Celebrity Then And Now
Publication: Albany Daily News. Posted by Lexi Schwartz
Celebrity Then And Now
Posted by Lexi Schwartz
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There are certain television characters that became beloved throughout their time on the screen. For those that were around in the 1950s and 1960s, two of those characters include the nearsighted Mr. Magoo and Thurston Howell on “Gilligan’s Island”. Both of these characters were portrayed by Jim Backus, a veteran actor that had many credits in both film and TV during his career. Though he passed away more than 30 years ago, Backus still has a long legacy as an actor.
Backus comes from Ohio, having been born in Cleveland on February 25, 1913 and also raised in the area. Backus finished his schooling there and decided to go into acting. Like many from his era, Backus got his start in radio. He had several audio-only plays early on before branching out into becoming an on-screen actor. “I decided to try radio as a source of livelihood because I like to eat regularly,” Backus said. With that, backus attended the American Academy of Dramatic Art to take classes, kicking off his career.
Backus made his film debut in a short movie called “A-Lad-In His Lamp” in 1948. That same year, he also had a role in the short “Where Will You Hide?” The following year, Backus had several films that included “One Last Fling”, “Father Was a Fullback” and “A Dangerous Profession” to wrap up the decade. Backus remained very busy when the 1950s started, appearing in multiple films on a yearly basis. Some of his films included “Hollywood Story”, “I Want You” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams”.
Backus then began his TV career in 1952 when he played Judge Bradley Stevens in “I Married Joan” for several years, and also took on the role of Mr. Magoo. “Magoo’s appeal lies in our hostility toward an older generation,” Backus said. “But he’s not only nearsighted physically; his mind is selective to what it sees, too. That is where the humor, the satire lies, in the difference between what he thinks he sees and reality as we see it.”
Backus had many short films during the rest of the 1950s, which included many from the “Mr. Magoo” series. Naturally, Backus became synonymous with the character that became a fan favorite and even had a live adaptation down the road. The following decade, Backus took on the role of Thurston Howell on “Gilligan’s Island”, and also had his own show during the early part of the 1960s.
When it came to “Gilligan’s Island”, Backus almost wasn’t cast because the show runners were looking for people that weren’t quite as famous and wouldn’t command a big payday. Show creator Sherwood Schwartz said that “Because they wouldn’t let me sign Jim, I wrote the script minimizing that part (of Thurston Howell), because I couldn’t find anybody else to play it. I shrank the part, feeling I’d have to go with a second banana who was not a top banana.” Thankfully, Schwartz was able to get his way with Backus being cast.
At first, “Gilligan’s Island” wasn’t considered to be a success. “The critics assassinated it,” Backus said. “But the kids flipped for it. I’ve been watching the reruns and confess I’m hooked on it myself.”
That decade also featured many prominent films for Backus. This included “Johnny Cool”, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “Hurry Sundown”. When the 1970s started, Backus started to wind down his career a bit, not starring in as many films as he used to. Still, there were some notable works such as “Friday Foster”, “Pete’s Dragon” and “Angels’ Brigade”. His final film roles came in the 1980s with “There Goes the Bride”, “Prince Jck” and “Enchanted Journey”. As for television, he reprised his role on “Gilligan’s Island” for animated shows and TV movies, with his final small screen credit coming in the cartoon “Gilligan’s Planet”.
Sadly, Backus had struggled with his health later on in life. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which he battled for several years. The day before Independence Day in 1989, Backus contracted pneumonia that ultimately took his life. He passed away that day in Los Angeles at 76 years old. Backus was survived by his wife Henny Kaye, an actress in her own right that had lived until late 2004, and the couple was married in 1943.
“I’m a working man’s hypochondriac,” Backus once said. “I used to do benefits and I’d come home with whatever symptoms went with the disease I was benefiting.” He added that “When they told me I had Parkinson’s, I read a magazine article on it, and overnight I had every symptom known to man. I became an authority on it.”
After his passing, Sherwood Schwartz had said about Backus that “He was a unique talent,” and that “I don’t know anybody else who could play that character the way Jim did.” Former co-star on “Gilligan’s Island” Dawn Wells had said that though she and Backus weren’t all that close, the cast definitely was a tight knit one. “We were a family,” she said.
Backus could truly do it all during his career, playing a wide range of characters and seemingly nailing all of them. Even with his career, there were some days where Backus would rather have been on the golf course. Backus was frequently playing with professionals, and was regarded as one of the best in the sport in Hollywood.