About James Gilmore Backus
For five decades, Jim Backus entertained audiences in radio, television and film. Among his most famous roles are the voice of Mr. Magoo, the rich Herbert Updike of the Alan Young radio show, Joan Davis' husband on TV's "I Married Joan," James Dean's father in Rebel Without A Cause, and Thurston Howell III on "Gilligan's Island."
James Gilmore Backus was born on 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. He was of Lebanese background.
Growing up, Backus was more interested in golf and acting than in school. His father wanted him to focus on academics, so he sent him to the Kentucky Military Institute for a time where he met and befriended Victor Mature, another future professional actor. But Backus struggled his way through high school and was able to convince his father to let him skip a traditional college education. Instead he went to New York City to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Graduating in 1933, Backus spent two years working in a variety of stage productions and in summer stock before trying his hand at radio. Adept at molding his booming voice into different characters, he was a freelance performer and appeared on numerous radio programs, including soap operas and The Kate Smith Hour. Backus also made his Broadway debut around this time in Hitch Your Wagon, a comedy, in 1937. Later that year, he appeared in the drama Too Many Heroes.
In the 1940s, Backus scored his biggest radio success on The Alan Young Show. He created a stuffy, upper crust character named Hubert Updyke III, who was known for making such quips as “Careful, or I’ll have your mouth washed out with domestic champagne.” By the end of the decade, Backus was beginning his film career. One of his earliest roles was in the football drama Easy Living (1949) with Lucille Ball and old friend Victor Mature.
Also in 1949, Backus was selected to voice one of the characters for a cartoon entitled Ragtime Bear. Little did he know that the character, Quincy Magoo, a nearsighted fellow with a very selective take on reality, would become so hugely popular. Backus spent about three decades as Magoo in his various incarnations from cartoon shorts to television series to a full-length film.
On the small screen, Backus spent three years on the sitcom I Married Joan, which debuted in the fall of 1952. He played Judge Bradley Stevens, husband to Joan Stevens (Joan Davis). Each episode featured a case in front of Bradley, a domestic judge, and its parallels to his domestic life. After the series ended, Backus gave some of his best film performances. He earned praise for his work on the comedy Francis in the Navy (1955) and the teenage drama Rebel Without a Cause (1955) with James Dean. In Rebel Without a Cause, Backus played Dean’s father, a man befuddled by his son’s actions and oppressed by his domineering wife.
Based in part on his earlier character, Hubert Updyke III, Backus again inhabited the persona of a privileged, uptight rich man on Gilligan’s Island. Thurston Howell III was one of seven castaways marooned on an island together after a terrible storm sent their boat crashing onto its shores. In addition to his wife, Mrs. Howell, who his character always called “lovey,” there were the ship’s captain Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) and his first mate Gilligan (Bob Denver), the professor (Russell Johnson), the movie star Ginger (Tina Louise), and a simple farm girl named Mary Ann (Mary Ann Summers). Created by Sherwood Schwartz, the broad comedy was dismissed by reviewers but adored by many viewers.
While the show was only on network television from 1964 to 1967, Gilligan’s Island has had a healthy life in syndication and can still be seen today. Backus voiced an animated version of Thurston Howell III for the Saturday morning cartoon series, The New Adventures of Gilligan in the mid-1970s. Reprising his famous role, he appeared for the 1978 television movie Rescue from Gilligan’s Island. That same year, Backus received a heartbreaking diagnosis. He was having some trouble with his legs and learned that he had Parkinson’s disease.
Despite this setback, Backus continued acting. He made his final film appearance in 1980’s There Goes the Bride with Tom Smothers and Phil Silvers. On the small screen, he appeared in The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island (1981) and made guest appearances on such shows as Fantasy Island and The Love Boat.
In addition to acting, Backus had authored Rocks on the Roof (1958) on his own and several other works with his wife Henny. Married since 1943, the couple used their life experiences for such personal works as What Are You Doing After the Orgy (1962), which was about their marriage, and Backus Strikes Back (1984), which tackled his struggle with Parkinson’s.
In late June of 1988, Backus was admitted to St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica, California. He died of pneumonia on July 3, 1988. Over the course of his long career, Backus had appeared in roughly 80 films and 500 film and television episodes as Quincy Magoo. And each day, he wins new fans as they watch Gilligan’s Island in syndication.
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.
For his contribution to the television industry, Jim Backus was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1735 Vine Street.