(1913–1989), the beetle-browed radio, TV, stage and screen actor whose booming voice gave life to the nearsighted cartoon character of Mr. Magoo and the self-indulgent, ascot-wearing millionaire of Gilligan’s Island, was born in Cleveland and grew up in Bratenahl. Backus appeared in more than 80 movies. His most prestigious film role was that of James Dean’s ineffectual father in Rebel Without a Cause, but it was as Mr. Magoo that he became best known to audiences.
His vocal portrayal of the pink-nosed, W. C. Fieldsian bumbler in the screen cartoon series began in the late 1940s, continued for more than 50 episodes, and won two Academy Awards. In 1958, in his freewheeling reminiscence Rocks on the Roof, Mr. Backus said he had loosely patterned the delivery and philosophy of Mr. Magoo on his late father, an amiable Cleveland engineer who confused names, dates and places with lovable determination. Jim Backus’ Broadway appearances included roles in Too Many Heroes (1937) and Paint Your Wagon (1951).
Born in Bratenahl, Backus attended several public and private schools including Shaw High School in East Cleveland and University School before enrolling in the Kentucky Military Institute, where he became pals with the young Victor Mature. (A born zany, Backus was “infamously expelled,” says the online Encyclopedia of Cleveland History in its profile of the actor, “for riding a horse in the mess hall.”)
After mastering the fundamentals of acting at New York’s Academy of Dramatic Arts, from which he graduated in 1933, he made his professional debut as a 97-year-old rabbi in the Cleveland Play House Production of The Dybbuk. He began to get minor roles on the radio, often finding himself typecast, even while still a young man, as older and wealthier higher class men, likely modeled, notes ECH, after some of his father’s friends in Bratenahl.
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His first notable film role was Commander Hutch in 1955’s Francis in the Navy (one of a popular series of movies featuring “Francis the Talking Mule”). But he would become best known for his portrayal of James Dean’s spineless father in Rebel Without a Cause, which came out the same year.
But it was in the rising new medium of television that he would truly come into his own, beginning with a breakout role on The Alan Young Show. He would appear in 117 episodes of the iconic sit-com I Married Joan, and got his own show in 1960. But Backus would earn immortality in the hearts of the younger generations with his portrayal of the fabulously wealthy Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island (1964–1967), which has lived on in syndication ever since. (“Gilligan, you dunce, you’ve done it again.”)
Back in 1943, he had married the woman who was to become his lifelong companion and collaborator, Henrietta (“Henny”) Karson of Shaker Heights, a skilled actor and veteran of Broadway musicals. Looking back on it all, they co-authored, among other books, a pair of lighthearted autobiographies, Backus Strikes Back (1984) and Forgive Us Our Digressions (1988), in which Jim talked openly about his long struggles with Parkinson’s Disease. Once an avid golfer who had taken part in tournaments across the U.S., it was only with great difficulty that he managed to reprise his role as Thurston Howell III for a brief cameo appearance in the 1982 cartoon revival of Gilligan’s Island.
Jim Backus died in 1989, of pneumonia, and is buried in Los Angeles.