Jim Backus in 1970's TV show publicity photo
|Born:||February 25, 1913|
|Birthplace:||Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.|
|Also known for:||"Gilligan's Island"/"Mr. Magoo"|
|Character played:||Thurston Howell III|
Jim Backus was a famous television, movie and radio actor, possibly best known for his work in comedy, particularly in "Gilligan's Island" and in the "Mr. Magoo" franchise.
Born James Gilmore Backus on February 25, 1913 in Cleveland, Ohio, Backus was the son of Russell Gould Backus, a mechanical engineer, and Daisy Gilmore Backus. He was raised in Bratenahl, Ohio in Cleveland, where he attended Shaw High School in East Cleveland, Ohio. While attending Kentucky Military Institute, he was expelled for riding a horse through the mess hall.
Not much is known about Jim's early career, but it is known he worked originally in radio, often portraying characters with an "upper-crust" New England-like air, foreshadowing his role as Thurston Howell III on "Gilligan's Island." He appeared in 'A Dangerous Profession" in 1949 which he also narrated, "Deadline – U.S.A." with Humphrey Bogart, "Pat and Mike," with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, "Rebel Without a Cause" with James Dean in 1955, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin."
Jim gained more notoriety on "The Jack Benny Show, where he portrayed an exceedingly vain character named Hartley Benson on "The Mel Blanc Show" with Mel Blanc on CBS. He also had a similar character named Hubert Updike on "The Alan Young Show" on NBC and starred on the short-lived variety program, "The Jim Backus Show," on the American Broadcasting Network, now ABC Radio Network, but he had great success as the voice of Mr. Magoo, the nearsighted cartoon character during the Fifties. In 1952, he had a brief scene in "Don't Bother to Knock" with Marilyn Monroe, who was a reported model for the character of Ginger Grant. According to a story he told on talk shows, she would ask him to do the Mr. Magoo voice between takes.
After appearing on TV shows as "Cain's Hundred" and "Follow The Sun," Jim starred in movies, such as "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" with Phil Silvers in 1963, as well as other TV shows as "The Brady Bunch" and "The Beverly Hillbillies," but his career and popularity really soared as Thurston Howell III on "Gilligan's Island" from 1964 to 1967, returning for the revival of the TV series in two cartoon series and in films made between 1978 and 1982. In the third and final film, The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island, ill health forced him to only make a cameo appearance, and having Howell;s wife and son Thurston Howell IV played by David Ruprecht manage the resort. However, Backus was concerned that such a write out would water down the movie, as the earlier problems with Tina Louise refusing to be involved had shown, and he insisted on making the cameo at the ending where he returns from the mainland. After filming wrapped, Backus asked Dawn Wells if he gave the crew and cast any trouble, and Wells admitted she told him he did fine. She soon went off by herself in tears, upset at seeing him in such a frail state after years of working with him. Backus also did revivals of "Mr. Magoo" from 1964 to 1977, including "The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo" and "What's New, Mr. Magoo."
In 1977, Backus appeared in "Never Con a Killer," the pilot for the ABC crime drama, "The Feather and Father Gang." An avid golfer, Backus made the 36-hole cut at the 1964 Bing Crosby Pro-Am tournament. In 1984, Backus wrote Backus Strikes Back, his autobiography. He had had an earlier writing career, having authored a children's book about a dog named Mooch who goes to Hollywood in an effort to become a star.
On July 3, 1989, Backus died in Los Angeles, California from complications of pneumonia, after suffering from Parkinson's disease for many years. Jim was buried at the southwest corner of Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, Los Angeles.