Do you know who this is?
-One of his teachers in grade school was Margaret Hamilton, who would later play Miss Gulch/The Wicked Witch, in the classic movie from 1939, The Wizard of Oz.
-He was expelled from Kentucky Military Institute for riding a horse into the Institute’s lunchroom.
-He reached the US Top 40 Pop charts for a couple of weeks in 1958 with his novelty recording, 'Delicious!'
As an actor, he did it all. Starting in the later years of vaudeville, transitioning to radio shows in the 1930s, the Broadway stage and movies in the 1940s, and finally television in the 1950s. He participated in over 230 films and television shows as an actor, was a television show writer, had a hit record, voice-overs in animated cartoons, and portrayed himself in an additional 30+ television shows and films. As a character actor in movies and television, he would excel in dramatic and comedic roles and he would work extensively in the entertainment industry for five decades. One of his most remembered roles - and one which gives away his name immediately - was as Thurston Howell III in Gilligan’s Island.
James Gilmore Backus was born in Cleveland, Ohio on February 25, 1913. He would attend prep school – and his kindergarten teacher was Margaret Hamilton. Hamilton would later become involved in the movie industry, with her most famous role being that of Miss Gulch/The Wicked Witch, in the classic 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz. Jim found as he progressed in school he discovered that his major interests lay outside of the classroom – in golf and acting.
His father was an engineer who became frustrated with the non-academic attitude in school and would enroll him in the Kentucky Military Institute – where he met and became a friend of future movie star Victor Mature. James managed to get himself expelled from the Institute by riding a horse into the school lunchroom. As a teenager, Jim would work for a stock theater company during the summers and – in one of the company’s productions – had a small role in a production starring future movie great Clark Gable.
Ultimately he would manage to struggle his way through high school and was able to convince his father to let him skip a traditional college education. Instead he went to New York City to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After his graduation from the Academy in 1933, Jim spent two years working in a variety of stage productions and in summer stock before trying his hand at radio. He would appear on a number of radio shows throughout the ‘golden age of radio’ with roles in soap operas, dramas, detective shows, and variety shows. In 1937 he was able to open another phase of his career by securing a spot as the Master of Ceremonies in the Broadway play Hitch Your Wagon, then later as a character the drama Too Many Heroes (which lasted sixteen performances).
Jim’s biggest radio success was on the Alan Young Show where he created Hubert Updyke III - a stuffy, upper-crust character famous for dry quips such as “Careful, or I’ll have your mouth washed out with domestic champagne.” Updyke became a prototype for one of Jim’s most famous television era characters – Thurston Howell III.
As the 1940s neared its end, he was beginning a new aspect of his entertainment career: the movies. One of the first roles he had in the movies was a 1949 football drama titled Easy Living with Lucille Ball and former classmate Victor Mature. That same year he was selected to be the voice of a character in a cartoon titled Ragtime Bear that would become very popular: nearsighted Quincy Magoo. Jim would spend almost three decades as Mr. Magoo, from the original cartoon shorts to a television series, and finally to full-length films. Jim would also have significant roles in the 1955 comedy Francis in the Navy and – also in 1955 - as James Dean’s father in Rebel Without A Cause.
While Jim found work as a character actor in the movies – and was known around Hollywood as one of the funniest men around – it was a long time before producers would consider casting him in anything other than straight dramatic roles. He once said: "It's the curse of a sad face and cow-brown eyes. To them I must look like a Saint Bernard. They did everything but put a keg of brandy around my neck." However, he gradually entered into more comedic roles.
Perhaps television helped in that area. He starred in an early sitcom titled I Married Joan, starring in the role of Judge Bradley Stevens with costar comedienne Joan Davis as his TV wife. The series lasted from 1952 – 1953.
"No one can pull the wool over my eyes. Cashmere maybe, but wool, never." As Thurston Howell III
The role that Jim is most remembered for – and one that he leaped at the chance to play – was that of Thurston Howell III, the marooned millionaire on Gilligan’s Island who, with his wife Lovey, brought culture and social snobbery to the island setting. It was a reprisal of his radio days character, and brought a bright spot to the show. It is a still a popular character after four decades of reruns. He would bring back the character in several movies made with the Gilligan Island cast after the show ran its television course.
Jim would decline in health his last few years, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. He passed away on July 3, 1989, and is buried in Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California.
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