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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,574

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This is the grave of Jim Backus.

Born in 1913 in Cleveland, Backus grew up in the upper middle class world of that city’s eastern suburbs, which are still pretty wealthy today. I don’t know how his parents felt about him going into acting, but it is not only what he wanted, but what he was determined to do. He attended Kentucky Military Institute in Louisville for high school. Among the other members of his class was Victor Mature. They became good buddies. He graduated in 1933 and tried to act. He did a bunch of local theater stuff and tried his hand in New York. But it was hard to make a living. He later said ”I decided to try radio as a source of livelihood because I like to eat regularly.”

By 1940, Backus was doing radio bits and then got a good part on the CBS radio show Society Girl. There, he played a rich aviator and such a role was going to be his stock and trade. Backus could completely do upper crust acting convincingly, which not everyone can do. So he was always going to find consistent work at the very least. He could play it seriously or he could play it for laughs, which would later make him famous. By the late 40s, he was frequently cast in noir as well. That included in 1949’s A Dangerous Profession, which was a George Raft vehicle in the waning years of that being a thing. He narrated that film too, playing the role of the police lieutenant. He was in Deadline-USA, a 1951 Bogart film, though the role was fairly small. He had another small but meaningful role in Pat and Mike, one of the Tracy-Hepburn romantic comedies of the era. He still did a little Broadway too, including a 1951 production of Paint Your Wagon.

The first time Backus really is in my consciousness–and I suspect this is true of many of yours–is his role as the father in Rebel without a Cause. In this, he became a symbol for destroyed 50s masculinity that tough kids like James Dean needed to revolt against, The scene of a henpecked Backus with an apron vacuuming is one of those film scenes that have provided evidence to probably an endless number of theses, dissertations, and books on gender roles in 1950s film. That film is more era-defining than great, in a way very few pieces of art are, and of course made Dean a gigantic star until he decided to live his stardom in the dangerous way he played it on screen. As for Backus, he was just another good character actor happy for the work, especially with a quality role like this.

Backus was in tons of other movies, almost always in supporting roles, which certainly transferred easily enough to TV. One major TV role was as the suffering husband in I Married Joan, in which he appeared in 117 episodes in this Joan Davis vehicle. He also could do a lot with his voice, which led to his second major contribution to American art–the voice of Mr. Magoo. This character was created in 1949, an old rich guy who can’t see well and refuses to wear glasses and so comedy ensues. Really though, Mr. Magoo was quite highly respected in its era. It was nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Animated Short and it won twice. Anyway, Backus was Mr. Magoo. He spun this off into making a couple of comedy novelty records in the late 50s. He did another in 1974 called The Dirty Old Man. I imagine we are not talking Redd Foxx levels of dirty here.

By the 1960s, TV was more the thing for a guy like Backus. He was married to Henny Kaye since 1943 and she mostly gave up her burgeoning acting career (including working an Orson Welles directed play) when they got married, but they acted together in the series Blondie in the late 60s, though it didn’t last long. Anyway, she is buried here too, as you can see. Like her husband, Henny was very good at comedy and they started writing some comedy books together in the early 60s. They published several over the years, including the provocative title for 1962, What Are You Doing After the Orgy? I wonder if these hold up.

Backus’ success on Mr. Magoo meant tons of radio performances to use that voice, so he was on The Jack Benny Show and The Judy Canova Show all the time, among other appearances. His comic abilities also got him cast on what would become his third major contribution to American entertainment–yep, you all know where this is going. Gilligan’s Island is an extremely dumb show, with very little way to defend it. But it was gold on syndication and so a whole generation of young kids in the 70s and 80s watched this silly comedy from the mid 60s. Backus of course played Thurston Howell III, the rich idiot that wasn’t so different from Mr. Magoo except that he could see. By the late 70s, Gilligan’s Island had become so popular that they were brought back together for cheapie TV movies.

The 70s were pretty good for Backus generally. He co-wrote and starred in the TV family movie Mooch Goes to Hollywood, Mooch being a dog. He also was the voice of God on the Christian rock opera Truth of Truths. This sounds absolutely horrible. Mostly it was the project of a producer named Ray Ruff and Allan Henderson, the bass player from Them, wrote most of the material. Oh, it’s also 92 minutes long. Woof.

But by the last of the Gilligan TV movies, the extremely fine 1981 piece of high art called The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island, Backus was suffering from Parkinson’s and he just made a quick cameo in it. He was still trying to act at this time. He and his wife appeared as a couple of The Love Boat in 1981 too, but he only had a line or two. It just wasn’t going to happen anymore.

Backus died of pneumonia, partly caused by complications from the Parkinson’s, in 1989. He was 76 years old. After his death, Henny wrote a book about taking care of him as a way to reach out to other Parkinson’s families.

Jim Backus is buried in Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California.

If you would like this series to visit others who worked on Gilligan’s Island, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Most of the cast was either cremated or no one really knows where they are. But Dawn Wells, who played Mary Anne, is in Reno, Nevada. Vito Scotti, who played a Japanese sailor (wtf) that shows up on a couple of episodes, is in Hollywood, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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