James Gilmore Backus (February 25, 1913 – July 3, 1989) was a radio, television, radio, film actor, character actor, and voice actor. Among his most famous roles are the voice of "Mr. Magoo," the rich "Hubert Updike, III," of the Alan Young radio show, Joan Davis' husband (a domestic court judge) on TV's I Married Joan, James Dean's father in Rebel Without a Cause and "Thurston Howell, III" on the 1960s hit Gilligan's Island. He also starred in his own show of one season, The Jim Backus Show, also known as Hot off the Wire.
The "upper-crust" character
Backus had an extensive career and worked steadily in Hollywood over five decades, often portraying characters with an "upper-crust," New England-esque air, such as the aforementioned Mr. Howell. He appeared in Father was a Fullback in 1949, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World back to back in 1962 and 1963, Billie (1965), Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (1968), Prince Jack in 1984, provided the voice of Mr. Magoo, and voiced Smoky the Genie in the Bugs Bunny cartoon A Lad In His Lamp (though he was uncredited for the role). 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 The Mel Blanc Show on the CBS Radio Network (1947–1948).
He would occasionally be cast in dramatic roles, for example in Richard Brooks's Deadline - U.S.A. (1951) and George Cukor's Pat and Mike (1952). 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 Gilligan's Island episode. He also appeared in the final season episode "The Hustler" in which he plays Mike's boss, Mr. Matthews.
Backus had a cameo in the poorly received 1979 television movie Angels Brigade, which was parodied in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode "Angels Revenge."
From acting to writing
Backus and his wife, Henny Backus, co-wrote several humorous books, including Only When I Laugh. He also co-wrote the 1971 family film Mooch Goes to Hollywood, about a dog who tries to become a movie star. In 1984 he wrote his autobiography, titled Backus Strikes Back.
In his youth, Backus was a student at the Kentucky Military Institute, but was expelled for riding a horse through the mess hall. 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!"
In the late 1950s he made two novelty 45 rpm records, "Delicious" and "Cave Man." In 1974, a collection of Backus' old radio material was compiled into a full-length comedy LP album released on the DORE label under the title The Dirty Old Man. Backus also played the voice of God in the recording of "Truth of Truths," a 1971 rock opera based on the Christian Bible.
Backus acted in several television commercials. As Mr. Magoo, he also helped advertise the GE line of products over the years. He was also spokesperson 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 either one would be in before their deaths.
On July 3, 1989, Backus died in Los Angeles, California from complications of pneumonia, after suffering from Parkinson's disease for many years.