James Gilmore "Jim" Backus (February 25, 1913 – July 3, 1989) was an American radio, television, film, and voice actor. Among his most famous roles are the voice of nearsighted cartoon character Mr. Magoo, the rich Hubert Updike III on the radio version of The Alan Young Show, Joan Davis's character's husband (a domestic court judge) on TV's I Married Joan, James Dean's character's father inRebel Without a Cause and Thurston Howell, III on the 1960s sitcom Gilligan's Island. He also starred in his own show of one season,The Jim Backus Show, also known as Hot off the Wire.
An avid golfer, Backus made the 36-hole cut at the 1964 Bing Crosby Pro-Am tournament.
James Gilmore Backus was born February 25, 1913, in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised in Bratenahl, Ohio, a wealthy village surrounded by greater Cleveland. He was the son of Russell Gould Backus, a mechanical engineer, and Daisy Gilmore (née Taylor) Backus. Backus attended Shaw High School (Ohio) in East Cleveland, Ohio. Backus was expelled from the Kentucky Military Institute for riding a horse through the mess hall.
Virginia Brissac, Backus, Ann Doran, Edward Platt and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause
Backus had an extensive career and worked steadily in Hollywood over five decades, often portraying characters with an "upper-crust", New England-like air, such as Thurston Howell, III in Gilligan's Island. He appeared in A Dangerous Profession (1949) (as well as narrating), Deadline – U.S.A. (1951), withHumphrey Bogart, Pat and Mike (1952), with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1957), and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). He also made appearances on The Beverly Hillbillies (1962).
Backus was the voice of the near-sighted cartoon character Mr. Magoo. In 1952, he had a brief scene inDon't Bother to Knock with Marilyn Monroe. Years later, when Backus was a frequent talk show guest, he would recount the time Monroe urgently beckoned him into her dressing room. Once there, she exclaimed in her breathy voice, "Do Mr. Magoo!" In 1980, the U.S. Department of Educationimplemented a $200,000 project that developed textbooks for children to root out racism, sexism, and negative stereotypes of handicap individuals. The teachers guide that accompanied a 1982 third grade text recommended to ask students why people laugh at handicapped cartoon characters, including Porky Pig, who stutters, and Mr. Magoo, who is severely nearsighted.
He frequently could be heard on prime-time radio programs in the postwar era, including The Jack Benny Program, and portrayed an exceedingly vain character named Hartley Benson on The Mel Blanc Show on the CBS Radio Network; as well as a similar character named Hubert Updike on The Alan Young Show on the NBC Radio Network.
In stark contrast to his usual affluent characters, he appeared on The Brady Bunch as an old gold prospector, a role he also played on a Gilligan's Island episode. He also appeared in the final season episode "The Hustler" in which he plays Mike's boss, Mr. Matthews.
Backus stayed with Gilligan's Island between 1964 and 1967 and did revivals of the TV series in TV films made between 1978 and 1982. He also did revivals of Mr. Magoo from 1964 to 1977, which included The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo and What's New, Mr. Magoo. Backus also costarred in the comedy show I Married Joan from 1952 to 1955, portraying the husband of Joan Davis.
Writing and recording
Backus and his wife, Henny Backus, co-wrote several humorous books, including Only When I Laugh. He also co-wrote the 1971 family film Mooch Goes to Hollywood, about a dog who tries to become a movie star. In 1984, he wrote his autobiography, Backus Strikes Back. They also wrote What Are You Doing After the Orgy?, the title taken from a line of Backus's in the 1965 film John Goldfarb, Please Come Home.
In the late 1950s, he made two novelty 45 rpm records, "Delicious" and "Cave Man". In 1974, a collection of Backus' old radio material was compiled into a full-length comedy LP album released on the DORE label under the title The Dirty Old Man. Backus also played the voice of God in the recording of Truth of Truths, a 1971 rock opera based on the Bible.
Backus acted in several television commercials. As Mr. Magoo, he also helped advertise the General Electric line of products over the years. He was also spokesperson for La-Z-Boy furniture during the 1970s. In the late 1980s, he was reunited with former co-star Natalie Schafer in an advertisement for Orville Redenbacher's Popcorn. They reprised their roles from Gilligan's Island, but instead of still being shipwrecked, the setting was a luxurious study or den. Both performers were rather frail and this would be the last television appearance for both.
On July 3, 1989, Jim Backus died in Los Angeles, California from complications of pneumonia, after suffering from Parkinson's disease for many years. Backus was buried at the southwest corner of Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, Los Angeles.