and I’m glad He gave you to us!

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  7. Sorry, Mr Brioux, but hepatitis = liver, not kidney. I’m a nurse, and that’s my OCD kicking in.
    On a lighter note, I have really enjoyed this article! Loved George Maharis! Thanks!

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  8. Tomy Sontag

    Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver often caused by a viral infection. Hepatic refers to liver; renal to kidney. Maharis said that even with millions in the bank, he couldn’t buy another liver. Those were the days before liver transplants, but still. We have two kidneys, but only one liver.

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  9. I started my TV career at Associated Rediffusion TV in London. We used to see Route 66 on the big preview screen & I adored it.
    Years later I spent fifteen months in America for the BBC as film cameraman & saw every State but six & loved that too.

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  10. Tony Brookes

    I rode Route 66 on a Harley in 2005 – the most exciting trip ever. It drew me to the TV series & I got the box set. It’s totally brilliant. America as it was when I was growing up in England – a unique glimps. Episodes are perfect for early morning when you can’t sleep. A true classic.

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  11. John H.Caydler

    I still enjoy watching the re-runs on my local station.Brings back many memories from 1965. I drove 66 on my way to Los Alamitos California. This was my first duty station with the Navy.

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  12. James California

    Damn good actor. When ‘Route 66’ lost George – they lost the show. Milner could never had made it without Maharis .

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  13. susan kuhlmann

    When I was at that significant junior high age, I totally fell in love with the series. I think my family kinda worried about how obsessed I became with it. My week revolved around the 7:30 to 8:30 hour Friday nights on CBS. It is one of my best memoires of growing up.
    Thanks for the article. Mr. Maharis, you are incredible. I hope you are healthy and happy.

    Reply
  14. John Phillips

    I’m 68 now and I had watched almost every episode of Rt.66 when it first came out till it ended with Maharis. Thinking about it now brings back nostalgia of those years when I was much younger and full of dreams. And to this day the theme score still haunts me. I Missed Marty Milner, God rest his soul. And both he and George Maharis will always be in my memory of a time long past.

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  15. ted palmer

    Memories of the series helped get me through the nights in NAM and I now watch the re-runs on a daily basis. George was truly an inspiration in my life and truly “the STAR” of the series. I wish him the best and thank him for his efforts in the entertainment business.

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  16. Great show with Marty and George. They are the reason I bought a corvette and traveled the country. Thanks

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  17. Marilyn Willis

    My sister Carolyn and friend Sue and I knocked on his hotel door at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis one night. They were filming in St. Louis and we wanted to meet. He opened the door and to our surprise, he invited us in. We sat and talked for what seemed like hours. He shared stories about the show and a little about his health. He was warm and we felt like old friends when we left. Before he left town we went to say goodbye and brought him a sweater. We have always remembered those visits with this truly remarkable man. We wish him all the best.

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  18. Carl Kofron

    I too watched Route 66 from beginning to end and have the DVD’s also but what is interesting is that I met Georges younger brother Paul and we used to drag race on Francis Lewis Blvd. in Queens, when their mother lived there .Good show ,a real classic today,and God bless George ,stay well.

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  19. Rick Du Bose

    I really loved this show. We traveled the actual length of Rout 66 twice when my Dad was in the US. Marine Corps. And that Nelson Riddle theme. Loved the Buz character and he was a good screen fighter as well! Have the whole series on DVD now..

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  20. Dan Surber

    I lived in Maryland in the 60`s I remember one day a blue 1960 Corvette came into the Trailer park where I lived , Looked just like the rt66 Vette, I walked up to the car & touched the tail light lens, a voice came out of an apt building , ” GET AWAY FROM THAT CAR ” lol I loved the show always wanted a Corvette I finally got an older one a few years ago , Maharris was the right combination with Milner , Sad it had to end , A fellow musician Bob Macky,`s father`s store was use in the first show of rt66 Black November in Corban KY. The small village is still there look it up on Google earth Thank Loved the interview

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  21. John Robertson

    I met George Maharis at my cousin’s wedding in 1998. My Mom introduced me and I didn’t recognize him with a beard. We were in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Sat at the same table. I had forgotten about the series but we talked a bit about it remembering the one filmed at the VA in Long Beach. I drove thru there recently and it doesn’t look the same. George was a very kind person and was interested in my AF service. We parted and I said, “thanks for the good times”.

    Reply

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