Jim Backus


Actor
Jim Backus

About

Also Known As
James Gilmore Backus, James Backus, James G. Backus
Birth Place
Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Born
February 25, 1913
Died
July 03, 1989
Cause of Death
Double Pneumonia

Biography

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 th...

Family & Companions

Henriette Kaye
Wife
Author. Married on January 14, 1943.

Bibliography

"Backus Strikes Back"
Jim Backus and Henriette Kaye (1984)
"Only When I Laugh"
Jim Backus (1965)
"Rocks on the Roof"
Jim Backus and Henriette Kaye (1962)
"What Are You Doing After the Orgy"
Jim Backus and Henriette Kaye (1962)

Biography

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.

Filmography

 

Cast (Feature Film)

Prince Jack (1984)
Dealy
Slapstick Of Another Kind (1984)
The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island (1981)
Angels Brigade (1980)
Castaways On Gilligan's Island (1979)
There Goes the Bride (1979)
Mr Perkins
C.H.O.M.P.S. (1979)
Mr Gibbs
Good Guys Wear Black (1978)
Rescue from Gilligan's Island (1978)
Never Con a Killer (1977)
Stanley
Pete's Dragon (1977)
Mayor
Crazy Mama (1976)
Friday Foster (1975)
Enos Griffith
The Return of Joe Forrester (1975)
Miracle on 34th Street (1973)
Mr Shellhammer
The Girl Most Likely To... (1973)
Now You See Him, Now You Don't (1972)
Timothy Forsythe
Magic Carpet (1972)
George Benson
Getting Away From It All (1972)
Mike Lorimar
Mr. Magoo's Holiday Festival (1970)
Mr. Magoo/7 dwarfs
Myra Breckinridge (1970)
Doctor
The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County (1970)
Staunch
Mr. Magoo's Holiday Festival (1970)
Mr. Magoo--Ebenezer Scrooge
Myra Breckinridge (1970)
Doctor
Hello Down There (1969)
T. R. Hollister
Wake Me When the War Is Over (1969)
Colonel
Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (1968)
Tru-Blue Lou
Don't Make Waves (1967)
Himself
Hurry Sundown (1967)
Carter Sillens
Fluffy (1965)
Sergeant
Billie (1965)
Howard G. Carol
John Goldfarb, Please Come Home! (1965)
Miles Whitepaper
Sunday in New York (1964)
Flight dispatcher
Advance to the Rear (1964)
General Willoughby
Critic's Choice (1963)
Dr. William von Hagedorn
The Wheeler Dealers (1963)
Bullard Bear
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
Tyler Fitzgerald
Johnny Cool (1963)
Louis Murphy
Operation Bikini (1963)
Bosun's Mate Editor Fennelly
My Six Loves (1963)
The sheriff
Zotz! (1962)
Horatio Kellgore
The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962)
Comdr. Jerry Hammerslag
Boys' Night Out (1962)
Peter Bowers
The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962)
The King
Ice Palace (1960)
Dave Husack
A Private's Affair (1959)
Jim Gordon
The Wild and the Innocent (1959)
Mr. [Cecil] Forbes
Ask Any Girl (1959)
Mr. Maxwell
1001 arabian nights (1959)
Uncle Abdul Azziz Magoo
The Big Operator (1959)
Cliff Heldon
The High Cost of Loving (1958)
Paul Mason
Macabre (1958)
Jim Tyloe
Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
Clarence Locan
The Great Man (1957)
Nick Cellantano
Top Secret Affair (1957)
Col. Homer W. Gooch
Eighteen and Anxious (1957)
Harvey Graham
The Square Jungle (1956)
Pat Quaid
You Can't Run Away From It (1956)
Danker
The Opposite Sex (1956)
Psychiatrist
Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956)
Tom Culdane
The Naked Hills (1956)
Willis Havers
The Girl He Left Behind (1956)
Sgt. Hanna
Francis in the Navy (1955)
Commander Hutch
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Jim's father, Frank Stark
Geraldine (1954)
Jason Ambrose
Deep in My Heart (1954)
Ben Judson
Angel Face (1953)
Judson
I Love Melvin (1953)
Mergo
Androcles and the Lion (1953)
Centurian
Above and Beyond (1953)
Gen. Curtis E. LeMay
Bright Victory (1952)
Bill Grayson
The Rose Bowl Story (1952)
"Iron Mike" Burke
Here Come the Nelsons (1952)
Joe Randolph
Deadline--U.S.A. (1952)
Jim Cleary
I'll See You In My Dreams (1952)
Sam Harris
Don't Bother to Knock (1952)
Peter Jones
Pat and Mike (1952)
Charles Barry
Half Angel (1951)
Michael Hogan
The Man with a Cloak (1951)
Flaherty
Hollywood Story (1951)
Mitch Davis
Iron Man (1951)
Max Watkins
His Kind of Woman (1951)
Myron Winton
M (1951)
I Want You (1951)
Harvey Landrum
Emergency Wedding (1950)
Editor Hamley
Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1950)
Little Joe
Customs Agent (1950)
Thomas Jacoby
The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)
Willie Dennis
The Great Lover (1949)
Higgins
One Last Fling (1949)
Howard Prichard
A Dangerous Profession (1949)
Nick Ferrone
Easy Living (1949)
Dr. Franklin
Father Was a Fullback (1949)
Prof. Sullivan

Cast (Special)

Have I Got a Christmas For You! (1977)
Kevin Grady
Happy Birthday, America (1976)
The Amazing Cosmic Awareness of Duffy Moon (1976)
Of Thee I Sing (1972)
Senator Robert F Lyons
The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1961)
King's emissary

Cast (TV Mini-Series)

The Gossip Columnist (1980)
Himself
The Rebels (1979)
Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus (1974)
Narration
Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962)
Voice Of Ebenezer Scrooge/ Mr Magoo

Misc. Crew (TV Mini-Series)

The Gossip Columnist (1980)
Other

Life Events

1936

Went to NY to act in theater and on radio

1937

Broadway debut, "Hitch Your Wagon"

1942

Made film debut with an appearance in "The Pied Piper"

1949

First TV show, as host of "Hollywood House"

1949

Film acting debut in "Easy Living"

1964

Played Thurston Howell on "Gilligan's Island"

Photo Collections

Girl He Left Behind (1956) - Final Draft Screenplay
This is a 'Final" draft version screenplay for the 1956 WB title "The Girl He Left Behind" starring Tab Hunter. This screenplay contains some colored pages indicating that there were likely last minute changes, and that this version may still deviate slightly from the finished film.

Videos

Movie Clip

Wheeler Dealers, The (1963) - Surprise Becomes You Wall Street firm boss Bear (Jim Backus) is setting up his token female stock analyst Molly Thatcher (Lee Remick) to fail so he can fire her when he gives her a new assignment, and she meets visiting Texan client Henry Tyroon (James Garner), in The Wheeler Dealers, 1963.
Horizontal Lieutenant, The (1962) - Don't Get Any Ideas Lt. Merle Wye (Jim Hutton), now in his housecoat, has just barely prevailed on his ex-college acquaintance now popular Army nurse Molly (Paula Prentiss) for a friendly date before he’s posted to a remote Pacific island, until she finds out he’s not being all that brave, in MGM’s The Horizontal Lieutenant, 1962.
His Kind Of Woman (1951) - You Don't Like Fish? Not much story accomplished here but a money scene nonetheless, for attitude from Jane Russell as Lenore in her swimsuit and Robert Mitchum as busted gambler Dan, sent to a Mexican resort by gangsters for a mission he doesn’t yet understand, Jim Backus and Leslye Manning as other goofy guests, in His Kind Of Woman, 1951, from Howard Hughes’ RKO.
Deadline-U.S.A. (1952) - Wake At O'Brien's Paul Stewart, Jim Backus, Audrey Christie and Ed Begley are among the revelers as editor Hutcheson (Humphrey Bogart) presides over a wake for their closed newspaper, in ex-newsman Richard Brooks' Deadline-U.S.A., 1952.
Sunday In New York (1964) - Hello, Lover! Rod Taylor is on the train from Philadelphia, Jane Fonda is riding to Manhattan on the Metro North line and Cliff Robertson is landing his TWA jet at Idlewild, with the jaunty opening tune sung by Mel Torme, in Sunday In New York, 1964, directed by Peter Tewksbury.
Critic's Choice (1963) - How's Things On Your Planet? At the suburban baseball park, Bob Hope as Broadway critic and dad Parker, Donald Losby as the new know-it-all kid Godfrey, wondering where his wife (co-star Lucille Ball) can be, then meeting his father, new neighbor psychiatrist von Hagedorn (Jim Backus), early in Critic’s Choice, 1963.
Girl He Left Behind, The (1956) - While You're In Dog Company Still less than committed but now in the U.S. Army, Andy (Tab Hunter) and comrades (including Henry Jones, Alan King) get an early talking-to from Sgt. Hanna (Jim Backus) and Capt. Genaro (David Janssen), in The Girl He Left Behind, from an original screenplay by Marion Hargrove.
Meet Me In Las Vegas (1956) - If You Can Dream Frank Sinatra in his cameo at the slots, as gambler Chuck (Dan Dailey) and new-in-town lucky-charm ballerina Maria (Cyd Charisse) catch Lena Horne, song by Nicholas Brodszky and Sammy Cahn, at The Sands, in Meet Me In Las Vegas, 1956.
Deep In My Heart (1954) - Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise Jose Ferrer in French, as composer Sigmund Romberg, meeting Tamara Toumanova as Gaby, Walter Pidgeon as Broadway impresario J.J. Shubert, and Merle Oberon as future collaborator Dorothy Donnelly, praising the first sample of a famous tune, in MGM’s Deep In My Heart, 1954.
Meet Me In Las Vegas (1956) - Vast Quantities Of Gold Framing the opening of MGM’s Las Vegas-based talent showcase, a vocal by The Four Aces as we meet leading man Dan Dailey as rancher-gambler Chuck, arriving at The Sands, meeting blackjack dealer Lotzi (Oscar Karlweis) and floor manager Culdane (Jim Backus), in Meet Me In Las Vegas, 1956.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955) - Tearing Me Apart! New in town, Intoxicated teen Jim (James Dean) with his parents (Jim Backus, Ann Doran), summoned to the jail from a party, juvenile counselor Framek (Edward Platt) and a hard wooden desk, early in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without A Cause, 1955.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955) - I Go With The Kids Jim (James Dean) conning his parents (Ann Doran, Jim Backus) then off for the first day of school in their new town, meeting Judy (Natalie Wood) whom he's seen at the police station, in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without A Cause, 1955.

Trailer

Deep in My Heart -- (Original Trailer) Jose Ferrer stars in Deep in My Heart (1954), MGM's all-star biography of Broadway songsmith Sigmund Romberg.
Dangerous Profession, A - (Original Trailer) A bail bondsman (George Raft) is asked to raise money to free his ex-girlfriend's husband. It's A Dangerous Profession (1949).
Critic's Choice - (Original Trailer) Bob Hope and Lucille Ball star in the movie Critic's Choice (1962) based on Ira Levin's Broadway comedy hit.
Billie - (Original Trailer) When a girl (Patty Duke) beats all the guys at track, it causes problems for her conservative father in Billie (1965).
Advance To The Rear - (Original Trailer) Civil War rejects are sent to the West, supposedly out of harm's way in Advance To The Rear (1964) starring Glenn Ford and Stella Stevens.
Angel Face - (Original Trailer) Jean Simmons goes to the dark side playing an unscrupulous woman who murders her loved ones for profit in Otto Preminger's Angel Face (1952).
Man with a Cloak, The - (Original Trailer) A mystery man (Joseph Cotten) tries to help a young innocent (Leslie Caron) escape a murderous housekeeper (Barbara Stanwyck).
Pat and Mike (animated trailer) Romance blooms between a female athlete (Katharine Hepburn) and her manager (Spencer Tracy) in Pat and Mike (1952).
Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, The - (Teaser Trailer) Laurence Harvey stars in The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), a film biography of the German storytellers.
Meet Me in Las Vegas - (Original Trailer) A ballerina (Cyd Charisse) becomes a lucky charm for a gambler in Meet Me In Las Vegas (1956).
His Kind Of Woman -- (Original Trailer) Robert Mitchum, down on his luck, gets involved with gangsters down Mexico way in this 1951 film noir thriller directed by John Farrow.
Sunday In New York -- (Original Trailer) Cliff Robertson, a philandering pilot, gets real moral, real fast when his sister Jane Fonda contemplates a premarital fling on a Sunday In New York (1964).

Companions

Henriette Kaye
Wife
Author. Married on January 14, 1943.

Bibliography

"Backus Strikes Back"
Jim Backus and Henriette Kaye (1984)
"Only When I Laugh"
Jim Backus (1965)
"Rocks on the Roof"
Jim Backus and Henriette Kaye (1962)
"What Are You Doing After the Orgy"
Jim Backus and Henriette Kaye (1962)
"Forgive Us For Our Digressions"
Jim Backus and Henriette Kaye