Jim Backus

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Jim Backus
Photo of Jim Backus from the television program The Jim Backus Show.
Publicity still of Backus for The Jim Backus Show, 1962
James Gilmore Backus

(1913-02-25)February 25, 1913
DiedJuly 3, 1989(1989-07-03) (aged 76)
Years active1948–1984
Known forGilligan's Island
Rebel Without a Cause
Mr. Magoo
Rescue from Gilligan's Island
The Castaways on Gilligan's Island
The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island
(m. 1939; div. 1942)
(m. 1943)

James Gilmore Backus (February 25, 1913 – July 3, 1989) was an American actor. Among his most famous roles were Thurston Howell III on the 1960s sitcom Gilligan's Island, the father of James Dean's character in Rebel Without a Cause,[1] the voice of the near-sighted cartoon character Mr. Magoo,[2] the rich Hubert Updike III on the radio version of The Alan Young Show, and Joan Davis' character's husband (a domestic court judge) on TV's I Married Joan. 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. He was inducted to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.[3]

Early life[edit]

Backus was born February 25, 1913, in Cleveland, Ohio,[4] and raised in Bratenahl, Ohio,[5][6] an East Side suburb of Cleveland located on the Lake Erie shore, surrounded by the city on three sides. He was the only son of Russell Gould Backus and Daisy Taylor (née Gilmore) Backus.[5][6] His older sister was Katherine Jane Backus.[5] He attended Shaw High School in East Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from University School in Shaker Heights, Ohio.[7]



Virginia Brissac, Backus, Ann Doran, Edward Platt, and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Backus was acting on radio as early as 1940,[4] playing the role of millionaire aviator Dexter Hayes on Society Girl on CBS.[8] He had an extensive career and worked steadily in Hollywood over five decades, often portraying characters with an "upper-crust", New England-like air, much like his best-known role, Thurston Howell III on Gilligan's Island. He appeared in (and narrated) A Dangerous Profession (1949); 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 television 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."[9]

Backus in a guest appearance on The Beverly Hillbillies, with Nancy Kulp (1963)

He frequently could be heard on primetime radio programs in the postwar era, including The Jack Benny Program, and he portrayed an exceedingly vain character named Hartley Benson on The Judy Canova 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 guest-starred on The Brady Bunch as an old gold prospector, a role he also played on a Gilligan's Island episode. He also had a role in the final season episode "The Hustler" in which he plays Mike's boss, Mr. Matthews.

Backus appeared on Gilligan's Island for all three seasons of its run, 1964 to 1967, and later in reunion TV films made between 1978 and 1981. By the third and final film, The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island, Backus was suffering from Parkinson's disease and his participation was limited to a cameo appearance. Backus also returned as the voice of Mr. Magoo in various revivals between 1964 and 1977, which included The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo and What's New, Mr. Magoo?.

Backus played Reverend Sims in the 1975 "Brides and Grooms" episode of Gunsmoke. He also appeared in "Never Con a Killer" (1977), the pilot for the ABC crime drama The Feather and Father Gang. In 1981, he and his wife Henny appeared in an episode of The Love Boat. In it, he had one line in his four scenes.

Writing and recording[edit]

Backus and his wife, Henny, 1969

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.[citation needed]

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 Doré 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.[10] 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.[11] In Bowl 'Em Over with GE Bulbs (1963), a Cinécraft Productions sales training film made for the GE Large Lamp Division, Backus introduces the Mr. Magoo Soft White light bulb TV advertising campaign for Fall 1963. For the first time, General Electric commercials would be shown in color on prime-time TV shows, including the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.[12] He was also spokesman for La-Z-Boy furniture during the 1970s.[citation needed]

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. This would be the final TV appearance for both actors, who were in frail health. They also both appeared on Fox's short lived talk show The Late Show with Ross Shafer, along with the rest of the cast of Gilligan's Island, in 1988.


On July 3, 1989, Backus died in Los Angeles from complications of pneumonia after suffering from Parkinson's disease for many years.[13]




1948 A-Lad-In His Lamp Genie Short, Voice, Uncredited
Where Will You Hide? Narrator Short, Voice
1949 One Last Fling Howard Pritchard
Easy Living Dr. Franklin
Ragtime Bear Mr. Magoo Short, Voice, Uncredited
Father Was a Fullback Professor Sullivan
The Great Lover Higgins
A Dangerous Profession Police Lt. Nick Ferrone / Narrator
1950 Spellbound Hound Mr. Magoo Short, Voice, Uncredited
Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town Joseph 'Little Joe' Rogers
Customs Agent Shanghai Chief Agent Thomas Jacoby
The Miner's Daughter John Harvard Short, Voice, Uncredited
Trouble Indemnity Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
The Killer That Stalked New York Willie Dennis Uncredited
Emergency Wedding Ed Hamley
Bungled Bungalow Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
1951 M The Mayor
Barefaced Flatfoot Mr. Magoo Short, Voice, Uncredited
Bright Victory Bill Grayson
Half Angel Michael Hogan
Plutopia Milton Short, Voice, Uncredited
Hollywood Story Mitch Davis
His Kind of Woman Myron Winton
Iron Man Max Watkins
Fuddy Duddy Buddy Mr. Magoo Short, Voice, Uncredited
The Man with a Cloak Flaherty
I'll See You in My Dreams Sam Harris
Grizzly Golfer Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
I Want You Harvey Landrum
1952 Here Come the Nelsons Joe Randolph
Sloppy Jalopy Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Deadline – U.S.A. Jim Cleary
The Dog Snatcher Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Pat and Mike Charles Barry
Don't Bother to Knock Peter Jones
Pink and Blue Blues Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
The Rose Bowl Story Michael 'Iron Mike' Burke
Pete Hothead Floorwalker Short, Voice, Uncredited
Hotsy Footsy Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Captains Outrageous Short, Voice
Above and Beyond Gen. Curtis E. LeMay
Androcles and the Lion Centurion
1953 Angel Face District Attorney Judson
I Love Melvin Mergo
Safety Magoo Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Magoo's Masterpiece Short, Voice
Magoo Slept Here Short, Voice
Geraldine Jason Ambrose
1954 Magoo Goes Skiing Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Kangaroo Courting Short, Voice
Four Wheels, No Brakes Television Quizmaster / New Cat Salesman Short, Voice, Uncredited
Deep in My Heart Ben Judson
Destination Magoo Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Look Who's Driving Charlie Short, Voice, Uncredited
1955 When Magoo Flew Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Magoo's Check Up Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Magoo Express Short, Voice
Madcap Magoo Short, Voice
Francis in the Navy Cmdr. E.T. Hutch
Stage Door Magoo Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Rebel Without a Cause Frank Stark
Magoo Makes News Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
The Square Jungle Pat Quaid
1956 Meet Me in Las Vegas Tom Culdane
Magoo's Canine Mutiny Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Magoo Goes West Short, Voice
Calling Dr. Magoo Short, Voice
The Naked Hills Willis Haver
Magoo Beats the Heat Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Magoo's Puddle Jumper Short, Voice
Trailblazer Magoo Short, Voice
Magoo's Problem Child Short, Voice
The Opposite Sex Psychiatrist
The Girl He Left Behind Sgt. Hanna
You Can't Run Away from It Danker
Meet Mother Magoo Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
The Great Man Nick Cellantano
1957 Top Secret Affair Col. Homer W. Gooch
Magoo Goes Overboard Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Matador Magoo Short, Voice
Magoo Breaks Par Short, Voice
Magoo's Glorious Fourth Short, Voice
Man of a Thousand Faces Clarence Locan
Magoo's Masquerade Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Magoo Saves the Bank Short, Voice
Rock Hound Magoo Short, Voice
Eighteen and Anxious Harvey Graham
Magoo's Moose Hunt Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Magoo's Private War Short, Voice
1958 Magoo's Young Manhood Short, Voice
Scoutmaster Magoo Short, Voice
The Explosive Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
The High Cost of Loving Paul Mason
Magoo's Three-Point Landing Mr. Magoo / Air Traffic Controller Short, Voice
Magoo's Cruise Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Love Comes to Magoo Short, Voice
Gumshoe Magoo Short, Voice
Macabre Police Chief Jim Tyloe
1959 Bwana Magoo Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
The Untouchables Norbit, the accountant
Magoo's Homecoming Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Merry Minstrel Magoo Short, Voice
Magoo's Lodge Brother Short, Voice
Ask Any Girl Maxwell
The Wild and the Innocent Mr. Forbes
Terror Faces Magoo Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
A Private's Affair Jim Gordon
The Big Operator Cliff Heldon
1001 Arabian Nights Uncle Abdul Azziz Magoo Voice
1960 Ice Palace Dave Husack
Magoo Meets Frankenstein Mr. Magoo Short, Voice
Magoo Meets McBoing Boing Short, Voice
I Was a Teenage Magoo Short, Voice
Inside Magoo Mr. Magoo / Himself Short, Voice, Cancer awareness short produced by the American Cancer Society
1961 The Errand Boy Mr. Arbutt Voice, Uncredited
1962 The Horizontal Lieutenant Cmdr. Jeremiah Hammerslag
Boys' Night Out Peter Bowers
Zotz! Horatio Kellgore
The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm The King ('The Dancing Princess')
1963 A Child Is Waiting Hot Dog vendor Uncredited
Operation Bikini Bosun's Mate Ed Fennelly
My Six Loves Sheriff
Critic's Choice Dr. William Von Hagedorn
Johnny Cool Louis Murphy
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World Tyler Fitzgerald
Sunday in New York Chief Pilot Drysdale
The Wheeler Dealers Bullard Bear
1964 Advance to the Rear Gen. Willoughby
1965 Mr. Magoo in Sherwood Forest Mr. Magoo Voice
Mr. Magoo's Noah's Ark Mr. Magoo, Mr.Magoo as Noah Voice
John Goldfarb, Please Come Home! Miles Whitepaper
Fluffy Sergeant
Billie Howard G. Carol
1967 Hurry Sundown Carter Sillens
Don't Make Waves Himself Uncredited
1968 Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? Tru-Blue Lou
1969 Hello Down There T.R. Hollister
1970 The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County Staunch
Myra Breckinridge Doctor
1972 Now You See Him, Now You Don't Timothy Forsythe
1974 Goodnight Jackie Mr. Landry
1975 Konyok-gorbunok The Tsar Voice
Crazy Mama Mr. Albertson
Friday Foster Enos Griffith
1977 The Magic Pony The Tsar Voice, English version
Pete's Dragon Mayor of Passamaquoddy
1978 Good Guys Wear Black Doorman
1979 Angels' Brigade Cmdr. Lindsey March
The Electric Horseman Mr. Magoo Voice, Uncredited
C.H.O.M.P.S. Mr. Gibbs
1980 There Goes the Bride Mr. Perkins
1986 Enchanted Journey Gamun Voice, English version
1982 Slapstick of Another Kind President of the U.S.
1984 Prince Jack Dealy


Year Title Role Notes
1952–1955 I Married Joan Judge Bradley Stevens
1957 The Pied Piper of Hamelin King's Emissary TV movie
1960–1961 The Jim Backus Show Mike O'Tool
The Untouchables William Norbert Episode: "Star Witness"
Mister Magoo Mr. Magoo Voice
1961 Maverick Joe Wheelwright
1962 Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol Ebenezer Scrooge / Mr. Magoo TV movie, Voice
1963 The Beverly Hillbillies Marty Van Ransohoff Episode: "The Clampetts Entertain"
1964–1965 The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo Mr. Magoo Voice
1964–1967 Gilligan's Island Thurston Howell III
1964 Mr. Magoo in Sherwood Forest Mr. Magoo TV movie, Voice
1966 Password Himself Game Show Contestant / Celebrity Guest Star
1967 Damn Yankees! Coach Benny Van Buren
1968 The Wild Wild West Fabian Swanson Episode: "The Night of the Sabatini Death"
1968–1969 Blondie Mr. Dithers
1969 The Good Guys Henry Arsdale 3 episodes
Wake Me When the War Is Over Colonel TV movie
1970 I Dream of Jeannie General Fitzhugh Episode: "Help, Help, a Shark"
Uncle Sam Magoo Mr. Magoo TV movie, Voice
1971–1974 The Brady Bunch Zaccariah T. Brown / Harry Mathews 3 episodes
1972 Alias Smith and Jones S2:E19, "The Biggest Game in the West"
1973 The Girl Most Likely To... Tilson TV movie
1973 Miracle on 34th Street Shellhammer TV movie
1974–1975 The New Adventures of Gilligan Thurston Howell III Voice
1974 Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus Narrator / Santa Claus TV special, Voice
1975 Gunsmoke Reverend Sims Episode: "Brides and Grooms"
Kolchak: The Night Stalker Herb Bresson Episode: "Chopper"
1977 What's New, Mr. Magoo? Mr. Magoo Voice
1977 CHiPs Weitzman Episode: "Undertow"
1978 Fantasy Island Cap Truman Episode: “Anniversary/Reunion”
1978 Rescue from Gilligan's Island Thurston Howell III TV movie
1979 The Castaways on Gilligan's Island TV movie
The Rebels John Hancock TV Miniseries
1981 The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island Thurston Howell III TV movie
1982 Gilligan's Planet Voice
1983 Family Feud Himself/Gilligan’s Island reunion Game Show


  1. ^ Rieder, Howard (1969). "Memories of Mr. Magoo". Cinema Journal. 8 (2): 17–24. doi:10.2307/1225373. ISSN 0009-7101. JSTOR 1225373.
  2. ^ Cantor, David (2020). "Inside Magoo (1960)". Body, Capital, and Screens. Amsterdam University Press. pp. 181–204. doi:10.2307/j.ctv12sdvgj.10. JSTOR j.ctv12sdvgj.10. S2CID 240850992.
  3. ^ "Jim Backus". Hollywood Walk of Fame. October 25, 2019.
  4. ^ a b James Gilmore Backus. U.S., World War II Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947. Accessed 25 June 2023 via ancestry.com paid subscription website.
  5. ^ a b c James G Backus. 1920 United States Federal Census. Accessed 25 June 2023 via ancestry.com paid subscription site.
  6. ^ a b James G Backus. 1930 United States Federal Census. Accessed 25 June 2023 via ancestry.com paid subscription site.
  7. ^ "BACKUS, JAMES, GILMORE "JIM"". Encyclopedia of Cleveland History | Case Western Reserve University. December 3, 2020. Retrieved June 13, 2023.
  8. ^ "Thursday's Highlights" (PDF). Radio and Television Mirror. Vol. 13, no. 5. March 1940. p. 50. Retrieved February 24, 2015.
  9. ^ "Animation Anecdotes #193 |". cartoonresearch.com.
  10. ^ a b "The Dirty Old Man by Jim Backus". rateyourmusic.com. Retrieved November 16, 2018.
  11. ^ General Electric advertisement featuring Mr. Magoo Archived April 28, 2008, at the Wayback Machine. Life Magazine December 14, 1959
  12. ^ The Jim Backus Mr. Magoo film, Bowl 'Em Over with G-E Bulbs!, is posted online in the Hagley Museum and Library Digital Archives
  13. ^ Collins, Glenn (July 4, 1989). "Jim Backus, 76, Character Actor Best Known as Mr. Magoo, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved July 31, 2012.
  14. ^ "Dennis Farnon and His Orchestra-Magoo in Hi-Fi". Retrieved January 5, 2019.
  15. ^ "UPA's "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" on Records, Part 2. Retrieved January 5, 2019.

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