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A witty and talented performer who excelled in no less than four mediums - film, television, music and radio - Jim Backus was a character actor whose skill at portraying the idle and addled rich was epitomized by his turn as Thurston Howell, III on "Gilligan's Island" (CBS, 1964-67). If that role had been the cultural cap of Backus's career, it would have been a sufficient endnote, as the show remained exceptionally popular for decades after its cancellation. But Backus also provided the voice of the near-sighted Mr. Magoo in countless cartoons, and made memorable performances in everything from "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) to dozens of television shows. An urbane and bemused presence in real-life who could shift into high insanity at the drop of the hat, Backus was a television favorite whose work stood the test of time.
Born James Gilmore Backus in Cleveland, OH on Feb. 25, 1913, he was the son of mechanical engineer Russell Backus and his wife, Daisy Taylor Backus. Raised in the wealthy suburb of Bratenahl, he was surrounded by the future trappings of Hollywood: his kindergarten teacher was Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West, in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), while Victor Mature was his classmate at the Kentucky Military Institute. Allegedly, Backus was expelled from the institute for riding a horse through the mess hall. After moving to New York City, he roomed with future aspiring actors Keenan Wynn and Martin Gabel while working in summer stock. Blessed with a versatile speaking voice, Backus became an in-demand announcer and player on radio in the years following World War II. One of his recurring roles was Hubert Updike III, a snooty blue blood whose clipped tones were the prototype for Thurston Howell's unforgettable diction. He soon expanded into animation, providing the voice of a genie in the Bugs Bunny short "A-Lad-In His Lamp" (1948) before landing one of his defining roles: the near-sighted Mr. Magoo, who made his debut in the 1949 UPA cartoon "Ragtime Bear."
Initially, the bear was the focus of the short, but audiences responded to the elderly, irascible Magoo, and he soon became one of the company's most popular characters. Four of the cartoon shorts were nominated for Oscars, with two - 1955's "When Magoo Flew" and "Magoo's Puddle Jumper" (1956) - winning for Best Animated Short Subject. Backus later voiced the character for a 1960-61 television series, "The Mr. Magoo Show," which was unfortunately distinguished by its lackluster animation and Magoo's Chinese houseboy, who represented one of the most offensive caricatures ever presented on television. Thankfully, the 1962 special "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" (syndicated) - the first animated Christmas special ever produced specifically for television - was a remarkably fine musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic that became a perennial holiday favorite. It begat an equally solid follow-up series, "The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo" (NBC, 1964-65), which cast the sight-challenged hero as all manner of literary figures, from Sherlock Holmes to all seven dwarves in "Snow White." The series ran in primetime, which allowed its writers and producers to avoid the sugarcoating required when adapting mature works for children, and gave Backus the opportunity to flex his dramatic muscles in a wide variety of roles. A 1970s revival titled "What's New, Mr. Magoo?" hewed closer to Saturday morning fare and ran on CBS in 1977.
The live-action Backus made his feature film debut in a forgettable comedy called "One Last Fling" (1949) with Alexis Smith and movie heel Zachary Scott. He soon rose from bit and minor roles in B pictures to supporting turns in major features like "Pat and Mike" (1952) with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, and "Don't Bother to Knock" (1952) with Marilyn Monroe. In 1952, Backus was top-billed on "I Married Joan" (NBC, 1952-55), a screwball comedy about a domestic court justice (Backus) who drew from his own marriage to scatterbrained housewife Joan Davis when passing judgment on troubled couples. When the series left the air, he added another iconic cultural credit to his résumé by playing James Dean's weak-willed father in "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955). During this period, Backus also released several hilarious novelty pop songs, including "Delicious!" (1958), a woozy instrumental with the actor and an uncredited Phyllis Diller repeating the title word over the sound of tinkling cocktail glasses as they grow gradually more soused until dissolving into helpless giggles by the fadeout. In 1960, Backus earned his own series, "Hot Off the Wire" (syndicated, 1960-61), about the editor of a failing news service. It lasted just 39 episodes, after which Backus returned to guest spots in features like "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963), where his alcohol-sodden airplane owner gives Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett a terrifying joy ride. The following year, he landed his most iconic live action role on "Gilligan's Island."
On paper, Thurston Howell, III read like an exaggerated caricature of the wealthy elite: a millionaire so financially abundant that he brought thousands of dollars in paper money on a cruise that lasted just three hours. Once on the island, he refused to accept that his wealth was worthless, and continually attempted to bribe Gilligan, the Skipper and any of the unfortunates who found themselves stranded on the island throughout the show's three-year run, in an attempt to free himself and his wife, Lovey (Natalie Schaefer), from their fate. Backus, however, found the humor at the character's core, a blithe obliviousness combined with a sense of jolly good fun that echoed his tipsy character on the "Delicious!" record. Like all of the "Gilligan" characters, Howell became a pop culture touchstone, the personification of the idle and hapless rich.
However, Backus' lengthy career prevented him from suffering the same typecasting that plagued his castmates, and in particular, Bob Denver, after the show was canceled in 1967. He returned to supporting turns in features and television, as well as the Magoo cartoons. From 1968 to 1969, he was Dagwood Bumstead's tyrannical boss, Mr. Dithers, in a live-action version of "Blondie" (CBS). Dithers' wife, Cora, was played by Backus' real-life spouse, Henny Backus, a former dancer on Broadway who later penned several clever and humorous memoirs with her husband, including Only When I Laugh (1965).
Backus' career showed no signs of slowing in the 1970s and 1980s. He apparently accepted all the "Gilligan's Island" reunion shows and TV movies with good cheer, lending his experienced tones to the animated "New Adventures of Gilligan" (ABC, 1974-77) while donning the ascot and blazer for the live-action "Rescue from Gilligan's Island" (NBC, 1978) and two follow-ups. Young viewers certainly got their fill of Backus from "Gilligan" in reruns, as well as a two-part episode of "Gilligan" producer Sherwood Schwartz's "The Brady Bunch" (ABC, 1969-1974), in which he played a crazed prospector who threatened the youngest of the Brady brood. Backus also co-penned the 1971 short "Mooch Goes to Hollywood," a humorous children's fable about a star-struck pooch who encounters a host of Golden Age stars, including Vincent Price, Cesar Romero and Edward G. Robinson.
Backus developed Parkinson's disease in the early 1980s, which forced to him to play less energetic parts; his participation in the final "Gilligan's Island" reunion film, "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island" (NBC, 1981), was severely curtailed, forcing Schwartz to replace him in several scenes with a similarly tempered son, Thurston Howell, IV (David Ruprecht). Backus gamely reunited with his cast mates throughout the early and mid-'80s, though he was visibly ill in several of these productions. With his wife, he penned a thoughtful book about his health issues called Backus Strikes Back. It would be followed by a final collaborations, Forgive Us Our Digressions: An Autobiography (1988). The following year, Backus succumbed to pneumonia on July 3, 1989 at the age of 76.
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Misc. Crew (TV Mini-Series)
Went to NY to act in theater and on radio
Broadway debut, "Hitch Your Wagon"
Made film debut with an appearance in "The Pied Piper"
First TV show, as host of "Hollywood House"
Film acting debut in "Easy Living"
Played Thurston Howell on "Gilligan's Island"