Notable People

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

10400 Brighton Road
Jim Backus, Bratenahl resident
James Gilmore Backus

Bratenahl born and raised. Jim Backus became one of the few to become an actor and writer in the theater, radio, and television, and more than 80 motion pictures and yes, cartoons.

James Gilmore Backus was born on February 25, 1913, in Bratenahl to Russell and Daisey Backus. He was raised at 10400 Brighton Road, attended Bratenahl School through the eighth grade, and next attended ninth grade at  Shaw High School. He went on to attend Kentucky Military Institute and expelled after one-and-one-half years for riding a horse through the mess hall. His roommate at Kentucky Military Institute was Victor Mature, who became stage, film, and television actor who starred most notably in several movies during the 1950s.

Backus returned to the Cleveland area attending University School for his junior year. He was a dorm student and came home on weekends. For his senior year, he persuaded his father to let him go to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, where he graduated in 1933.

His first professional role was as a 97-year-old rabbi in a Cleveland Playhouse production of The Dybbuk. After two years of appearances in summer stock and several productions in New York, Mr. Backus said, ''I decided to try radio as a source of livelihood because I like to eat regularly.''

He stuck it out and soon was doing motion pictures. His first film was “The Great Lover” in 1949.

He appeared in at least 80 films, including Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town, Francis in the Navy, Father was a Fullback, The Wonderful World of Brothers Grimm, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, Billie, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out, Hello Down There, Prince Jack. Among his more memorable screen portrayals was Commander Hutch in Francis in the Navy and the glib press agent in Man of a Thousand Faces. His most prestigious film role when he portrayed James Dean’s ineffectual father in the classic film, Rebel Without a Cause in 1955.

Backus worked in Hollywood over five decades, often portraying characters with an “upper crust,” air. His inspiration came from Bratenahl's friends of his father. “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 one about the evils of Franklin D. Roosevelt. They were all real rock-ribbed Republicans.”

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

Ultimately, he became a hit playing a character called Hubert Updyke III on 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 judge of the Court of Domestic Relations, on 117 episodes of I Married Joan.

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.

With his career in full swing, Backus also tackled another role that he became known for, the nearsighted curmudgeon Mr. Magoo in cartoons. It was as Mr. Magoo that he became best known to audiences. His vocal portrayal of the pink-nosed, bumbler in the screen cartoon series, began in the late 1940s, continued for more than 50 episodes, and won two Academy Awards.

In his freewheeling reminiscence Rocks on the Roof, Backus said he had loosely patterned the delivery and philosophy of Mr. Magoo on his late father, an amiable Cleveland engineer, who confused names, dates, and places with lovable determination.

As a writer, Mr. Backus often collaborated with his wife, Henny, the former Henriette Kaye. The two wrote a 1962 book titled, What Are You Doing After the Orgy? It was a lighthearted depiction of their life together.

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. 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.”

Backus died on July 3, 1989, of pneumonia and Parkinson’s disease in St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California.