Early in a phone interview with “Route 66” television series co-star George Maharis, I acknowledged to him that I had never seen episodes of the early 1960s drama until I received an advance copy of the upcoming re-release on DVD.
Maharis made a startling admission: Neither had he.
“It was the first time I’d seen them in 47 years,” he said.
Maharis explained that “Route 66” aired Friday nights, when he and co-star Martin Milner were still busy on the set. He’d never seen the TV show he starred in until Kirk Hallam, president of Roxbury Entertainment and producer of the DVD re-release, gave him a compilation of the best “Route 66” episodes several weeks ago.
“They still work,” Maharis said. “I was really surprised how strong they were. I enjoyed watching them, and for the first time, I could see what other people had seen. I was so far removed from it after 47 years that I could see it very, very clearly.
“And, of course, I kept saying, ‘Who’s the dark guy?'” he chuckled, referring to himself on the show. “You just don’t relate to that far back.”
Maharis, now 79, has been retired for nearly 15 years. He spends time at his homes in Beverly Hills, Calif., and New York City overseeing his investments or creating impressionistic oil paintings — many which can be seen at the Elizabeth Collection in Rochester, N.Y. He says he’s in good health, and his quick and clear answers provide no reason to doubt that. His voice, containing a soft New York accent, has deepened with age but remains recognizable.
Maharis’ career totals more than 70 film and television credits. But it’s his “Route 66” role as Buz Murdock, a street-smart heartthrob from Hell’s Kitchen, that earned him an Emmy nomination and his most enduring fame. Murdock and Tod Stiles (played by Milner) drifted from town to town in a Chevrolet Corvette convertible, looking for adventure. The show aired on CBS from 1960 to 1964 and inspired at least two generations to travel the real Route 66.
One unique aspect about “Route 66” was it was shot on location all over America.
“Nobody else ever did that, to my knowledge,” Maharis said. “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.”
Scripts often didn’t arrive until the day before a shoot. Occasionally, production on a “Route 66” episode would begin with only half a script, with the remainder arriving later in the week. Directors and actors often were on the phone with producers in California, working out story problems as they arose.
He admitted that such conditions were exhausting, but exhilarating.
“It was kind of like a challenge, and I always did like challenges,” he said. “I always did like things that seemed impossible to do. In those days, we did 32 to 35 shows a year. Now, they do 20 to 22, at most.”
During one shoot in Grand Isle, La., Maharis, Milner and two other crew members rented a house to sleep in because the town had no motels. One morning, they found there was no water in the house for showers.
“I went to the guy who owned the house and said there’s no water,” Maharis recalled.
“He said, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’
“He said, ‘When it rains, it goes off the roof and goes into that barrel. That’s when you get the water.’
“It was very, very interesting,” Maharis continued, “because no matter where you went, every town had its own personality. It was totally different from the other town you went to, even if it was only 50 to 60 miles away. That’s not true anymore. You can go a thousand miles now, and everyone’s wearing the same clothes, singing the same songs, eating the same food.”
Maharis revealed a few interesting tidbits about the show:
- The original title was “The Searchers,” and it was going to be a half-hour.
- It was going to star him and Bobby Morris. But before “Route 66” began production, Morris died. “From the way I got it, he was in his girlfriend’s apartment, had an epileptic fit, and he died,” Maharis said.
- The name of Morris’ character was Linc. When Glenn Corbett replaced Maharis late in “Route 66’s” run, his character’s name was Linc.
- Many viewers thought the color of the Corvette was red, even though “Route 66” was shot in black-and-white. Maharis said in part of the first season, the Corvette was light blue. “But … the cameraman said, ‘It reflects too much light. He had trouble lighting us against the sky because the light blue was reflecting too much light. So, toward the end of the year, they gave us a brown one.”
- Milner wasn’t the trim-looking fellow you saw on “Route 66” when he was initially cast. “When they found Marty, he was about 40 pounds heavier, and they told him he had to lose weight. I think he gained some of it back after the show. But he was very good about holding the weight down during the show’s run.”
- Maharis acquired a Corvette himself. Putting on his best poker face, he told “Route 66” sponsor Chevrolet that “we may have a little problem” because he had a Ford Thunderbird he would be driving to the set. Chevrolet quickly gave Maharis a Corvette. Of course, there was no problem, because “I didn’t have a car” at the time, Maharis said.
- Maharis confirmed that his Buz character was inspired by his background, fleshed out by “Route 66” screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. “He wrote a lot of the character from the conversations we had. Marty … came from more of upper-middle-class family. I came from more of a street background.”
- Between “Route 66” shoots, Maharis flew to New York City for a four-hour session to record his first album. Months later, while in the hospital recovering from hepatitis, he learned the album had been released while watching “American Bandstand” on television and seeing host Dick Clark announce Maharis’ first single, “Teach Me Tonight.”
A few tabloids reported that Maharis and Milner clashed on the set because of their contrasting personalities.
“Not true,” Maharis said. “We got along very well. We’re different; that’s very true. But we never had any problem. You could see on the screen there was no problem. We were opposites in many ways, but there was respect for each other.”
Maharis said his favorite episodes included “Birdcage on My Foot,” where Buz admits he was a former drug addict. He also cited “A Thin White Line,” in which Tod was given an LSD-like drug at a party.
One episode that stood out for Maharis was “Even Stones Have Eyes,” where Buz is temporarily blinded in an accident. For that shoot, Maharis wore special contact lenses that reduced his vision.
“I had the contact lenses made because it’s tough to fake blindness in such a short time,” he explained. “We didn’t have enough time (in the production schedule) to do it. So I figured the best thing to do was have a pair of lenses put into my eyes so you don’t have to fake it. I went to (a doctor) and said, ‘I want contact lenses that are opaque. I need to see something, but not a lot.'”
Maharis credited the show’s quality to executive producer Herbert B. Leonard and Silliphant. “Stirling was a very talented writer,” he said. “In many cases, if you had to cut a scene, it wasn’t a problem because there was a lot of meat left.”
As for why he left “Route 66,” Maharis emphatically said it wasn’t because of demands for more money, or that he was trying to break his contract so he could get into movies. It was, he said, because of hepatitis problems starting in 1962.
Maharis was hospitalized for a month and missed several episodes because of the disease. He returned to the set and its 12- to 15-hour days. A few weeks after a grueling scene where he rescued a woman from a near-freezing creek, Maharis suffered a relapse.
“The doctor said, ‘If you don’t get out now, you’re either going to be dead, or you’re going to have permanent liver damage,'” Maharis recalled.
“I wasn’t interested in leaving the show. I enjoyed it; I was having a good time. It probably could have gone two or three more years, and I think they even had plans of taking the show to Europe. That’s what they talked about, anyway, and I would have looked forward to that.
“I was trying to recuperate, and there was all the crap going on about how I wanted more money. It was all garbage. Some people even tried to make it like I never had hepatitis at all. But it’s all in the doctor’s reports.
“I was just ill. It took me 2 1/2, three years to recuperate before I started working again. What should have happened, I guess, was that I should have worked only a couple of hours a day.”
Watching the compilation of “Route 66,” Maharis saw a couple of episodes co-starring Corbett, his replacement. Those episodes confirmed to him what others had long reported — that the chemistry had suffered.
“Glenn was more like Marty than he was like me,” Maharis said. “There wasn’t that balance there. There were no opposites, so to speak.”
Maharis said he was unaware of “Route 66’s” impact on Mother Road tourism. But he was well aware of the real Route 66, even though the show rarely took place on it.
“It’s a great old road,” he said. “It’s too bad what (the interstates) did to it. But now they realize the impact that it’s had, and they’re trying to preserve it now. That’s good; it’s part of our history.”
Maharis was asked whether he’d would make an appearance at one of the Route 66 festivals, if asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I would have 10, 15 years ago. But I’ve just entered my 80th year. I don’t know if people want to say, ‘Oh … he’s an old guy.’ I’ve gotten very shy about that.
“But you can keep trying.”
UPDATE: You can can order all four seasons of “Route 66” on DVD from Shout! Factory: