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Actor Jim Backus, Voice of ‘Mr. Magoo,’ Dead at 76

July 4, 1989 GMT

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Jim Backus, the muttering voice of the nearsighted cartoon character ″Mr. Magoo″ and the self-indulgent millionaire of ″Gilligan’s Island,″ died Monday of pneumonia. He was 76.

The character actor, who played the fabulously wealthy Thurston Howell III on television’s ″Gilligan’s Island″ and was featured in dozens of movies, had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for many years.

He had been treated for double pneumonia for more than two weeks at Saint John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica and died there Monday at 8:45 a.m., said hospital spokeswoman Paulette Weir.


″I’m a working man’s hypochondriac,″ Backus said in an interview five years ago. ″I used to do benefits and I’d come home with whatever symptoms went with the disease I was benefiting.

″When they told me I had Parkinson’s, I read a magazine article on it, and overnight I had every symptom known to man. I became an authority on it.″

Backus’ throaty baritone was known to millions as that of the bumbling, myopic Mr. Quincy Magoo on the ″Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo.″ On the animated series, Magoo played various historical figures, including Long John Silver, Friar Tuck, William Tell and Rip Van Winkle.

He subsequently was introduced to generations of television fans on ″Gilligan’s Island,″ the improbable comedy about a ragtag group of people shipwrecked on an island with nothing to do but dream up ridiculous rescue schemes.

On the series, still popular in syndication, Backus’ character was adapted from his Hubert Updyke, the world’s richest man on the Alan Young radio show of the 1940s. Bob Denver, as Gilligan, and Alan Hale Jr., as the skipper, joined Backus in the cast of ″Gilligan’s Island,″ broadcast by CBS from 1964 to 1967.

″I love him,″ Tina Louise, who played the sexy movie star Ginger Grant Miss Louise recalled that at the 70th birthday party for ″Gilligan’s Island″ creator-producer Sherwood Schwartz two years ago, Backus was so ill he had to be carried up the steps.

″I asked him to dance and he bet me a million dollars he wouldn’t be able to dance, but he did,″ she said.

″He was a unique talent,″ said Schwartz. He said he created the Thurston Howell character with Backus in mind ″because I don’t know anybody else who could play that character the way Jim did.″


Backus also played Judge Bradley Stevens on ″I Married Joan,″ an early television situation comedy that ran from 1952 to 1955. He was seen on ″Playhouse 90″ and ″Studio One″ and made many guest appearances on television variety and panel shows.

He was host in 1962 of CBS’ ″Talent Scouts,″ which introduced George Carlin, Charles Nelson Reilly and Louise Lasser to television audiences.

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, James Gilmore Backus studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduating in 1933. His acting career began in stock theater and vaudeville, and he went on to become a radio announcer in Cleveland, Detroit and New York.

He appeared on Broadway in ″Paint Your Wagon″ and ″Too Many Heroes.″

His motion-picture debut came in 1949 with ″Easy Living,″ starring Victor Mature and Lucille Ball. His movie roles included James Dean’s father in the 1955 classic ″Rebel Without a Cause.″

Other Backus credits included ″Deadline, U.S.A.,″ ″Half Angel,″ ″Pat and Mike,″ ″His Kind of Woman,″ ″Bright Victory,″ ″Above and Beyond,″ ″Androcles and the Lion,″ ″Man of a Thousand Faces,″ ″Hurry Sundown,″ ″The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm,″ ″It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,″ ″Hello Down There,″ ″Myra Breckinridge,″ ″Crazy Mama,″ ″Pete’s Dragon″ and ″Good Guys Wear Black.″

Backus was one of the best golfers in the entertainment industry, and he even made the cut once in the Bing Crosby Pro-Am, playing in the final round with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.

Backus and Henriette, his wife of many years, produced two humor books based on his illness, ″Backus Strikes Back″ and ″Forgive Us Our Digressions.″ He also wrote the books ″Rocks on the Roof″ and ″What Are You Doing After the Orgy?″

He composed the records ″Delicious″ and ″Cave Man.″

Backus is survived by his wife. The couple were childless.

Weir said a memorial service would be announced at a later date. Funeral arrangements were pending.