George Maharis, famed for his role in the iconic 1960s American television series Route 66, has passed away at the age of 94. A statement released by his friend and caretaker, Marc Bahan, confirmed that Maharis succumbed to hepatitis at his home in Beverly Hills, according to a report in the LA Times.
Born in Astoria to Greek immigrants as one of seven children and brought up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Maharis carried his charm from his neighborhood streets to the television screen. Unlike his parents, who successfully ran a restaurant, Maharis aspired to be a singer and then an actor, his life echoing the theme of Route 66 – the pursuit of a journey, an escape from the familiar.
The singer-turned-actor found his footing in acting at the renowned Actors Studio in his native neighborhood, training under acclaimed actors Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner. His performances in Edward Albee’s play Zoo Story and the television drama Naked City earned him accolades and paved the way for his role in Route 66.
From the early 1960s on Route 66, Maharis assumed the character of Buz Murdock, “a street-smart heartthrob from Hell’s Kitchen”. This character, together with co-star Martin Milner’s Tod Stiles, a newly penniless young man from a wealthy background, embarked on a cross-country adventure along the iconic highway, a journey that resonated deeply with audiences.
The series stood apart in its time by filming on location, featuring guest appearances from notable actors such as Robert Redford, James Caan, Robert Duvall and Alan Alda. With each episode, the highway – the “Mother Road” as termed by John Steinbeck – transformed into a co-star alongside Maharis and Milner, embodying the spirit of the 20th-century American westward migration. In 1962, Maharis’s performance bagged him an Emmy nomination – and he even managed to get his own Corvette.
Maharis successfully got Chevrolet, the show’s sponsor, to gift him a Corvette. At the time, Maharis didn’t own a car and fancied the luxury of a Corvette. He concocted a story about driving a Ford Thunderbird to the set, saying with a straight face, “We may have a little problem.” In response, the sponsors gave him a sports car.
In 1962, Maharis recorded a cover of Dinah Washington’s hit Teach Me Tonight. The song, included in his album George Maharis Sings! reached No 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 — and was subsequently covered by Amy Winehouse and James Taylor.
He left Route 66 after the third season, and many stories circulated about the reasons — including an illness, the pressures of long days on set, his desire to be in movies and difficulties with management. However, Maharis’ biographer Karen Blocher said that his sexual orientation had been the impetus for his exit. “The producers felt betrayed and duped when they learned of Maharis’s sexual orientation and never trusted him again. In a less homophobic era, they might have communicated better and worked things out,” she said.
In 1974 Maharis made headlines when he was arrested and charged with the commission of a lewd act after being caught having sex with Perfecto Telles, a 33-year old hairdresser, in the men’s room of a Los Angeles gas station. Police said he was booked on a “sex perversion charge” and released on $500 bail. Maharis had previously been arrested in 1967, by a vice officer who said the actor had made a pass at him in the men’s room of a Hollywood restaurant; that charge had been dropped when Maharis pleaded guilty to one count of disturbing the peace and paid a $50 fine.
Maharis’s screen fame was not confined to his role in Route 66. His career also encompassed films such as Quick, Before It Melts, The Satan Bug, Sylvia, A Covenant With Death, The Happening, The Desperados and Land Raiders. His return to television in 1970 saw him play a criminologist in The Most Deadly Game. Latterly, Maharis could be seen on TV series such as Fantasy Island, The Bionic Woman and Murder, She Wrote.
For Maharis, his words in a 2007 interview hold true, “Growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, at least for me, was all about ‘I’m not gonna stay here.’ Life is all about the journey, the going. I had to get out.”
Thanks to Gerard Hayde at DeSoto Council Knights of Columbus for his invaluable help in researching the lead photo for this story.