Today is the birthday of the great Jim Backus (1913-1989). If this distinctive actor hadn’t been known for voicing Mr. Magoo (late 1940s through late 1970s), or playing Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island (1965-1967), he’d still be well known to show biz buffs for countless other things. His IMBD listings are a long scroll indeed. After a brief theatre career in the late 1930s, he began to get lots of work in radio and doing voice-over work in cartoons. (In addition to Mr. Magoo, he can also be heard in several classic Warner Bros. cartoons). He specialized in stuffed shirts with Long Island Lockjaw, and was already playing early versions of Mr. Howell in the radio era. In radio he became a regular on The Alan Young Show in the late 40s as Hubert Updike III, and he played a similar guy named Hartley Benson on The Mel Blanc Show. On the tv sit com I Married Joan (1952-54) he played a variant; he was essentially the straight man as the long suffering husband of Joan Davis (a format not unlike I Love Lucy). And he appeared in scores and scores of films. Most people know his most famous turns, in Rebel without a Cause and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. See his IMBD listing here.
People loved Backus a lot, and though we know his exclusively as a character man who livened up ensembles, it was perhaps inevitable that he should be tried out in his own starring vehicle at least once. The Jim Backus Show a.k.a Hot Off the Wire aired for a single seaon in 1960. Backus was cast as a editor with his own fly-by-night wire service. It’s the wrong part for him, he clearly loves fooling around too much and keeps undermining the “bad guy” role of editor with little bits of funny. But it’s an interesting artifact…
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc