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Jim Backus (1913-1989) was a busy character actor in nearly every medium, but he is best remembered as the voice of cartoon star Mr. Magoo, as James Dean's father in Rebel Without a Cause, and finally as Thurston Howell III on Gilligan's Island.
In April 1962 (over two years before Gilligan), Backus was part of the ensemble cast playing international correspondents in the comedy/variety show pilot Mad Mad World, co-starring Jim Henson's Muppets. Years later, he was also on the list of actors considered for the part of editor Mike Tarkanian in The Great Muppet Caper (1981), which went to first-choice Jack Warden.
Backus began his acting career on the legitimate stage (even appearing on Broadway), but soon drifted to radio, starting in New York in the late 1930s. He played bit parts on many dramatic series (including The Shadow) and appeared on soap operas (playing son-in-law Dick Grosvenor on Stella Dallas). Gradually, Backus began appearing more often in comedy (including bits on The Jack Benny Program), and increasingly using a voice he first used at parties. This was a snobbish, rich man characterization, used in a string of short-lived mid-1940s series before finally finding a real home and a name: on The Alan Young Show beginning in 1944 and through 1949, as Alan's friend/rival Hubert Updyke III. Hubert soon became a national sensation, and the sitcom was transferred to Hollywood in 1946 (and Backus with it). Backus reprised Hubert Updyke in guest spots on Bob Hope's series and Command Performance, and played similar types on the shows of Danny Kaye, Eddie Cantor, Mel Blanc, and on The Great Gildersleeve (replacing Gale Gordon as pompous neighbor Rumson Bullard). He very briefly headlined his own series as Updyke, The Jim Backus Show, in 1947 (co-written by wife Henny). He was also heard on the dramatic series Suspense and Richard Diamond, Private Eye, among others.
During his radio years, Backus gradually began playing supporting film roles, but first really gained notice as a voice actor in theatrical cartoons, including the 1948 Bugs Bunny short A-Lad-in-His-Lamp (as the genie, ala Updyke). UPA hired him, and while he was heard in many of their shorts, he starred as Mr. Magoo beginning in Ragtime Bear (1949) and would reprise the role into television as late as the 1970s. His movie roles included turns in Universal's Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule series, and he entered TV (co-starring as Judge Bradley Stevens, the "I" in I Married Joan from 1952 until 1955). Also in 1955, Backus played his best dramatic part, ineffectual father Frank Stark opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.
While Backus remained in demand as a supporting actor in movies, increasingly larger guest spots, and headlines his own self-named series again (1960-1961), his next biggest break came in 1964, with a series created by Alan Young Show writer Sherwood Schwartz: Gilligan's Island. Backus again dusted off the Hubert Updyke III characterization, but he was now rechristened Thurston Howell III, the millionaire, forever overshadowing the former and guaranteeing that most future guest roles would have "Special Guest Star" billing attached. After the series ended in 1967, when not reprising Howell (in reunion movies and two Filmation animated series, through 1982) or Magoo, he mostly remained active through guest spots (including The Brady Bunch, Gunsmoke, and The Love Boat) and occasional film turns (including Disney's Pete's Dragon) until slowed down by Parkinson's Disease.
- Thirsty Howl III on Dog City parodies Backus' Thurston Howell III from Gilligan's Island, down to the ascot and snooty accent.
- ↑ Backus, Jim. Rocks on the Roof. pgs. 39-47. Putnam: 1958.