BACKUS, JAMES, GILMORE "JIM" (25 February, 1913 - July 3, 1989), was a prolific actor who made a name in television, film, and radio and later authored books that profiled his lengthy struggles with Parkinson’s disease. Backus was born in BRATENAHL, a wealthy suburb of Cleveland, OH. He attended several public and private high schools before his graduation, beginning with 9th grade at Shaw High School in EAST CLEVELAND. His sophomore year was spent at Kentucky Military Institute where he became close friends with classmate Victor Mature, who would also become a professional actor. Backus was expelled from the Institute 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 acting and golfing (in 1964 he made the 36-hole cut at the Bing Crosby Pro-Am tournament). By his junior year of high school, he was committed to becoming an actor. His father, Russell Backus, a mechanical engineer, was shocked and skeptical but nonetheless enrolled him in New York’s prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts from which Backus graduated in 1933.

Backus’ first professional role was a 97-year-old rabbi in the CLEVELAND PLAYHOUSE production of The Dybbuk. His first motion picture, The Great Lover (also featuring BOB HOPE, Rhonda Fleming, and future Superman George Reeves) debuted in 1949.  Backus subsequently appeared in scores of films, including Pat and Mike (1952) with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; Francis in the Navy (1955) with Donald O’Connor and a very young Clint Eastwood; Rebel Without a Cause (1955) featuring James Dean and Natalie Wood; and Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) with James Cagney and Dorothy Malone. 

Beyond films, Backus proved equally successful in radio, appearing frequently on The Jack Benny Program and The Judy Canova Show on CBS, The Alan Young Show on NBC, and in his own variety program, The Jim Backus Show on ABC (1957 and 1958). On television he appeared in 117 episodes of I Married Joan and, beginning in 1960, starred in his own show, The Jim Backus Show. Throughout his career, Backus often was chosen to play older and wealthier high-class men, a talent he leveraged to create his two most enduring characters: Mr. Magoo (for which he provided voice-over for more than 50 cartoons) and the endearingly snooty Thurston Howell III in Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967).

Jim Backus married actress Betty Kean in 1939, but the couple separated 3 years later. In 1943, he found his lifelong partner in Henrietta “Henny” Karson, and the two were married in SHAKER HEIGHTS. Backus received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. He died of pneumonia on July 3, 1989, and was buried in Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.


Owen Price

Updated by Christopher Roy

Last updated: 12/14/2023

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