Monday, July 10, 2006

Fairness to George, Part One

I've told parts of this story before, but bear with me.

Back in 1985 and 1986, Nickelodeon's new adult programming block, Nick at Nite, primarily aired black and white television shows from 20 to 25 years earlier. I still remember most of the lyrics they came up with for the My Three Sons theme on one of the promos:

They've got a dad
His name is Steve
He's got a job
He's really tall

And then there's Bud
He makes some food
They've got a dog
They're My Three Sons (on Nick at Nite!)

One of the shows Nick at Nite aired during that era was Route 66, a 1960-1964 series about two guys and a car, wandering the country together. John and I were much impressed with the writing on the show, so much so that we started taping it.

In early 1986, when John came into some money, we put our stuff in storage, bought a van, put a bed in the back of it, and started driving around the country ourselves. Partly we were looking "for someplace it isn't winter," but one of the goals was for me to write a book about Route 66, both the road and the tv series. Before the year was out, we drove on or near much of the decommissioned "Mother Road," talked to people from small towns and roadside businesses, and interviewed all three actors and both executive producers from the show. At least two other people were writing books about the road and the time, but we thought we had the angle to make ours unique, namely the tv show.

Then Route 66 was taken off Nick at Night, we switched from a Commodore 64 (whose oversized floppies have the only copies of most of my notes, even today) to a Mac SE, and I went out and got a job renting out videos. I abandoned the project.

One of the reasons I didn't try to finish the book was that I was having a moral quandary over it. When we interviewed George Maharis at a Denny's in Las Vegas, he spent much of the interview explaining vehemently that he left Route 66 for health reasons. In 1962 he came down with infectious hepatitis and was hospitalized. On this everyone agrees, but what happened next remains in dispute. According to Maharis, he came back to work, expecting a lighter shooting schedule because of his health. What he got was a relapse due to 15-hour days in often grueling conditions, including hours spent shooting a rescue scene in an unheated pool in winter, and another winter episode in which he spent many hours standing in cold water off Catalina Island. Finally his doctor told him to get out of there, or risk ruining his health for life. Convinced that the producers were never going to give him what he needed, George quit.

That's the Maharis version. The Herbert B Leonard version of the story was very different, but just as bitter and just as vehement. Leonard was the show's executive producer. He thought he'd hired a young hunk for the show, a hip, sexy man and good actor that all the girls would go for. 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. Leonard told us that they sometimes had trouble keeping Maharis's sexual activities from the press. Meanwhile, according to Leonard, Maharis decided he was too big a star for tv, and to use illness as a pretext to break his contract and go make movies. Writer-producer Stirling Silliphant pretty much agreed with this assessment, as did the show's other star, Martin Milner, when I finally asked him about it in a follow-up letter. (Milner actually said very little in his low-key response. I think it was about one sentence in his one-page letter back to me.)

Myself, I believed George, at least 90%. I still do. Oh, he may well have gotten in trouble at times over his sexual orientation, in an era when practically all gay actors were very much in the closet. He probably also had some star moments in which he behaved badly. I've read some of the harsh things he said at the time. But I've also seen the old articles about what happened. He was hospitalized at least once, and had at least one relapse, and reportedly did work long hours in punishing conditions. I specifically remember the "trapped in the water off Catalina" episode and the "rescue a wheelchair-bound vet from a swimming pool" episode. The facts seem to be on George's side.

Here's what I think happened. The producers felt betrayed and duped when they learned of Maharis's sexual orientation, and never trusted him again. Maharis, for his part, started to feel that he was carrying the show and going unappreciated. So when he got sick, and came back, and started griping about the working conditions, the producers assumed it was all a ploy to either get more money or else get out of his contract and go make movies. In a less homophobic era, they might have communicated better, and worked things out instead of letting each other down.

But in 1986, I didn't want to write about controversy, or to "out" George Maharis, not that it was much of a secret by then. (During his dinner theater performance of a bedroom farce in 1986, we kept hearing a little old lady heckling him about this.) I just wanted to write a nice book about a great show and the road that inspired it.

Fast forward 20 years. George Maharis gets a Wikipedia entry. The initial version is three paragraphs long. The gist of it: George Maharis came from a big family, appeared on important early anthology shows, appeared on Route 66 alongside legendary actors, left the show for no good reason, was arrested a couple of times on indecency charges, and is also an impressionist painter. The next person to edit it added a picture of Maharis from Playgirl magazine. Yup, his bad boy image had entered a new century. This time it was a gay bad boy image, but it was no more fair or complete a picture of George Maharis than reports from 1963 or 1986.

But this time, I was determined to rectify the problem - within the bounds of NPOV, of course.

To be continued.

Continued here: Fairness to George, Part Two


DesLily said...

interesting Karen... hmmm
I'm beginning to get the feeling that you should send a resume to Wikipedia and get paid for all your work!!

Becky said...

You've missing a calling somewhere, my dear. You should have a job as a fact checker or research somethingorother. ;-)

alphawoman said...

Loved Route 66 too!! But we were not allowed to watch it very often. Loved Cookie!! Beginning of my fasination with blondes?

Billy said...

George Maharis is awesome! My mother was the "big" fan of George. When I was young my mother would continue to follow his career and watch him in plays in Chicago. She's always write to George and he'd call her back stage to visit. Finally when I was about 7, my mom took me with her and my dad. I watched him in Boing Boing Boing. After the play he invited us back stage, and I got to sit on his lap and visit. I wish I could get a hold of him now. I still have the photo. I still have all the memories of my mom's stories. He is such an awesome person. I wish now as an adult I could talk with him. He's 79 and I'm 37, oh how I'd like to just visit.

lilyfur said...

I have loved George Maharis forever.
It never matter to me that he was gay. He still is an awesome actor. I have a scrapbook of him that I made from the early 60's. Dear George, If you are ever in Bayou Blue, I'll make you some Gumbo!..Love, Joanie Boudreaux (

John Flores said...

A few years ago, here in Albuquerque, the great early 60s TV series "Route 66" began showing up on our TV schedule. I hadn't seen an episode since I was too young to appreciate the quality of the show--especially the writing and the chemistry between Martin Milner's "Tod Stiles" and George Maharis' "Buz Murdoch". They were often great together as two emotionally charged and physically adventurous young American men travelled the Mother Road in search of themselves. I wrote to Maharis, and he started writing me back. We corresponded several times but he lost a brother and sister, and is very down about it--totally understandably. He's in his late 80s now. But to me, George Maharis will always be that guy--Buz Murdoch--that made "Route 66" the top shelf adventure series of all-time. Sad that Milner died, and when George goes, it'll be different watching the show. But it really is a great series. Always will be.