Jim Backus, a celebrated film and television character actor who, to his dismay, will probably live on in America’s imagination as the voice of a myopic curmudgeon named Mr. Magoo, died Monday of pneumonia.
The 76-year-old performer had been admitted to St. John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica on June 13 with double pneumonia complicated by long-standing Parkinson’s disease.
Although Backus was Joan Davis’ sedate husband on the long-running TV series “I Married Joan” (1952-55) and the thirsty and daffy millionaire Thurston Howell III in “Gilligan’s Island” (1964-67 and on into syndication), he seemed forever mated at the throat with the diminutive lecher Quincy Magoo through decades of radio and television.
“I’d like to bury the old creep and get some good dramatic roles in movies,” Backus told an interviewer as long ago as 1976. “Every time I start to be a serious actor I lose out because someone--usually a producer--says I’m Magoo.”
The voice he gave the squat cartoon tycoon, whose dilemmas centered on his nearsightedness, was nearly as old as Backus himself. He had begun experimenting with it on radio during the 1930s and evolved it finally into the 1964-65 TV series “The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo,” in which the clumsy and crusty old man portrayed various historical characters.
Then there was the feature-length cartoon feature, still seen at the holiday season, with Magoo as Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.”
If Magoo proved an artistic affront, he did provide Backus and his wife, Henny--hosts and frequent guests at many of Los Angeles’ favorite parties--with a comfortable existence.
But Backus was used to comfortable existences, having been born into one in a mansion in the posh Lake Erie suburb of Bratenahl, Ohio, near Cleveland.
His father was president of a successful machinery company and, although aghast at his son’s acting aspirations, did send the young Backus this telegram when he came to Hollywood seeking work in films:
“Son, go with RKO. That fellow Howard Hughes (the industrial billionaire who then owned the studio) is a great engineer and if anything goes wrong with his pictures you can always work in his plant.”
Backus eventually did work for RKO, in a small part in the 1952 film “Androcles and the Lion,” set in ancient Rome. It starred Victor Mature and that pairing provided one of Hollywood’s most endearing off-camera anecdotes.
Jim Bacon, a longtime friend and writer, recalls that Backus and Mature had been boyhood friends. One day Mature grabbed his old chum and they raced off the “Androcles” set so Mature could get to downtown Los Angeles to sign some legal papers.
Afterward, the two--still clad as Roman soldiers from the day’s shooting--sought out a neighborhood watering hole. They found one in the Westlake District, and as they entered the shocked bartender and the few early drinkers in the place began to retreat.
“What’s the matter?” Mature thundered. “Don’t you serve servicemen in here?”
The first of the unique Backus characters evolved not from TV or films, however, but radio. He had been Hubert Updike on “The Alan Young Show,” a character not unlike that of Thurston Howell III, 20 years later, on “Gilligan’s Island.”
He had also been heard on “The Penny Singleton Show,” “The Danny Kaye Show” and other radio programs as an uncredited voice.
His first film was “The Great Lover” in 1949, and there followed at least 75 more, ranging from the whimsical “Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town” and “Francis in the Navy” to “Rebel Without a Cause,” the James Dean classic in which Backus portrayed Dean’s father.
It was a favorite role and a dramatic portrayal he looked back on fondly--particularly during the Magoo years.
Backus once described his film career as a series of “best friends,” the guy who always drove the bride to the church, but never married her.
Hollywood earlier had caused him to miss out on a classic New York stage part. Garson Kanin, a classmate from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, had written “Born Yesterday” and asked Backus to play the role of the scrap-iron tycoon with a penchant for larceny. But Backus had a film commitment and the role went instead to Paul Douglas.
Besides “Gilligan’s Island” and “I Married Joan,” Backus’ television work included “Blondie” (as J. C. Dithers, in which his real-life wife portrayed a theatrical counterpart); “Conflict” (a 1956-57 dramatic anthology); “Continental Showcase” (the 1966 summer replacement for “The Jackie Gleason Show”); “Espionage,” “Hollywood House,” and “Talent Scouts.”
He also portrayed Joe Wheelwright in a “Maverick” spoof of “Bonanza,” one of several satires the “Maverick” cast was famous for.
Backus, off camera, was an avid golfer and one of the few actors to ever make the cut in the fabled Crosby Pro-Am Tournament at Pebble Beach.
He met his artist-actress wife in 1941, when she brought some hot soup to a sick friend who lived down the hall in a New York apartment. Backus was a visitor that day and he liked to say that the two hadn’t parted since.
With her he wrote two books dealing humorously with his Parkinson’s disease: “Backus Strikes Back” and “Forgive Us Our Digressions.”
They had no children.
Burial service will be private. A memorial service will be conducted at a later date, a spokesperson said. In lieu of flowers, the family suggested that donations be sent to the National Parkinson’s Foundation.