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One of the most versatile — and secure — performers I met was Jim Backus, who had so many things going for him that he probably never worried where he'd be offered another job.

As the voice of Mr. Magoo, he'd already tapped into a role that provided a large and steady income for the rest of his life. He almost always had another acting job lined up, in films and television, and he easily bounced back and forth from comedy to drama.

He hadn't yet begun "Gilligan's Island," which would give him a character that became almost as famous as Mr. Magoo. In "Gilligan," Backus played uptight millionaire Thurston Howell III. Those who knew of Backus from radio back in the 1940s correctly guessed that the actor had based his portrayal on an earlier character he'd created — Hubert Updike III.

It was a pleasant meeting with a personable and entertaining man. My only regret was not asking him a few questions of "Rebel Without a Cause" in which he played James Dean's spineless father, best recalled for the scene that had him wearing an apron.

I didn't team Backus with Bob Denver in the Name Dropping Index because at the time of my meeting with Backus, "Gilligan's Island" hadn't been conceived. I'm not sure how he would have reacted had I speculated that some day he'd best be remembered for a situation comedy about seven castaways on an uncharted Pacific island. Well, at least "Gilligan's Island" made more sense than "Lost."

Akron Beacon Journal, October 21, 1962
Jim Backus is starting a club for performers who’ve hd television series canceled. Backus calls his organization Series Anonymous.
Backus and his wife, Henny, are the club’s social directors.

“We visit members and offer sympathy,” said Backus during a visit to Cleveland, “and then we look for residual checks in their chandeliers.”

Series Anonymous requires no membership dues. There is only one requirement — write a 500-word essay on an appropriate subject. Samples: “Why I’ll Never Appear on Television Again,” “I Wuz Robbed,” “Ratings Are Fixed,” and “My Show Was Canceled Because the Sponsor’s Wife Didn’t Like me.”

“In a way, television is like pregnancy,” said Backus. “When you are going through a series, you swear you will never do another one. It’s really hard work. But after you finish, you weaken, and soon you are eager to do it again.”

But a televisionn pregnancy isn’t over after nine months.

“You need three years on a series. If your show is canceled in the first year, it’s like having a miscarriage. You need at least three years to make enough episodes for the program to be syndicated. That’s where the profit comes in.”

Backus qualifies for Series Anonymous because he has twice attempted to be cured. Both of his shows were panned by critics, but the first one, “I Married Joan,” managed to survive long enough to reach syndication.

“When I was asked to do the pilot for that show, I didn’t know what that meant. I thought it was a one-shot deal,” he said.

As a result, he didn’t negotiate a good deal for himself. His co-star, comedienne Joan Davis, grabbed most of the residuals, and Backus came out on the short end.

His second effort, “The Jim Backus Show” — or “Headline Press” — lasted just one season.

Backus returned to weekly television this past summer as host of “Talent Scouts,” the warm-weather replacement for “The Garry Moore Show.”

Like many performers, Backus often criticizes other programs, but has nothing but praise for his own.

“ ‘I Married Joan’ was a television classic,” he said with a straight face. “I think it was better than ‘I Love Lucy.’ ”

He’s not alone in that assessment, though it’s obviously a minority opinion. Backus is proud that “I Married Joan” is still being shown throughout the world. He also thinks “The Jim Backus Show” was vastly under-appreciated.

“We were two years ahead of our time,” he said. “Our show was pure slapstick, the kind of thing you see on ‘Car 54, Where Are You?’ Television has worn out all of the family situations, and slapstick is coming back.

“When someone approaches me with a situation comedy idea, I can give him an outline of every script he would use even before these shows are written. Why? Because we did every situation on ‘I Married Joan.’ Every other family situation comedy has done the same.”

“Talent Scouts” proved a big surprise for Backus.

“How corny can you get? That was my reaction when the network asked me to be host for the summer. It was like stealing money for 13 weeks,, so I took it. I didn’t think anyone would watch, but people loved it.”

Cleveland-born Backus returned to his hometown recently to make a film for General Electric.

“It was one of those Mr. Magoo things,” he explained. “I’ve been approached to make a Magoo series, but I wouldn’t do it unless it was in cartoon form.”

Backus said Mr. Magoo was created as the result of a comedy skit he employed on radio in the 1940s.

The Cleveland visit also gave Backus a chance to plug his latestbook, “What Are You Doing After the Orgy?”

Backus then returned to Hollywood to resume work on the Stanley Kramer film, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” an elaborate slapstick comedy done in Cinerama.

“I had to get a role in that picture,” he said. “It’s a status thing. If you’re not in that movie, you can’t show yourself in public.”

Spencer Tracy, Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, The Three Stooges, Mickey Rooney, Edie Adams, Phil Silvers, Dorothy Provine and Buddy Hackett are just a few of Backus’s co-stars in the movie.

Backus enjoys talking about Hollywood status symbols. So does his wife, and she has created the Hollywood Snob Game, which makes use of various symbols. Her rules are simple: Move up one space if you stopped speaking to Peter Lawford before he married Pat Kennedy. Move up six if you had nothing to do with him after the marriage, and advance 25 spaces if you started ignoring him after his brother-in-law became President.

Move up one if you invite Cary Grant to your sit-down dinner party. Move up two if he shows up. Move up ten if Vince Edwards crashed your party,

Move up five if you wear a full-length mink coat in the evening, no matter what time of year. Move up 50 spaces if your husband made a movie with Liz Taylor since your marriage — and you’re still married.

“She adds new rules every time she plays,” said Backus of his wife.

Wearing his hair in a crewcut makes Backus look younger than his 49 years. He also has the energy of a much-younger person. He plans to make his usual round of guest appearance on several TV shows this season. He best-known performance last year was as Joe Wheelwright in the “Maverick” spool of “Bonanza.”

“It was difficult to do a satire,” said Backus, “because I’ve never seen ‘Bonanza.’ ”

Backus claimed he watches very little television. Period. That’s because he is too busy at work and at play.

“When I want to be entertained,” he added, “I go to the movies.”

Much of Backus's work after 1964 involved "Gilligan's Island" and Mr. Magoo, though he also played Mr. Dithers in the short-lived "Blondie" series in 1968 and had guest roles in many other series and movies until his death in 1989 at the age of 76. He and Henny Backus were married 46 years. He'd been married earlier (1939-42) to actress-comedienne Betty Kean, who often performed with her sister, Jane.

 
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