Here’s What Happened to Jim Backus Before, During and After ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and Mr. Magoo

It’s pretty much impossible to think of actor Jim Backus and not remember him as Thurston Howell III, sipping drinks with Lovey and the two of them interacting with the other five stranded castaways of Classic TV sitcom, Gilligan’s Island. But it’s surprising to note — though it really shouldn’t be, given the journey that our lives tend to take — that there was so much more to him than the three years of that show, including starring roles on a total of six series and a character that made him even more famous than Howell, the near-sighted cartoon character Mr. Magoo.

Jim’s arrival on the showbiz scene was heralded by the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, New York, as far back as June 1942, with that newspaper announcing, “The Jim Backus Show, a new comedy series, takes its bow to WHEC fans at 8:30 tonight, starring young Jim Backus, something new in comedians, who plays an amusing hapless victim of comic circumstance, with the help of singing star Mary Small, Frank Gallop, Jeff Alexander’s Ragtime Band and a host of others. You’ll have fun, so be sure to listen.” Obviously somebody did, because that radio show was only the start of Jim’s career — some 22 years prior to his getting stuck on that island.

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He was born James Gilmore Backus on February 25, 1913, in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised in the wealthy village of Bratenahi. “In his teens,” observes radiospirits.info, “he worked for a stock theater company, where he would get small roles in various productions. His father Russell, a mechanical engineer, wanted his son to focus on academics … so he enrolled young Jim in the Kentucky Military Institute.” Where, added The Napa Valley Register, “He showed his greatest aptitude for disrupting class.” The story goes that he was ultimately expelled for having ridden a horse through the school’s mess hall. Apparently the powers that were frowned on such things.

Despite his father’s resistance, Jim was able to convince him that regular college wasn’t for him, and that he was better suited for New York City’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, from which he graduated in 1933 with the hopes of breaking into acting. And he did enjoy some success, such as the 1937 Broadway production of the comedy Hitch Your Wagon as well as the dramatic Too Many Heroes, but it didn’t take long before he realized he needed to shift gears.

“I had about eight cents in my pocket,” Jim recalled to writer Sam Irvin in his book Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise. “I started out to be a serious legitimate actor, but the yen to eat overcame my artistic urge — so along with countless other actors, I went into radio. The theatre was unaware of my decision and struggled along without me. I became a member of a very strange fraternity that might be called ‘Actors Anonymous.’”

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