Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Millionaire!

James Gilmore Backus was born on February 25, 1913 in Cleveland, Ohio.  A natural comedian, he was acting by his late 20s, appearing on the CBS radio show "Society Girl."  Backus was cast as Dexter Hayes, the first in a series of snobby, upper-crust millionaires that would become a theme throughout his career.

Long-time readers of this blog may recall that Backus has appeared on this page before, in last year's review of the 1963 film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  But as this blog now does individual profiles, I've decided to devote more time to this true comedy legend.

His early work in radio led to his being cast as the near-sighted Mr. Magoo.  Backus first began voicing the cartoon character in 1949 and would continue to do so on and off for the next five decades.  Magoo was an unexpected hit for Columbia Pictures, as he was, at the time, one of only a handful of human cartoon characters. Watch the introduction here.  And here's a full episode.

During the early Magoo years, Backus continued appearing on radio, including The Mel Blanc Show and The Alan Young Show.  On the latter, he appeared as another high-society snob, namely Hubert Updike, a character many believe to be the prototype for his most famous role, that of Thurston Howell III, aka "The Millionaire," on Gilligan's Island.

Sherwood Schwartz, the man who created the series, never imagined anyone else in the role.  Schwartz had worked with Backus before and knew he was perfect to play the millionaire.  Casting Backus proved difficult however.  By that point, he'd already starred in his own sit-coms, including The Jim Backus Show (see the intro here) and I Married Joan (see the intro here).  Casting him as the millionaire meant money that CBS wasn't interested in spending, considering they had little hope that the series would even make it the airwaves.  Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed.

Secured in the role of Thurston Howell III, Backus left for Hawaii in November 1963 to shoot the pilot episode with co-stars Bob Denver, Alan Hale, and Natalie Schafer.  While on location, the cast and crew would hear the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.  In fact, when you watch the series intro, you may notice a flag flying at half mast as the Minnow sails out of the harbor on it's three-hour tour.

The series ran for three seasons on CBS before it was unceremoniously canceled by the network.  While Gilligan had been a ratings success, CBS needed an open slot on its schedule in order to renew Gunsmoke for a 13th season.  Dumb.

Backus managed to escape the typecasting that befell many of his island co-stars.  He returned to the silver screen in films such as Pete's Dragon (1977).  Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, he put in guest appearances on a number of television series, including I Dream of JeannieThe Love Boat, and ironically, Gunsmoke.   He also put in two memorable appearances on Sherwood Schwartz's other creation The Brady Bunch, appearing as both a grizzled, old gold prospector, and then later, Mike Brady's boss. He also reunited with several of his co-stars to appear in a celebrity edition of Family Feud.  You can watch that episode in its entirety here.  Good answer!

In 1978, Schwartz decided to re-visit the island and finally bring the castaways home after 15 years.  Backus immediately signed on to the project, Rescue From Gilligan's Island, which was a ratings success.  You can view the made-for-TV movie here.  Two more films would follow, including The Castaways on Gilligan's Island in 1979, and bizarrely, The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island in 1981.  When asked how that movie came to be, Russell "The Professor" Johnson explained that "CBS had a commitment to do another show with us, and they had a commitment with the Harlem Globetrotters.  And someone at CBS said let's put these two things together and we'll kill two birds with one stone."  Ah, the geniuses at CBS.

Cast photo from the final movie, featuring David
Ruprecht, upper right.
During production of the final movie, it was obvious to all who knew him that Backus was in decline.  He was in the early stages of Parkinson's Disease, and was unable to appear in most of the film.  Unfortunately the script had been written with Thurston Howell as the central figure, and a heavy re-write was necessary.  Schwartz created the never-referred to character of Thurston Howell IV to serve as a fill-in for Backus.  Future host of Supermarket Sweep David Ruprecht landed the role, with Backus appearing in a brief cameo at the end of the film.

Despite his illness, Backus continued to make brief but memorable television appearances, including one final outing as Thurston Howell III.  Joined by co-star Natalie Schafer, he appeared in a memorable spot for Orville Redenbacher's popcorn.  Watch it here.

In late June 1989, Backus came down with pneumonia, a result of his decade-long battle with Parkinson's.  He ultimately passed on July 3.  Entertainment Tonight reported on his passing, which you can view here.  Backus was interred at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village in Los Angeles.  His wife Henny would join him 15 years later.

Location: Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park
Plot: Section D, #203
GPS: 34.05818, -118.44153
Inscription: Darling Husband

Since his death, four of Backus's island co-stars have also passed away, including Alan Hale, just six months later, on January 2, 1990, Natalie Schafer on April 10, 1991, "Gilligan" himself, Bob Denver, on September 2, 2005, and finally, Russell Johnson, on January 16, 2014.  All four were cremated, so Backus remains the only one you can pay your respects to.

After Backus shot his only scene in the final Gilligan movie, he turned to co-star Dawn Wells and asked "was I funny?"  Yes, Mr. Howell, you certainly were.

Additional Links 
  • Backus joined his cast mates for the animated series The New Adventures of Gilligan.  Watch an episode here
  • That series led to another animated adventure, Gilligan's Planet.  Watch the intro here.
  • One of Backus's rare dramatic roles was as James Dean's father in Rebel Without a Cause.  Watch him chew up the scenery here.
  • Backus gives an interview to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in 1985. Watch it here.
  • Backus appeared as a drunken airplane pilot in the comedy classic It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  Here's a classic clip.
  • During his final years, Backus allowed Entertainment Tonight into his home.  Watch it here.
  • Backus and his wife wrote several books together.  Check them out on Amazon.
  • Dawn Wells produced a 2001 docu-drama called Surviving Gilligan's Island.  You can watch the film here

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Tragedy in the Twilight Zone

          "How did I let them talk me into doing this scene? 
                    I should have asked for a stunt double."
--Vic Morrow, 1982

"I'm not going up in the helicopter.  I have a premonition that I'm going to get killed in a helicopter crash."
--Vic Morrow, 1974

In 1982, Steven Spielberg decided to bring the The Twilight Zone to the big screen.  The acclaimed television series was known for its brilliant storytelling that combined science fiction, horror, and morality plays, elements that Spielberg himself would often employ.  He decided to produce four 30-minute segments for the film, each of which would be overseen by a then-prominent Hollywood director.  Spielberg himself directed one story, as did Joe Dante, George Miller and John Landis.  Watch the original trailer here.

Three of the directors opted to take classic episodes of the original series and modernize them for the 1980s.  Spielberg himself had planned to do a remake of the fan favorite "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," a story of fear and paranoia in a small town.  But more on that later.  

For his part, John Landis decided to make an original story that would open the film.  Titled "Time Out," it focused on a bigoted man named Bill Connor, who would get to experience life through the eyes and skin of those he had oppressed.  Here's his introduction in the film.  Viewer discretion is advised.

Connor would be played by veteran actor Vic Morrow (born Victor Morozoff), most notable for his role on the 1960s series Combat!  Morrow had a string of successful films padding his resume, including Blackboard Jungle, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and The Bad News Bears.  By the 1980s however, he was finding work hard to come by, and he jumped at the chance to appear in the Spielberg production.  

Production of "Time Out" began in June 1982.  It would show Morrow jumping from one time period to another, appearing to those he would meet as a Jewish man during the Holocaust, an African-American man being chased by the Ku Klux Klan, and finally a Vietnamese soldier being hunted by the U.S. Army.  As written, the story would end with Morrow redeeming himself by saving two Vietnamese children from certain death.  While that's how it ended in the script, it would be just the opposite in real life.
Scenes involving heavy stunt work were often shot at Indian Dunes,
including this record-breaking jump from
The Dukes of Hazzard.

The pivotal scene was filmed at Indian Dunes, about 30 miles from Los Angeles.  The wide, open spaces it provided made it a popular filming location for movies and television series.  It was also possible to use pyrotechnics on site, a fact that would play into this story with tragic results.  Finally, it offered a variety of different geographic environments.  To Landis, it presented a perfect representation of the jungles of Vietnam.

Landis hired seven-year-old My-ca Dinh Le and six-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen for the scene.  As it was to be filmed well after midnight, he opted to violate California's child labor laws that forbid such shooting schedules.  While he felt he could get a permit for shooting late at night, he knew he'd never get one for a shoot involving explosives.  To avoid this problem, Landis paid the kids under the table and hoped that no one would notice.

The scene called for a UH-1B helicopter to pursue Morrow and the kids through the jungles of Vietnam.  Landis hired Dorcey Wingo, a Vietnam veteran, to pilot the chopper.  He'd also have a camera crew on board to film the sequence from the air.

As the scene began, Morrow carried the kids through a river while Wingo stationed his chopper just 25 feet above.  The pyrotechnics were detonated, and it became readily apparent that the chopper was in serious jeopardy.  Despite this, crew members would later testify to hearing Landis radio Wingo to "get lower.....get lower....get lower!"

A large mortar effect was detonated just under the tail-rotor, which instantly detached.  The chopper spun out of control before finally crashing into the three actors.  Morrow and Le were decapitated by the rotor blade while Chen was crushed to death by the right landing skid.  You can view the entire sequence here.  Despite the nature of what you'll see, it's not particularly graphic, given the distance from which it was shot.

Landis, Wingo and three others faced legal action that lasted nearly a decade.  Chen and Le's parents testified that they'd never been notified of the use of explosives on set.  Le's father, who'd actually fled Vietnam himself, added that it was worse than anything he saw in the actual war.  Despite this, Landis was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Landis waves to his fans.
In between the lawsuits, Landis found time to produce Trading Places, Spies Like Us and Coming to America.   They were all huge moneymakers, so Hollywood was quick to forgive him.  Spielberg however, not so much.  He distanced himself from Landis and went out of his way to have as little to do with the film as possible.  He shelved his original "Monsters on Maple Street" remake, opting for a more family friendly story for the film.  He chose to redo "Kick the Can," an episode that hardly anyone even remembered, about hilarity and hijinks at an old folks home.  He shot the piece in just six days, then washed his hands of the entire project.  The two directors remain estranged to this day.

The film was released on June 24, 1983.  It was a modest success.  Film critics tended to review it as four separate works, often rating the Landis segment as least enjoyable.  Roger Ebert referred to "Time Out" as "predictable," adding that "Landis does nothing to surprise us." 

Vic Morrow was laid to rest at Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles.  Incredibly, Landis not only attended but also chose to speak, telling mourners he was "proud to have directed Vic in what Vic himself considered the best performance of his career."  Now that's a Landis video I'd love to see.

Location: Hillside Memorial Park
Plot: Mount of Olives, Block 5, Plot 80, Grave 1
Inscription: "I Loved Him as "Dad." To Everyone Else He was "Vic.""

My-ca Dinh Le was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Cypress. 

Location: Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Cypress)
Plot: Churchyard, Lot 1939, Space 1
Inscription: "Thank God For Showing Us The Greatest is Love.  Lo I am With You Alway."

Renee Shin-Ye Chen was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.

Location: Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale)
Plot: Everlasting Love, Lot 3707, Space 1
Inscription: "Beloved Daughter and Granddaughter."


  • Author Stephen Farber published a fascinating account of the accident and the subsequent trials.  Outageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case is available at Amazon.
  • Six Feet Under Hollywood visits the grave of Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling.
  • The only person associated with the film I've ever met or spoken to is 80s rocker Cherie Currie, who appears in the film's third installment, a remake of the classic episode "It's a Good Life."  When asked if she had recollections of the accident or it's effect on the film's production, Currie had nothing to say.  Just like her character in the film.

Saturday, February 9, 2019


Eloise Gwendolyn Sanford was born on August 29, 1917 in Harlem, New York.  She was the youngest of seven children, and tragically, was the only child to survive past infancy.  You read that correctly.

From an early age, Isabel, as she'd come to be known, showed interest in becoming an entertainer, but her mother, a highly spiritual woman, discouraged her aspirations, feeling that show biz was the path to degradation.  Isabel disobeyed her mother and soon began performing at the famed Apollo Theater.

By the 1940s, Isabel was performing in a number of off-Broadway plays at night while working as a keypunch operator for IBM during the day.  She married a house painter and had three children, but the marriage was not destined to last.

In 1960, Sanford left her husband, packed up the kids, and moved to Los Angeles.  She returned to the theater, where she caught the eye of famed Hollywood producer Stanley Kramer, and was offered a role in his 1967 classic, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.  Watch the trailer here.  And watch Sanford discuss the film here.

The film was a huge success.  One fan in particular was producer Norman Lear, who was so impressed by her performance, that in 1971, he cast her in the role she would forever be associated with, Louise "Weezy" Jefferson on All in the Family.  Watch her share a scene with the Bunkers here. Viewer discretion advised.

The series was an instant hit and it wasn't too long before Lear was thinking spin-off.  He envisioned a new series focusing on the Jeffersons, which would move them from Queens to the famed East Side.  But Sanford wanted nothing to do with it, satisfied with the success that All in the Family continued to enjoy, while concerned that a spin-off wouldn't fare as well.  She quickly changed her mind however, when producers told her they'd simply recast the role and show her the door.  Watch her explain that decision here.

She needn't have worried however, as The Jeffersons, like its parent show, was a huge success.  It ran for over ten seasons, twice the run of All in the Family.  Watch the iconic series intro here.  The series was canceled rather unceremoniously by CBS, and was not allowed to do a farewell episode, a fact that never sat well with Sanford.  Watch her discuss that here.

After the series completed its run, Sanford began a new series called Isabel's Honeymoon Hotel.  It was designed specifically to showcase her comedic talent, and aired five times a week (!) in syndication.  It failed to find an audience however, and was soon canceled.  Watch the series intro here.

In September 2003, Sanford had preventative surgery on her carotid artery.  Following the procedure, her health steadily declined.  On July 4, 2004, she checked herself into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where she passed just five days later.  Her death was attributed to natural causes.

She was interred in an above-ground crypt at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.  Her family honored her Jeffersons legacy by including her series moniker on the headstone.

RIP Weezy.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

No Problem Ma'am: The Grave of "Police Academy's" David Graf

Paul David Graf was born in Zanesville, Ohio on April 16, 1950.  A theatre major, he graduated from Otterbein College outside of Columbus in 1972.  He'd go on to graduate school, but dropped out to pursue acting full time.

Graf headed west and resettled in Los Angeles, where he made his television debut in 1979, appearing as a contestant on The $25,000 Pyramid.  His celebrity partner was Patty Duke.  Years later, after having carved out a name for himself in Hollywood, Graf would return to the game show as a celebrity himself, even appearing with Duke for two such appearances.  Watch one of Graf's episodes here.

As he began his acting career, he was fortunate to land guest-starring roles on some of the most popular series of the 1980s, including M*A*S*H and The Dukes of Hazzard.  Watch him steal the sheriff's patrol car in this clip.

All of this of course, was laying the ground work for the role he would be most famously associated with, that of Sergeant Eugene Tackleberry in all seven Police Academy films. Seven?  Watch the trailer for the original here.  Believe it or not, Police Academy was turned into a Saturday morning cartoon for one season in 1988.  Watch the intro here.

Tackleberry's loves of firearms was played for maximum comedic effect throughout the series, and would no doubt be ruled politically incorrect today.  But here's a compilation video.

Once the film series had run its course, Graf continued to find work on television, on such series as The West Wing and Step By Step.  He'd also appear as Fred Noonan, the real-life navigator of famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart, in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager.  Watch him take Captain Janeway hostage here.

In 1995, Graf returned to the big screen in The Brady Bunch Movie, assuming the role of Sam the butcher.  Watch him woo Alice here.

By 2001, Graf and his family had relocated to Phoenix, Arizona.  It was there on April 7 that he suffered a fatal heart attack, just nine days shy of his 51st birthday.  His family took him home to Ohio, where he was buried at Forest Rose Cemetery in Lancaster.

On the day I visited, someone had left a Tackleberry action figure from the cartoon series as a tribute to Graf.

Graf was interred in the family plot.

RIP, Eugene.