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

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