Not many acts that started in vaudeville went on to make careers elsewhere as the parameters of show business changed in the early '30s. One that did, and did it in a big way was Jim Backus. A fine actor, he scored big in both dramatic and comedic roles, as a character actor in movies. He had great success doing voice overs in animated cartoons. And before it was all over, he had two hit tv series to his credit.
He was born in Cleveland, Ohio on February 25, 1913. By the time he started in show business full time, he was working in various stock companies with the final days of vaudeville as his backdrop. The movies soon beckoned and Backus found work as a character actor. Oddly enough, though Backus was known around Hollywood as one of the funniest guys around, it was a very long time before producers would consider casting him in anything other than straight dramatic roles. "It's the curse of a sad face and cow-brown eyes," he would often lament, "To them I must look like a Saint bernard. They did everything but put a keg of brandy around my neck." His movie credits were exemplary, doing excellent dramatic and comedic turns in such films as Rebel Without A Cause, The Great Lover, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Pat and Mike, Hollywood Story, Advance To The Rear, Where Were You When The Lights Went Out, and The Great Man.
Once his talent for comedy had been discovered, Backus found himself quite in demand on television, working primarily in situation comedies. After guest stints on Blondie and his own Jim Backus Show, he hit paydirt as the hapless husband on I Married Joan, starring comedienne Joan Davis. After more movie work, he would return to television as Thurston Howell III on the long running sitcom, Gilligan's Island. The show has become an American trash culture icon through endless syndication, reviled back in its day by critics and conversely loved by audiences to this day. Backus would return to reprise his role of the stuffy and tipsy millionaire on subsequent 'reunion' tv movies throughout the 70 s and early 80s after the series left the air in first run episodes.
But the notoriety Backus achieved by his role on Gilligan's Island was not the only 'role' he was strongly identified with, for in 1959, he had lent his vocal talents playing an outrageously nearsighted cartoon character named Mister Magoo. The cartoon won an Academy Award and became a national phenomena, spawning a running cartoon series on both television and in movie theaters, comic books, action figures and endless merchandising aimed at the moppet market who had fallen in love with the myopic old man. He also recorded albums in the Magoo character, primarily aimed at the children's market. Though his recorded comedy efforts were few, Backus had cut a number of one-off novelty 45s during the 50s, the most notable of which was "Delicious," which appears on the compilation Dr. Demento's 20th Anniversary on Rhino.