Back in July I promised to write more about George Maharis, the Route 66 star whose departure from the show remains somewhat controversial, some 43 years later. My original entry gives the background about our research for a Route 66 book (which I never wrote), the interviews we did, what I think really happened in 1963 and why I didn't write about it back in 1986. The short version: Maharis insists that he left the show for his health after being hospitalized twice with hepatitis. Executive producer Herbert B Leonard insisted it was a ploy to break his contract and go make movies, and furthermore brought up Maharis's homosexuality and alleged indiscretions, apparently to show that the actor couldn't be trusted. I shied away from the whole issue, and didn't even ask Maharis's co-star, Martin Milner, for his opinion until later.
Personally, I think George Maharis was legitimately concerned that his health was suffering, due to the punishing working conditions he was expected to put up with when he returned to work. He was very angry about it, and did not handle the situation with tact or discretion. The producers were ticked off: he was badmouthing the show and costing them money, just another star behaving badly. I doubt that they ever seriously considered the possibility that George was telling the truth, and that 15 hour days and shooting for hours in winter-cold water really was too much to ask of a guy with hepatitis. Actors who gripe in public are typically assumed to be spoiled and greedy, and Leonard didn't trust Maharis anyway after learning that the handsome young star was not the All-American heterosexual hearthrob the producer thought he'd hired. Aside from offering more money, which they assumed was the real issue behind the histrionics, the producers made no attempt to address Maharis's concerns, so he left the show. It's a tragedy in the classical sense, with hubris and a fatal flaw leading to the star's downfall. Maharis never regained the popularity he had for the first year and a half of his Route 66 tenure.
So George Maharis left Route 66 under a cloud, and with a bad boy image that did not yet have a sexuality component to it. Back in 1963, nobody was talking about which stars were gay, much less attaching a mystique to them as tragic heroes. But Maharis was reportedly arrested in 1967 and 1974 for "lewd conduct" involving men, and in 1973 he posed for Playgirl Magazine. As the LGBT subculture became less underground, these incidents gave the actor a cachet that presumably made him a more interesting and sympathetic figure for some people. He was no longer merely an actor who behaved badly and was struck down. Now he was a tragic, misunderstood artist, a bad boy who came into conflict with straight culture and suffered because of it.
Here we are, then, with multiple versions of the George Maharis story, and multiple perceptions of who he was and is, depending on who is telling the story. Frankly, none of these renditions, including mine, do the man justice. He's not merely an actor who misbehaved, nor the victim of circumstance, nor a gay icon. Well, okay, yeah, he's all of the above, but none of those descriptions provide a complete or accurate picture of him.
So when I first saw the George Maharis article on Wikipedia, I was less than pleased. From an old version of the article:
...the show's appeal declined when Maharis departed after his third year on the series, reportedly due to conflicts between him and Milner over acting styles. Glenn Corbett stepped in as Milner's new sidekick on the road, but a mere year later, in September 1964, Route 66 was cancelled.
For Maharis, a string of film failures followed, including "Quick Before It Melts" (1964), "Sylvia" (1965), "A Covenant with Death" (1967), "The Happening" (1967) and "The Desperados" (1969). To complicate matters, Maharis was arrested....
The two arrests were recounted in detail, but there was no mention of his Emmy nomination, his involvement in the unsuccessful-but-respected film The Satan Bug, the 1970 TV series he starred in, The Most Deadly Game, or his Las Vegas dinner theater gigs in the 1980s. No, the Wikipedia version was, he came from a large family, appeared in early dramas, starred in Route 66 alongside Martin Milner and a bunch of important guest stars, had a brief recording career, left Route 66 for no good reason, made some bad movies, was arrested a couple of times, sang in nightclubs, and does some impressionist painting.
Phooey on that. That narrative may be the one the first people who wrote the article wanted to tell, but it's not very accurate, and it wasn't very fair. So I added more of his tv, movie and Las Vegas credits plus his Emmy nomination, details on his recording career, and a photo that wasn't out of Playgirl. I also brought up the hepatitis, and both sides' claims about why he left the show. Better.
Then one day, as part of a general effort to bring Wikipedia biographies up to a required standard, the following notice appeared on the article's Talk page:
This article must adhere to the biographies of living persons policy as it directly concerns one or more living people. Unsourced or poorly sourced, and especially potentially libellous, material must be removed immediately.
That's when I deleted the references to the two arrests from the article.
Do I think those arrests ever happened? Oh, probably. But the only evidence I found online was an eBay listing for an obscure magazine, which had an article about one of the arrests. That's not exactly an unimpeachable source. To meet the Wikipedia standard, it needs to be better than that.
And frankly, I'm in no hurry to find a reliable source and put that stuff back in the article. The man is a (retired) actor, a singer and a painter. His profession should be his claim to fame, not a few incidents for which he was fined a few bucks. There was a time when George Maharis was a very successful actor in a very good tv show. That should be what's celebrated about him, not what happened in a men's room in 1974.
It's funny how the Internet works sometimes. Earlier this evening, I Googled "Mavarin map," hoping to find the entry in which I posted the map of Mâvarin that turned up recently in one of my old printouts. I wanted to use it in a pirate map generator. Instead I found a Route 66 blog, which did a whole entry about my earlier "Fairness to George" post, called Why did George Maharis leave “Route 66″? (Oddly, Google refused to turn up my entry itself.) After a semi-accurate recap of what I wrote about Maharis, Ron concludes:
I find it a little ironic that a socially progressive show like “Route 66,” which dealt with race and labor issues, didn’t take the high road with one of its co-stars. Then again, this was before the Stonewall uprising that sparked the gay-rights movement.
Yup. I agree. I hesitate to say outright that Herbert B. Leonard was homophobic, and that this was a contributing factor to the misunderstadings surrounding Maharis's departure from Route 66. But based on what we were told in those 1986 interviews, it's a little hard to draw any other conclusion. It really is rather sad. Here was a rising young actor in the role of his life, and it all came crashing down for reasons that had very little to do with the reported ones. Yes, Maharis and Milner had very different personalities and acting styles,but that wasn't the problem. Yes, Maharis probably did get the idea that he was largely carrying the show, and deserved better treatment. But if that's what he thought, there was plenty of justification for it. Maharis was so successful on the show that St. Louis Dispatch TV Magazine called Milner ""The 'Other Star' of Route 66". And Maharis certainly deserved to be treated with as much consideration for his medical situation as possible. Unfortuately, that didn't happen.
Blocher promises to write more about this subject, as she closes her post with “To be continued.” So stay tuned.
Update: Fairness to George, Part Three