He was best known as the voice of Quincy Magoo, the myopic cartoon character who blustered and bumbled through 500 comic episodes on TV and film. But if Jim Backus could have overseen his obituaries before he died of pneumonia last week at 76, he would undoubtedly have wanted to place some pictures around that lingering voice. About 80 pictures, in fact, to match the films he made during a 50-year acting career. Backus trained at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but he was never destined for leading-man stardom. He thrived in radio in the ’30s and ’40s, made his movie debut at 36, then fell into TV success as hapless Judge Stevens on the ’50s sitcom I Married Joan. Often cast as a buffoon or bungler, Backus was less a star than a bushy-browed presence who was welcomed into living rooms before they were “media centers” and into movie theaters before they moved to the malls. Though his most renowned dramatic role was as James Dean’s ineffectual, apron-clad father in Rebel Without a Cause in 1955, comedy was his métier and his meal ticket.
In the 1960s, Backus parlayed an early radio character he had created for the Alan Young Show, that of the rich, outrageous snob Hubert Updyke III, into his most famous TV role—fabulously wealthy Thurston Howell III on the series Gilligan’s Island. The critics dismissed the show as pap, the kids loved it, and the series endures even now, more than 20 years later, in reruns.
For most of the past decade, Backus had lived in retirement with his wife, Henny, a former actress, sculptor and his co-author on the books What Are You Doing After the Orgy? (about their years together) and Backus Strikes Back (about his battle with Parkinson’s disease). Troubled by symptoms of the ailment, he had all but become a recluse in the couple’s Bel Air home in the years before his death. Yet if his image had begun to fade from the screen as his career declined, the echoes of Mr. Magoo endured, bolstered in part by the old gent’s presence in TV commercials for General Electric. The cartoon character had won two Academy Awards, but Backus had once amiably groused, “I’d like to bury the old creep and get me some good dramatic roles in movies.”
To his dismay, perhaps, those roles always seemed to be spaced too far apart. To all who delighted in watching Backus at work, however, the comic portrayals that filled the interludes were compensation enough.