Monday, February 25, 2013

Jim Backus' 100th Birthday

Few actors have permeated American pop culture as much as Jim Backus. He was the voice of one of the most popular cartoon characters of the 20th Century, Mr. Magoo. As if that was not enough, he also played Thurston Howell III on one of the most popular (and most rerun) sitcoms of the 20th Century, Gilligan's Island. And while Quincy Magoo and Mr. Howell remain his most famous roles, Mr. Backus also appeared in many movies (everything from Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town to Rebel Without a Cause), TV shows (I Married Joan and Blondie), and radio shows (The Alan Young Show and The Danny Kaye Show). It was 100 years ago today that Jim Backus was born.

Jim Backus was born on 25 February 1913 in Cleveland, Ohio. He grew up in Bratenahl, a suburb of Cleveland. Even before he became famous Mr. Backus encountered those associated with Hollywood or would be. His kindergarten teacher was none other than Margaret Hamilton, forever remembered as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (1939). When he attended the Kentucky Military Institute one of his classmates was Victor Mature. Even a bit of a clown while young, Jim Backus was expelled from the Kentucky Military Institute for riding a horse through the mess hall. When he moved to New York City to pursue his acting career, his roommates were Keenan Wynn and Martin Gabel.

Although he is now known for his work in motion pictures and television, Jim Backus would get his start in radio. In late Thirties he was a regular on the short lived radio show Kay Thompson and Company. By May 1942 he was the narrator on This Nation at War. In June he received his own short lived show (it only lasted three weeks). In 1943 he was briefly the star of a show called Flashgun Casey, which would become better known under the name Casey, Crime Photographer. While Casey, Crime Photographer would run for years, Mr. Backus was its star for only a few weeks. In 1944 he appeared on another short lived radio show, Gaslight Gaieties. It ran all of three weeks.

Fortunately, Jim Backus's fortunes would change. In May 1945 Jim Backus made his debut on The Alan Young Show. He played Alan Young's rival, the rich and snooty Hubert Updike III. Hubert Updike III would not only be the prototype for many of Jim Backus's film characters, but also for Thurston Howell III on Gilligan's Island. It was the same year that he made his first appearance on The Danny Kaye Show as Mr. Singleton, the show's fictional sponsor. At the height of his radio career Jim Backus appeared on as many as 15 programmes a week, often in uncredited parts.

Gifted with one of the best voices in radio, it would not be long before Jim Backus would work in animated cartoons. He made his debut in the Bugs Bunny short "A-Lad-in His Lamp" in 1948, playing the voice of a genie who plagues the rascally rabbit. While Jim Backus was uncredited for "A Lad-in His Lamp," this would not be the case for his next cartoon. "The Ragtime Bear (1949)" was a UPA cartoon and marked the debut of Mr. Magoo, possibly Jim Backus's most famous character. The bear of the title was supposed to be the star of the short, but instead it was near sighted Quincy Magoo and his nephew Waldo who stole the show. As a result UPA launched an entire series of Mr. Magoo shorts. Mr. Magoo proved extremely popular in the Fifties and Sixties. Two of the theatrical shorts won Oscars (When Magoo Flew" and "Magoo's Puddle Jumper") for Short Subject (Cartoon). Mr. Magoo would appear in his own feature film (1001 Arabian Nights from 1959) and three TV series (the syndicated Mr. Magoo Show, the NBC primetime series The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo,  and the CBS Saturday morning show What's New, Magoo?).  Mr. Magoo would be used in both print and television ads for General Electric for years. Over the years he would also be used in advertising for everything from Stag Beer to Sterling Optical. Mr. Magoo would remain the character with whom Jim Backus was most identified until the debut of Gilligan's Island introduced Thurston Howell III. And even then, an argument could be made that he was equally identified with both. In addition to Mr. Magoo, Jim Backus was also the voice of Wally the Bird in Western Airlines commercials. His catchphrase was "Western Airlines, the o-o-only way to fly."

Of course, animated theatrical shorts would not be Jim Backus's only venture into motion pictures by any stretch of the imagination. Over the years he appeared in several feature films. He made his feature film debut in 1949, the same year that Mr. Magoo first appeared, in the comedy One Last Fling. While One Last Fling is now largely forgotten, Jim Backus would go onto appear in some very well known films. He played a supporting character in the Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn vehicles Pat and Mike (1952) and the Marilyn Monroe film Don't Bother to Knock (1952). Although best known for his work in comedy, Jim Backus's most famous feature film role may well be Frank Stark, the weak willed father of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Over the years Mr. Backus appeared in such films as Francis in the Navy (1955), Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), The Opposite Sex (1956), The High Cost of Loving (1958), Macabre (1958), A Private's Affair (1959), Boys' Night Out (1962), The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), Critic's Choice (1963), It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Hurry Sundown (1967), and others.

Of course, aside from Mr. Magoo today Jim Backus is best known as Thurston Howell III on Gilligan's Island. Thurston Howell III was essentially a variation on Hubert Updike III from The Alan Young Show. He was an exaggerated caricature of the New England upper class, down to having attended Harvard (and despising Yale) and packing a trunk load of clothes for what was to have been a three hour tour. While Gilligan's Island is perhaps the most famous show on which Jim Backus starred, it was by no means the only one. He was one of the stars of the Fifties sitcom I Married Joan with Joan Davis. In the 1960-1961 season he had his own show, The Jim Backus Show, on which he played the owner of a minor wire service that was always on the edge of bankruptcy. He later played Mr. Dithers, Dagwood's boss, on the Sixties sitcom adaptation of the comic strip Blondie. In addition to the shows on which he was a regular Jim Backus made several guest appearances on shows over the years, including Four Star Revue, Climax, The Millionaire, 77 Sunset Strip, The Untouchables, Make Room for Daddy, Maverick, The Beverly Hillbillies, Daniel Boone, The Wild Wild West, and many others.

Jim Backus also wrote several books, most of which he co-wrote with his wife Henny Backus. Among his books were Rocks on This Roof, What Are You Doing After the Orgy?, Only When I Laugh, his memoir Backus Strikes Back, and his autobiography Forgive Us Our Digressions: An Autobiography. Jim Backus also made various comedy recordings, including the novelty song "Delicious" with Phyllis Diller, "Cave Man," and others.

During his career Jim Backus would become strongly identified with two very popular characters, Mr. Magoo and Thurston Howell III. It was largely because of his talent that Jim Backus never became typecast despite being recognised for two characters who were nearly inescapable in American pop culture in the late 20th Century. This was perhaps largely due to Mr. Backus's talent. He was not only a great character actor, but a great voice artist as well. His characters could sound dramatically different. Indeed, it must be pointed out that not only did Messrs. Magoo and Howell sound very different from each other, despite both being wealthy they were very different characters. Although he played a good number of wealthy caricatures like Hubert Updike III and Thurston Howell III throughout his career, Jim Backus played a wide variety of characters. He was the weak willed father in Rebel Without a Cause, Dagwood's temperamental boss on Blondie, Joan's often put upon husband Bradley on I Married Joan, and several other roles. Jim Backus had a gift for taking characters and not only making them three dimensional, but making them different from any characters he had played before or anyone else had ever played. If Mr. Magoo and Thurston Howell III are remembered today, then, it is largely because Jim Backus made them seem real.

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