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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

George Maharis, TV heartthrob of ‘Route 66,’ is dead at 94

George Maharis, left, as Buz Murdock and Martin Milner as Tod Stiles in 1960 with their Corvette from the television show “Route 66.” Mr. Maharis received an Emmy Award nomination in 1962 for his work on the show.

By Anita Gates and Alex Traub

George Maharis, the ruggedly handsome New York-born stage actor who went on to become a 1960s television heartthrob as a star of the series “Route 66,” died Wednesday at at his home in Beverly Hills, California. He was 94.

His longtime friend and caretaker, Marc Bahan, confirmed his death.

Maharis’ greatest fame arose from the role of Buz Murdock, one of two young men who traveled the country in a Corvette convertible, finding a new adventure and drama (and usually a new young woman) each week on CBS’ “Route 66.”

In a 2012 reappraisal of the show, New York Times critic and reporter Neil Genzlinger praised the literary quality of the scripts and commented, “This half-century-old black-and-white television series tackled issues that seem very 21st century.”

Several actors who went on to greater renown appeared on the show, including Martin Sheen, Robert Redford, Robert Duvall and Barbara Eden.

“Route 66” began in 1960, and Maharis left the show in 1963. His co-star, Martin Milner, got a new partner, played by Glenn Corbett, and the series continued for one more season.

Maharis attributed his departure to health reasons (he was suffering from hepatitis), but Karen Blocher, an author and blogger who interviewed Maharis and other principal figures on the show, wrote in 2006 that the story was more complex.

Herbert B. Leonard, the show’s executive producer, “thought he’d hired a young hunk for the show, a hip, sexy man and good actor that all the girls would go for,” Blocher wrote. “This was all true of Maharis, but not the whole story, as Leonard discovered to his anger and dismay. George was gay, it turned out.”

Blocher attributed Maharis’ departure to a number of factors. “The producers felt betrayed and duped when they learned of Maharis’ sexual orientation, and never trusted him again,” she wrote, adding, “Maharis, for his part, started to feel that he was carrying the show and going unappreciated.”

Maharis was arrested in 1967 on charges of “lewd conduct” and in 1974 on charges of “sex perversion” for cruising in men’s bathrooms.

He did not discuss his sexuality in interviews, but he proudly described being the July 1973 nude centerfold in Playgirl magazine to Esquire in 2017.

“A lot of guys came up to me,” he said, “and asked me to sign it for their ‘wives.’”

Maharis had done well-received work in theater before becoming a television star. In 1958 he played a killer in an off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s “Deathwatch.” Writing in the Times, Louis Calta described Maharis’ performance as “correctly volatile, harsh, soft and cunning.”

Two years later, Maharis appeared in Edward Albee’s “Zoo Story” in its off-Broadway production at the Provincetown Playhouse. That year he was one of 12 young actors given the Theater World Award. The other winners included Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Patty Duke and Carol Burnett. In 1962, he received an Emmy Award nomination for his work on “Route 66.”

In 1963, Maharis told a writer for the Times that he treated the TV series like a job in summer stock theater.

“The series taught me how to maintain my integrity and not be sucked in by compromise,” he said.

George Maharis was born in the Astoria section of the Queens borough of New York City on Sept. 1, 1928, the son of a Greek restaurateur. He attended Flushing High School and later served in the Marines.

Before succeeding as an actor, he told interviewers, he had worked as a mechanic, a dance instructor and a short-order cook. But he had aspired to a singing career first, and after he became a television star he recorded albums including “George Maharis Sings!,” “Portrait in Music” and “Just Turn Me Loose!” At least one single, “Teach Me Tonight,” became a hit.

After leaving “Route 66,” Maharis appeared in feature films including “Sylvia,” with Carroll Baker, and “The Satan Bug,” a science-fiction drama (both 1965). He tried series television again in 1970 as the star of an ABC whodunit “The Most Deadly Game,” with Ralph Bellamy and Yvette Mimieux, but the show lasted only three months.

In the 1970s and early ’80s, he made guest appearances on other television series, including “Police Story,” “The Bionic Woman” and “Fantasy Island.” He did occasional television films, including a poorly reviewed 1976 “Rosemary’s Baby” sequel. He worked infrequently in the 1980s and made his final screen appearance in a supporting role in “Doppelganger,” a 1993 horror film starring Drew Barrymore.

Information about his survivors was not immediately available.

Because of his filming schedule when the shows aired, Maharis did not have a chance to watch “Route 66” until it was rereleased on DVD in 2007, he told the website Route 66 News that year.

“I was really surprised how strong they were,” he said. “For the first time, I could see what other people had seen.”

In an interview the same year with the Chicago Sun-Times, he reflected on his “Route 66” days and on how the country had changed since then. “You could go from one town to the next, maybe 80 miles away, and it was a totally different world,” he said. “Now you can go 3,000 miles and one town is the same as the next.”

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