Happy Birthday, Jim Backus!
He was an actor who did it all: stage, television, movies…and for us fans of the aural medium, plenty of old-time radio. James Gilmore Backus arrived in Cleveland, OH on this date in 1913, and for most of his show business career was identified as a consummate comedic character actor…though he could, on occasion, show off impressive dramatic chops as well (witness his amazing turn as James Dean’s father in Rebel Without a Cause). Dedicated couch potatoes like myself remember Jim Backus as the obscenely wealthy Thurston Howell III, one of seven stranded castaways on the popular TV sitcom Gilligan’s Island (1964-67) …and the man who gave voice to the nearsighted Quincy Magoo.
Raised in the wealthy enclave of Bratenahl, Jim Backus’ early years in education were spent in preparatory school in East Cleveland—one of his teachers was Margaret Hamilton, who later achieved silver screen immortality as The Wicked Witch of the West in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. His interests at that time were golf (which remained a lifelong passion) and acting. In his teens, he worked for a stock theater company, where he would get small roles in various productions. His father Russell, a mechanical engineer, wanted his son to focus on academics…so he enrolled young Jim in the Kentucky Military Institute (one of Backus’ classmates was another struggling young thespian, Victor Mature). Backus’ stay there was not a lengthy one—purportedly he was expelled after riding a horse through the school’s mess hall.
Jim persuaded his father to allow him to forego traditional college and try his luck at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. He graduated in 1933, and since acting jobs were often difficult to come by, Backus decided to try his luck in radio as an announcer. This led to freelance work on daytime dramas and The Kate Smith Hour. Jim also achieved success on stage in the hit Broadway comedy Hitch Your Wagon in 1937, and a dramatic role in Too Many Heroes that same year. Surviving audio recordings from the 1940s feature Jim on such shows as Great Plays, The Shadow, Forecast, and The Kay Thompson Show (these last two programs showcased his talents as a writer!).
On the radio series Society Girl, Jim Backus played a millionaire aviator named Dexter Hayes…a character that would more-or-less become his stock-in-trade in his varied radio roles. The actor himself once described these characters as parodies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, delivered through a sort of “patrician lockjaw.” For example, on The Mel Blanc Show, Backus was the conceited Hartley Benson, and on The Great Gildersleeve’s later run, he took over for Gale Gordon as Gildy’s stuffed-shirt neighbor Runsom Bullard. But Jim’s best-remembered radio persona was that of rich playboy Hubert Updike III on The Alan Young Show; Hubert’s favorite expression was “Heavens to Gimbels!” and he would issue veiled threats to the show’s star like “Careful, or I’ll have your mouth washed out with domestic champagne!” Backus’ portrayal of Hubert proved so popular that he later reprised the character on comedy programs headlined by favorites like Judy Canova and Bob Hope.
On The Sad Sack, Jim Backus played the conniving Chester Fenwick, roommate to the titular hard luck ex-serviceman portrayed by Herb Vigran. In addition, Jim was Mr. Hendricks, boss to Bill Goodwin on the announcer’s self-titled sitcom, and real estate partner Horace Wiggins on The Penny Singleton Show. Backus made the rounds of such radio sitcoms as The Aldrich Family, December Bride, Fibber McGee & Molly, The Halls of Ivy, The Life of Riley, Life with Luigi, Lum and Abner, The Magnificent Montague, Mr. and Mrs. Blandings, My Favorite Husband, Our Miss Brooks, and The Phil Harris & Alice Faye Show. The actor also served as a solid second banana on shows starring the likes of Don Ameche, Jack Benny, Bob Burns, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, Jack Carson, Cass Daley, Edgar Bergen, Danny Kaye, Jack Kirkwood, Jerry Lester, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, and Ed Wynn. As the decade wore on, Jim headlined his own self-titled comedy-variety show on Mutual from 1947 to 1948 for Pharmaco, and in the summer of ’48 hosted The Great Talent Hunt on that same network, a parody of musical participation programs.
Before Staats Cotsworth began his weekly emoting as Casey, Crime Photographer…Jim Backus played the titular shutterbug for a few shows. This gave Jim experience that he later used in supporting roles on episodes of Suspense, and on detective dramas such as Jeff Regan, Investigator, The Line-Up, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, and This is Your FBI. Rounding out Jim’s radio resume are credits on such series as Encore Theatre, Family Theatre, Hollywood Star Time, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Man Behind the Gun, The Railroad Hour, Screen Directors’ Playhouse, and The Screen Guild Theatre.
Backus’ extensive radio experience made him a natural for voicing cartoon characters—he was a memorable genie in the classic Bugs Bunny short A-Lad-in His Lamp (1948) (Bugs refers to him as “Smoky”). It was a successful audition for a 1949 cartoon entitled Ragtime Bear that would bring the actor his greatest fame, however; it was the first of several outings featuring the myopic Quincy Magoo, a vision-impaired individual who frequently found himself in funny situations due to his stubborn refusal to make an appointment with his optometrist. Jim provided the voice of Magoo in over fifty shorts until 1959 (becoming the UPA studio’s most famous character), then followed those with a feature film (1001 Arabian Nights) and a 1960 TV series. Magoo would later be the focus of a primetime animated show from 1964 to 1965 (The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo) and a Saturday morning revival in the 1970s, What’s New, Mr. Magoo? (In addition, Jim could be heard in commercials for General Electric, since the company hired Magoo as a spokesman.)
1949 was the year that Jim Backus also received his first onscreen film credit in the Warner Brothers romantic comedy One Last Fling; he would appear in four additional features that same year, including Father Was a Fullback (billed as James G. Backus), Easy Living (starring his old pal Victor Mature), and The Great Lover, an underrated Bob Hope comedy. To list all of Jim’s film credits would eat up our allotted bandwidth rations…but a few of our favorites include Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1950), The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), M (1951), His Kind of Woman (1951), Here Come the Nelsons (1952), Deadline – U.S.A. (1952), Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Macabre (1958), Boys’ Night Out (1962), and The Wheeler Dealers (1963). Backus was one of the many funsters to appear in the all-star comedy spectacular It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), playing a tipsy amateur airline pilot named Tyler Fitzgerald. (Fitzgerald’s observation “it’s the ooooonly way to fly” was an in-joke reference to some Western Airlines TV commercials of the 1950s, in which Jim voiced the character of Wally the Bird.)
On the small screen, Backus became well known for supporting Joan Davis on her 1952-55 sitcom, I Married Joan (he played her husband, Judge Bradley Stevens). One of Joan’s writers was Sherwood Schwartz, who had also penned much of Hubert Updike’s dialogue on The Alan Young Show…and when Schwartz got the idea for Gilligan’s Island, he couldn’t get Jim out of his mind when he created the character of Thurston Howell III. In an interview with Jordan R. Young, Schwartz recalled that when he learned that Backus was available he begged Jim to do the part…but was chagrined because the role was so small since he hadn’t had the time to flesh out the character. (After reading the script, Jim joked: “My part is shorter than the wine list on an airplane.”) Despite this, Backus agreed to the role…and not only spent three successful seasons as TV’s favorite blue-blood (with support from Natalie Schafer as his wife “Lovey”), but reprised the part in three “reunion” TV-movies that aired during 1979 and 1981, as well as two animated spin-offs: The New Adventures of Gilligan (1974-75) and Gilligan’s Planet (1982).
Jim Backus’ other contributions to TV include a 1960-61 syndicated sitcom, The Jim Backus Show (also known as Hot Off the Wire), and portraying the irascible J.C. Dithers in a sitcom based on Chic Young’s Blondie in 1968 (with his real-life wife Henny as Mrs. D). He was constantly in demand as a guest star on any number of popular boob tube programs, from The Beverly Hillbillies to The Love Boat, but in the 1980s his acting began to be hampered by Parkinson’s disease—his last feature film credit was 1984’s Prince Jack, and his television farewell came in the form of an Orville Redenbacher Popcorn commercial that reunited him with his Gilligan’s Island spouse, Natalie Schafer. Backus passed away from pneumonia in 1989 at the age of 76.
On a personal note—while I was aware that today’s birthday boy did radio…I had no idea he did a lot of radio. Radio Spirits features Jim Backus on a slew of collections: Bergen & McCarthy: The Funny Fifties, Burns & Allen: Muddling Through, Fibber McGee & Molly: For Goodness Sakes, Life with Luigi, The Line Up: Witness, The Man from Homicide, Our Miss Brooks: Good English, Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Dead Men, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Mayhem is My Business. On our compilation Comedy Goes West, you can check out a May 23, 1947 broadcast featuring Jim Backus’ signature radio role (Hubert Updike III) as the star of The Alan Young Show pays a visit to Hubert’s million acre ranch. Happy natal anniversary to Jim Backus—as a comedic actor without peer in every aspect of show business, you might say his career was (in a nod to his 1958 novelty record, which was a Top 40 hit) “Delicious!”