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Jim Backus - Radio, Television, Theater and Motion Picture Actor

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James Gilmore Backus
James Gilmore Backus

Jim Backus was one of the few actors to do it all. He became an actor and writer in theater, radio, television, and more than 80 motion pictures and cartoons.

James Gilmore Backus was born on February 25, 1913, in Bratenahl to Russell and Daisy Backus, who also had a daughter, Kathryn, born on February 28, 1910. Jum attended Bratenahl School graduating from the eighth grade in 1927, moving on to Shaw High School in Cleveland for one year.

His parents began to feel uneasy when their eighteen-year-old son acted in a Cleveland Playhouse production of The Dybbuk, playing a 94-year-old rabbi and modeling his characterization of the radio show priest, Father Coughlin. Shortly afterward, when he declared his desire to make theater his life's work, alarm bells went off in earnest.

Off he went to the Kentucky Military Institute, where they were supposed to make a man out of him. His roommate was Victor Mature, who later became an actor staring most notably in several movies during the 1950s. Unfortunately, Backus and Victor did not fit in with the structure of a military school. Backus managed to get expelled for riding a horse through the mess hall. In concert with his roommate, the school confirmed that their acting ambitions were far from misplaced.

Realizing a fait accompli, Backus’ father relented to the point of paying his son’s way through the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and Backus was on his way to New York, with visions of shining marquees in his eyes.

Broadway parts were hard to come by, but radio was a flourishing industry in the late '30s and early 40s, with New York as its center. So after two years of appearances in summer stock and several productions in New York, Backus decided to try radio as a source of livelihood because he liked to eat regularly.

Backus’ natural gift for mimicry and his ability to switch to broad accents and dialects put him immediately to work in radio. Soon he was doing three to four serials every day, making $30 a show. His radio career set the pattern. He was not going to be starring material. Instead, he was to be a character actor, a straight man.

Backus married the actress Betty Kean in 1939 and was divorced three years later.

Backus set off to Hollywood to seek his fortune in motion pictures. His father sent him a telegram. “Son, go with RKO, that fellow Howard Hughes, who owns the studio, is a great engineer, and if anything goes wrong with his pictures, you can always work in his plant."

Jim eventually did work for RKO, in a small part in the 1952 film Androcles and the Lion starring his old roommate, Victor Mature. One day, Victor grabbed his old chum, and they raced off the set so Victor could get to downtown Los Angeles to sign some legal papers.

Afterward, the two, still clad as Roman soldiers, sought out a neighborhood watering hole. As they entered, the shocked bartender and the few early drinkers began to withdraw. “What’s the matter?” Mature thundered. “Don’t you serve servicemen in here?”

Backus stuck it out and soon was doing motion pictures. His first film was The Great Lover in 1949, starring Bob Hope and Rhonda Fleming.

Throughout his career, he appeared in at least eighty films. Among his screen portrayals was playing Commander Hutch in Francis in the Navy and the glib press agent in Man of a Thousand Faces.

In 1954, he was cast in the most memorable film roles, as James Dean’s limp excuse for a father in the classic film Rebel Without a Cause.

Backus worked in Hollywood over five decades, often portraying pompous characters with an "upper crust" air. His inspiration came from his father’s Bratenahl friends. “They would all sit in the steam room of the club and say, ‘By George, I don’t like what the fellow in the White House is doing.” Then they’d go on about the evils of Franklin D. Roosevelt. They were all real rock-ribbed Republicans, real General Bull Moose progressives.

While waiting for parts, he was a free-lance performer in hundreds of radio programs, including Columbia Workshop, Matinee at Meadowbrook, and The Kate Smith Hour.  He had also been heard on The Penny Singleton Show and The Danny Kaye Show.

Ultimately, he became a hit playing a rich Hubert Updyke III on the radio version of The Alan Young Show. Hubert, a hilarious snob who insisted that his ancestors landed at ''Cadillac Rock,'' said things like ''Careful, or I'll have your mouth washed out with domestic champagne.''

On television, Backus appeared in the Lux Video Theater, was a panelist on What's My Line? and played Joan Davis's long-suffering husband, a domestic court judge, on 117 television episodes of I Married Joan. He also starred in his show of one season, The Jim Backus Show, also known as Hot Off the Wire.

Backus won popularity with younger generations for his portrayal of the fabulously wealthy Thurston Howell III on television's Gilligan's Island, which initially ran from 1964 to 1967 and has been in syndication ever since.

 

Jim and Henne Backus
Jim and Henne Backus

Before he made it in Hollywood, he met Henriette “Henny” Kaye in 1941. She was a sculptress, living at the Hotel Royal, where Backus visited Herman Levin. She knocked on Levin’s door and delivered a bowl of soup. “The door was opened,” she recalled, “by a skinny guy with long eyelashes. I gave him the soup and sashayed down the hall. A thunderstruck Backus rushed his friend through his soup and offered to return the bowl.

After a short courtship, Jim and Henny married in 1943 – once in Philadelphia for her parents and once in Cleveland for his. They meshed immediately, two lively, vigorous, funny people happy to be with each other, working in the business they loved.

Henne was born on March 21, 1911, in Brooklyn.  She studied sculpture at Cooper Union, but she preferred working in the theater. Henne made her Broadway debut under the name of Henrietta Kaye in the 1920s and appeared in Broadway musicals during the 1930s. Her stage credits include Horse Eats Hat, a 1936 farce play co-written and directed by Orson Welles. In addition, she performed uncredited as a teacher in the classic 1950s teen movie The Blackboard Jungle.

By 1950, television was nudging radio toward its creative death, and Backus got in on the ground floor. I Married Joan ran from 1953 to 1955. The fifties gave way to the sixties, with Backus gaining professional standing, going from strength to strength.

With his career in full swing, Backus also tackled another role for which he would become notable, the myopic curmudgeon Mr. Magoo in cartoons. His vocal portrayal of an elderly, wealthy, short-statured retiree who gets into a series of comical situations due to his extreme near-sightedness in the screen cartoon series began in the late 1940s, continued for more than 50 episodes, winning him two Academy Awards.

Backus said he had loosely patterned Mr. Magoo's delivery and philosophy on his late father in his freewheeling reminiscence Rocks on the Roof. This amiable Cleveland engineer often confused names, dates, and places with lovable determination.

Henny played the role of Cora Dithers and Jim as Mr. Dithers in the 1968 television sitcom Blondie. They starred in five-season episodes of The Love Boat. She also appeared with Jim in a second season episode of Gilligan’s Island.

The pair appeared in several films together, including Don’t Make Waves, Hello Down There, Meet Me In Las Vegas, and The Great Man.

Jim and Henny often collaborated to write several books based on anecdotes of their forty-six years together, including, What Are You Doing After the Orgy? Only When I Laugh and Forgive us our Digressions.

Jim wanted to do everything. He had studied everything. He knew classic mime. He would mimic people brilliantly, and if you had a simple lunch with him, he wouldn’t sit still; he’d be up eight times to do an impression or act out a story.

The actor who dreamed of doing Shakespeare ended up famous as a cartoon curmudgeon. 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. But, he said in 1983, "The hurt feelings I've had since, though, seem to disappear every week when I go to the bank and deposit the money."

He was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. An avid golfer, Jim Backus, made the 36-hole cut at the 1964 Bing Crosby Pro-Am tournament. 

The famous actor and his wife presented amusing accounts of Jim’s battle against Parkinson's disease, a disease that struck the star and left him "shaking, rattling, and rolling." Jim Backus died of pneumonia on July 3, 1989, at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California. After Jim died, Henny wrote Care for the Caretaker, which offered practical suggestions for people taking care of seriously ill relatives or friends. Henny died on December 9, 2004. Both are buried in Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California.