Jim Backus is mostly known for playing Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island and being the voice of Mr. Magoo. While those funny roles brought him notoriety, Backus kind of wished that people knew about his dramatic acting work.
In fact, it kind of got under his skin at times. Backus talked about this in an interview with the Herald and Review. “I get really bothered with people who think that the only things I’ve done are Mr. Magoo and Gilligan’s Island,” he said, according to MeTV. “I’m a dramatic actor too, and I’ve done over eighty non-comic movies.”
The actor pointed out that he appeared in a production of the play Our Town. Backus said, “In one scene, I cry over my dead wife. How can that be funny?” Backus loved to play dramatic roles. One of his best roles was where he played James Dean’s father in Rebel Without A Cause. Backus is absolutely brilliant in that role, even though Dean stole the movie.
Among his other film roles included Pat and Mike opposite Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and Deadline – U.S.A. with Humphrey Bogart. Backus also found himself among a large cast of comedians and actors in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Jim Backus Understood That Comedy Success Was Tedious
But he did understand why that success he gained in comedy was a double-edged sword. Backus said, “I feel sometimes that I’ve painted myself into a corner. I want to do some pictures, good, solid, dramatic parts.”
At the time, Backus also had success in commercials. He was getting a sizeable check for a TV ad spot. Backus said of commercials, “They’re the best thing in the world because of what we call ‘F-Y’ money. That means that an actor who does them gets paid enough to tell people with bad scripts to…er, well, take them away.”
When it came to show business, Backus, who died in 1989 at 73 years old, touched many different formats. He did radio shows, television, movies, and even wrote books. Backus did get a lot of notoriety for his two most famous roles.
Ironically, Thurston Howell III might not have been as well received if Gilligan’s Island was not in reruns. The show lasted just three seasons, but would be good enough to have some TV movies later on. One of them showed the stranded castaways finally getting off that island.
Yet Backus already was a name actor from the Golden Age of Television. In the 1950s, he co-starred with actress Joan Davis in the sitcom I Married Joan.
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