Jim Backus - Radio, Television, Theater and Motion Picture Actor
10400 Brighton Road
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, to Russell and Daisy Backus, who lived at 10400 Brighton Road in Bratenahl. He attended Bratenahl School graduating from the eighth grade in 1927. Ninth grade was spent at Shaw High School. Next, he went to Kentucky Military Institute, where he was expelled for riding a horse through the mess hall. His roommate at Kentucky Military Institute was Victor Mature, who became a 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, followed by local radio appearances. 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, and 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 portrayed James Dean’s ineffectual father in the classic film Rebel Without a Cause in 1955.
Backus worked in Hollywood for over five decades, often portraying 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 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, 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.''
Backus appeared in the Lux Video Theater on television, 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 originally 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 would become notable for, the myopic curmudgeon Mr. Magoo in cartoons. His vocal portrayal of the pink-nosed, bumbler in the screen cartoon series, began in the late 1940s, continued for more than 50 episodes, winning him two Academy Awards.
In his freewheeling reminiscence Rocks on the Roof, Backus said he had loosely patterned Mr. Magoo’s delivery and philosophy on his late father. This amiable Cleveland engineer often confused names, dates, and places with lovable determination.
Backus married the actress Betty Kean in 1939 and was divorced three years later. He met Henrietta “Henny” Karson (Kaye) on March 10, 1941, and they married on January 16, 1943, at the home of Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Spencer in Shaker Heights. 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 Orson Welles's Horse Eats Hat. She performed uncredited as a teacher in the classic 1950s teen movie The Blackboard Jungle.
Henny played Cora Dithers and Jim's role 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 46-years together, including, What Are You Doing After the Orgy? Only When I Laugh and Forgive us our Digressions.
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.”
An avid golfer, Jim Backus, made the 36-hole cut at the 1964 Bing Crosby Pro-Am tournament. He was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
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.