BACKUS, JAMES, GILMORE "JIM" (25 February, 1913 - July 3, 1989), was a prolific actor and writer who made a name in television, film, and radio, and later authored books bringing awareness to Parkinson’s disease. Backus was born in 1913 in BRATENAHL, a wealthy suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Backus attended several public and private high schools before his graduation, beginning 9th grade at Shaw High School in EAST CLEVELAND. He spent sophomore year at Kentucky Military Institute, where he became close friends with fellow classmate Victor Mature, who would also go on to become a professional actor. In Kentucky, Backus defied the strict administration and took part in many humorous antics, and was infamously expelled for riding a horse in the mess hall.
The family returned to the Cleveland area, where Backus attended University School. Never caring much for conventional academics and schoolwork, Backus was far more interested in golfing and acting, dreaming of one day playing in a Shakespeare production. Instead of pursuing an Ivy League education like many of his classmates, Backus decided to become an actor by junior year. His father, Russell Backus, a mechanical engineer, was shocked and skeptical at first, but he still supported his son and enrolled him in the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Eager to prove himself in the acting world, Backus graduated in 1933.
Backus landed his debut professional role as a 97 year old rabbi in the CLEVELAND PLAYHOUSE production of The Dybbuk. Starting out with minor roles and appearances, Backus drew inspiration from his father’s friends back in Bratenahl, and was often typecast to play older and wealthier high class men. His early career saw appearances on local radio, and even brought him to New York for several productions. Building a resume, Backus gathered enough of a reputation to appear in his first motion picture, The Great Lover, in 1949.
Working in Hollywood for five decades, Backus appeared in films in minor roles, such as a press agent in the 1957 Man of a Thousand Faces, to more notable roles such as Commander Hutch in the 1955 Francis in the Navy. Backus is perhaps most well known for his portrayal as James Dean’s father in the classic film Rebel Without a Cause.
In addition to his repertoire of feature films, Backus was also a frequent freelance performer in hundreds of radio and television programs, with a breakout role in The Alan Young Show. Television brought about the high point of his career, as Backus appeared in 117 episodes of I Married Joan and even starred in his own show beginning in 1960, The Jim Backus Show. Backus finally broke through to younger audiences as well with his standout performance as Thurston Howell III on the hit sitcom Gilligan’s Island. Continuing this trend, Backus voiced Mr. Magoo in cartoons beginning in the late 1940s, maintaining the role for over 50 episodes. Not only a successful actor, Backus was an avid golfer, and participated in tournaments across the country.
Jim Backus married a fellow actress Betty Kean in 1939, but the couple separated 3 years later. In 1943, Backus found his lifelong partner in Henrietta “Henny” Karson, and the two were married in SHAKER HEIGHTS. Henrietta was a skilled performer herself, and had appeared in several broadway musicals during the 1930s. The couple was the perfect personal and professional partnership, and they appeared in short films and published multiple books together. Writing mostly anecdotes about their marriage and life together, they authored the lighthearted Forgive Us Our Digressions: An Autobiography in 1988 and Backus Strikes Back in 1984. More than just fanfare, these books served as a way for Backus to talk candidly about his long struggles with Parkinson’s disease. He made light of his condition in classic comedic fashion, but also touched on his moments of frustration and weakness due to declining health. In one such moment, he barely was able to return for a cameo in the cartoon revival of Gilligan’s Island in 1982, but he persevered and reprised his role briefly at the end of the film despite his frailty.
Jim Backus died of pneumonia on July 3, 1989, and was buried in Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California. Perry Lafferty, Vice President of Programs for CBS, wrote that Backus “was generous with his time and talents and, always, he was loving.”