Jim Backus, Whose Voice Boomed Behind a Famed Cartoon, Always Had a Line on Getting Laughs
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.