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, of Lithuanian origin, and Daisy Gilmore (née Taylor) 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. Backus 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. In 1952, he had a brief scene in Don’t Bother to Knock with Marilyn Monroe. Years later, when Backus was a frequent talk show guest, he would recount the time Monroe urgently beckoned him into her dressing room. Once there, she exclaimed in her breathy voice, “Do Mr. Magoo!” He frequently could be heard on prime-time 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 ABN (the American Broadcasting Network) 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 1982 (though in 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.
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 of Backus’s in the 1965 film John Goldfarb, Please Come Home). He also co-wrote the 1971 family film Mooch Goes to Hollywood, about a dog who 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.
Backus acted in several television commercials. As Mr. Magoo, he also helped advertise the General Electric line of products over the years. 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. Both performers were rather frail and this would be the last television appearance for both. On July 3, 1989, 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.
- February, 25, 1913
- Cleveland, Ohio
- July, 03, 1989
- Los, Angeles, California
- Westwood Memorial Park
- Los Angeles, California