Jim Backus

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For the former U.S. Congressman, see Jim Bacchus.
Jim Backus
Jim and Henny Backus 1969.JPG
Backus and his wife, Henny, in 1969
Born James Gilmore Backus
(1913-02-25)February 25, 1913
Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.
Died July 3, 1989(1989-07-03) (aged 76)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death Pneumonia
Resting place Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery
Occupation Actor
Years active 1948–1989
Spouse(s) Henny Backus (1943-1989; his death)

James Gilmore "Jim" Backus (February 25, 1913 – July 3, 1989) was an American radio, television, film, and voice actor. Among his most famous roles were 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 in Rebel 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.

Early life[edit]

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,[1] and Daisy Taylor (née Gilmore) Backus. Backus attended Shaw High School in East Cleveland, Ohio. Backus was expelled from the Kentucky Military Institute for riding a horse through the mess hall.[citation needed]



Backus was acting on radio as early as 1940, playing the role of millionaire aviator Dexter Hayes on Society Girl on CBS.[2] He 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), with Humphrey 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 nearsighted cartoon character Mr. Magoo. Years later, when Backus was a frequent talk show guest, he would recount the time Marilyn Monroe urgently beckoned him into her dressing room. Henny Backus, Jim's wife, recalled the story: “Jim was in the 1952 film Don’t Bother to Knock, with Marilyn Monroe. He came home one night during the filming and told me that Miss Monroe in her most seductive breathy voice asked him to meet her in her dressing room. His curiosity got the better of him and he went. Once there, she exclaimed like an excited child, ‘Do Mr. Magoo!’ And Jim did.”[3]

He frequently could be heard on primetime 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. He also starred on the short-lived variety program The Jim Backus Show on the ABC Radio Network in 1957 and 1958, when that network changed its name to the American Broadcasting Network (ABN) and tried out a "Live and Lively" format of "Big Time Radio" with orchestras and audiences. Backus costarred in the comedy show I Married Joan from 1952 to 1955, portraying the husband of Joan Davis.

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 1981 (although by this time, he was starting to suffer from Parkinson's disease, and by the third and final film, The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island, ill health forced him to only make a cameo appearance). 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?.

In 1977, Backus appeared in "Never Con a Killer," the pilot for the ABC crime drama The Feather and Father Gang.

Writing and recording[edit]

Backus and his wife, Henny Backus, co-wrote several humorous books, including: ...Only When I Laugh, his autobiography, Backus Strikes Back, a memoir, Forgive Us Our Digressions: An Autobiography, and What Are You Doing After the Orgy? — the title taken from a line Backus spoke in the 1965 film John Goldfarb, Please Come Home! He also co-wrote the 1971 family film Mooch Goes to Hollywood, about a dog that tries to become a movie star.

In the late 1950s, he made two novelty 45 rpm records, "Delicious" and "Cave Man". In 1974, a full-length comedy LP album was released on the DORE label under the title The Dirty Old Man, with sketches written by Bob Hudson and Ron Landry, who also appear on the album, along with voice-actress Jane Webb. Backus also played the voice of God in the recording of Truth of Truths, a 1971 rock opera based on the Bible.

Television commercials[edit]

Backus acted in several television commercials. As Mr. Magoo, he also helped advertise the General Electric line of products over the years.[4] He was the voice of Cap'n Crunch in the advertisements for that popular cereal, and he was also spokesman 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. It was the last television appearance for both performers.


On July 3, 1989, Backus died in Los Angeles from complications of pneumonia after suffering from Parkinson's disease for many years.[5] Backus was buried at the southwest corner of Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, Los Angeles.



  1. ^ "Russell Gould Backus (1880 - 1954) - Find A Grave Memorial". 
  2. ^ "Thursday's Highlights" (PDF). Radio and Television Mirror. 13 (5): 50. March 1940. Retrieved 24 February 2015. 
  3. ^ "Animation Anecdotes #193". 
  4. ^ General Electric advertisement featuring Mr. Magoo. Life Magazine December 14, 1959
  5. ^ Collins, Glenn (July 4, 1989). "Jim Backus, 76, Character Actor Best Known as Mr. Magoo, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved July 31, 2012. 

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