Childhood & Early Life
Jim Backus was born James Gilmore Backus on February 25, 1913, in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, to Daisy Taylor and Russell Gould Backus. He was raised in Bratenahl in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
Backus studied at ‘Shaw High School’ in East Cleveland. He attended ‘Kentucky Military Institute’ where he became friends with Victor Mature, who, too, would become a professional actor. Backus was more interested in acting and playing golf than attending classes. Hence, he convinced his father to allow him to attend ‘American Academy of Dramatic Arts’ in New York City. After relocating to New York City, he started working as a radio announcer to support himself.
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In 1940, Backus started playing Dexter Hayes on the ‘CBS’ radio show, ‘Society Girl.’ Thereafter, he voiced Hartley Benson in the radio situation comedy ‘The Mel Blanc Show.’ He also lent his voice for various post-war era radio programs, such as the popular comedy show ‘The Jack Benny Program.’ He hosted his short-lived variety program, ‘The Jim Backus Show,’ which was broadcast on the ‘ABC Radio Network.’
He started his film career as a voice actor in movies like ‘Where Will You Hide?’ and ‘A-Lad-In His Lamp.’ He got an opportunity to lend his voice to the wealthy, short-statured, and near-sighted fictional cartoon character, Mr. Magoo, in the short comedy film ‘Ragtime Bear’ (1949). Though his role went uncredited, he went on to reprise the role of Mr. Magoo in many films and television shows. Mr. Magoo eventually became his signature role and his performance increased his popularity as a voice actor.
Backus voiced Mr. Magoo in several films like ‘Trouble Indemnity’ (1950), ‘Grizzly Golfer’ (1951), ‘Magoo’s Masterpiece’ (1953), ‘When Magoo Flew’ (1955), ‘Magoo's Puddle Jumper’ (1956), and ‘Inside Magoo’ (1960). ‘Inside Magoo’ was a cancer awareness short film produced by the ‘American Cancer Society.’ He also voiced Mr. Magoo in television films and series like ‘Mister Magoo’ (1960-61), ‘The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo’ (1964-65), ‘What's New, Mr. Magoo?’ (1977), ‘Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol’ (1962), and ‘Uncle Sam Magoo’ (1970).
Backus is also known for another iconic character named Thurston Howell III. The character was included on ‘Forbes’ magazine’s list of ‘15 richest fictional characters.’ Backus first played the character in sitcom ‘Gilligan's Island,’ which was aired on ‘CBS’ for three seasons, from September 26, 1964, to April 17, 1967. In one of the episodes titled ‘Will the Real Mr. Howell Please Stand Up?’ he played a double-role, portraying Thurston Howell III and his impersonator.
The mannerisms of ‘Thurston Howell III’ were based on the character of a wealthy and snobbish playboy named ‘Hubert Updike III.’ Backus had voiced Hubert in the radio version of ‘The Alan Young Show,’ which was aired on ‘NBC Radio’ in 1949. Another character named Marty Van Ransohoff was also inspired by Hubert’s character. Backus played Ransohoff in an episode titled ‘The Clampetts Entertain’ in the American sitcom television series ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ In 1963, Backus appeared in the comedy film ‘It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ in which he played Tyler Fitzgerald, another character based on Hubert’s characterization.
Over the years, he reprised the role of ‘Thurston Howell III’ in many television movies, such as ‘Rescue from Gilligan's Island’ (1978), ‘The Castaways on Gilligan's Island’ (1979), and ‘The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island’ (1981). He also voiced Thurston Howell III in animated series like ‘The New Adventures of Gilligan’ (1974-75) and ‘Gilligan's Planet’ (1982).
His portrayal of wealthy men in various series and films made him a typecast, but he broke his stereotypical on-screen image by playing Frank Stark, father of James Dean’s character, in the American drama film ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ (1955).
Some of the other notable films featuring Backus are the 1952 noir crime film ‘Deadline – U.S.A.,’ 1952 romantic comedy movie ‘Pat and Mike,’ and the 1957 musical film ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin.’
Backus co-authored several comical books along with his wife, Henny Backus, who was a Broadway showgirl during the 1930s. The books written by the couple include ‘Only When I Laugh’ (1965), ‘What Are You Doing After the Orgy?’ (1962), ‘Backus Strikes Back’ (1984), and ‘Forgive Us Our Digressions: An Autobiography’ (1988). They also starred as on-screen couple in the American sitcom ‘Blondie’ (1968–69). They appeared together in an episode titled ‘Gilligan's Mother-In-Law’ from ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and in an episode from ‘ABC’ network’s television series ‘The Love Boat.’
Along with Jerry Devine, Backus co-wrote the 51-minute television film ‘Mooch Goes to Hollywood’ (1971). The film showcases the adventures of a dog named Mooch and its attempts to become a star.
In the late 1950s, Backus released two novelty records titled ‘Delicious’ and ‘Cave Man.’ In 1974, he came up with a full-length comedy LP album titled ‘The Dirty Old Man.’ The album was released under ‘Doré Records’ label and had sketches written by Ron Landry and Bob Hudson.
Backus also appeared in many television commercials. He played Mr. Magoo while promoting ‘General Electric’ line of products. He appeared as Thurston Howell III in a commercial for Orville Redenbacher's popcorn in the late 1980s.
Family, Personal Life & Legacy
Backus was married to actress Betty Kean from 1939 to 1942. After divorcing Kean, he married Henny Backus on January 14, 1943.
As a golf enthusiast, he participated in many tournaments across the United States. He even made the 36-hole cut in 1964 when he took part in ‘Bing Crosby Pro-Am.’
He suffered from Parkinson’s disease for many years. On July 3, 1989, he succumbed to complications caused by pneumonia in Los Angeles, California. He was laid to rest at the southwest corner of ‘Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery’ in Westwood, Los Angeles.
In September 1999, his wife, Henny, released a book titled ‘Care for the Caretaker’ in which she documented Backus’ struggle with Parkinson’s disease.