Wednesday 18 April 2012

Before He Married Lovey

For a couple of generations, Jim Backus has brought smiles for his satire of the snooty rich as Thurston Howell III on television’s most endearingly-inane sitcom, “Gilligan’s Island.” Few of us who grew up then knew that Backus was simply digging a role out of his Golden Age Radio trunk of comedy. Alan Young may have been the star, but Backus got the most laughs as elitist millionaire Hubert Updike III, who spouted “Heavens to Gimbles!” and threatened to wash out Young’s mouth with domestic champagne.

Backus’ other most remembered role is that of Rutgers’ most famous imaginary graduate, Quincy Magoo. It’s a tribute to Backus that the character was popular at all, let alone an Oscar-winner. The TV cartoons of the early ‘60s—the Magoos that kids were mostly exposed to—were sopping with gags based on near blindness and a Chinese stereotype.

Backus recalled in his 1958 autobiography that he based Magoo’s original attitude, which was more feisty in the first theatrical cartoons of the early ‘50s, on his father. We don’t know his father’s reaction to that, but perhaps we can guess reading this Associated Press wire story from 1951.

Jim Backus Of Films Has A Swell Dad
HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 22, (AP)—Russell Backus is a man I’d like to meet.
Perhaps you know his son, Jim Backus. He is a radio comedian who lately has made a career of being the hero’s friend in movies. He performed that function for Arthur Kennedy in “Bright Victory” and now he’s Dana Andrew’s [sic] friend in “I Want You.” He’s sort of a free-lance Keenan Wynn.
Likes Swimmer
Jim has many stories about his dad, who is an engineer in Cleveland and is unimpressed or unaware of the Hollywood hoopla. Recently Mr. Backus was visiting here and Jim had a golf date with Ben Gage. Jim left his father to visit with Mrs. Gage, Esther Williams.
“You know, Jim,” said Mr. Backus later, “that girl—the one who’s married to the guy with the cigar you played golf with—she’s a darned good swimmer. Any time she wants to swim at the Cleveland Athletic club, I think 1 can fix it up for her.”
All Over Cleveland
A month later, Jim received a long-distance phone call from his father, who said excitedly, “say, Jim, you remember that girl who could swim so well—the one who’s married to the tall guy you played golf with? Well, she’s all over Cleveland in a movie!”
Mr. Backus has constant doubts about Jim’s future and often inquires if he needs some money. When Jim assures him he’s drawing good salary, his father replies, “Well, I notice that other fellow from Cleveland, Bop Hope, is doing fairly well.”
Coogan Example
Jiin often takes his father to the night spots during Hollywood visits. Mr. Backus was unimpressed by the film newcomers who were pointed out to him. Then Jackie Coogan was sighted.
“Now there’s an example of a boy who let himself go,” he told Jim. “Look, he’s bald and fat. He should have stuck with that funny little man with the mustache. I wonder what ever happened to the dog in that show?”
Once the Backuses were driving past RKO studios, where a painter was working on the outside wall. “There,” said Mr. Backus, “is a good studio. If they keep it painted like that, it’s run correctly all along the line, up to the top man.”
When Jim was on location with “Bright Victory” in Philadelphia, his father suspected that he had lost his Hollywood job. Jim tried to explain that it was the same job.
“Don’t feel bad,” consoled Mr. Backus, “and don’t try to cover up. We all lose jobs, Jim. And maybe it’s a good thing that they’re making movies in Philadelphia. Maybe they’ll make them in Cleveland now, and you can live at home again.”

Other than perhaps his role as the father in “Rebel Without a Cause,” no one thinks of drama when they think of Backus. But this wire service column from 1953 does.

Clothes Made Jim Backus Actor of Serious Roles
HOLLYWOOD, Mar. 30 (AP)—One of Hollywood’s funniest off-screen characters is a fellow who inevitably is cast in serious roles in the movies. Usually he is the hero’s best friend.
Even on television, where he plays husband to zany Joan Davis in the “I Married Joan” series, he plays a semi-serious judge.
“It’s all because of one suit,” explains Jim Backus. “Some years ago I was in a dog (trade slang for a lousy movie) where the studio outfitted me with a $150 suit. You know, the kind that makes you look like a Wall Street banker?
“It was tailored for my exact measurements, so the studio let me have it for $25 after the picture was finished. So far I have worn it on 22 different interviews and screen tests. It always gets me those distinguished parts.”
He’s made several pictures without the suit, mostly with his old school chum Vic Mature. Vic and Jim were both drummed out of military school together.
His motion picture debut was made with Vic in a pro football picture called “Easy Living.” When the headmaster of the military school heard about this, he forgave his two errant cadets and asked them to submit a picture for the alumni paper.
The two gathered together all the scantily clad chorus girls on the lot, plus a couple prop bottles of champagne. They posed themselves with chorus girls planting kisses right and left while they guzzled champagne. The picture was sent off to the headmaster with this caption:
“By the way, colonel, what are the honor students doing now?”
Recently, Vic and Backus played Roman soldiers in “Androcles and the Lion.” Dressed to the hilt in togas, armor and steel helmets, the two stole off the RKO lot and sought out a bar which usually does not cater to the Hollywood crowd. The bartender was a little startled and hesitated before he served them. Immediately, Backus pounded on the bar and shouted so all patrons could hear.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you serve servicemen in there?”
Backus claims he had his most fun when he played the role of Gen. Curtis Lemay, the Strategic Air Command head, in “Above and Beyond.”
He bears a remarkable resemblance to the general. Pal Vic, at the time, was working on the same lot for a director who, Backus says, is “above associating with mere actors.”
“He will hob-nob only with cardinals, successful presidential candidates and L. B. Mayer,” adds Backus. Jim, dressed this time in the four-star uniform of Lemay, was in Vic’s dressing room when the director spotted him. Backus immediately was invited to a dinner party at which he would be guest of honor.

Backus’ main claim-to-fame in the ’50s wasn’t Mr. Magoo. As you can see, there’s no mention of the cartoon character in either of those stories. He was the “I” in the forgotten sitcom “I Married Joan,” which can be charitably described as NBC’s third-rate answer to “I Love Lucy.” General Electric bought the show in August 1952 (clearing 64 out of 66 cities for it by November). It lasted into spring 1955, but then had life as one of the first shows to be rerun in a Monday-Friday network daytime slot (after repeats were briefly sold in syndication).

Here’s another Associated Press piece. From 1955.

Jim Backus Married 24 Hours A Day
NEW YORK, Jan. 3 (AP)—On television Jim Backus has to convince viewers that “I Married Joan” but he spends the rest of the time trying to convince people he didn’t.
“Actually it’s my wife who’s the butt of most of the confusion,” says Backus, who on TV plays the role of husband to comedienne Joan Davis and in real life has been the husband for 11 years of attractive Henny Backus, successful actress in her own right.
Backus even claims that because of his TV role as husband of Miss Davis, who currently is unmarried, he’s had a checkup from hotel house detectives when he tried to check in with Henny.
Since Miss Davis owns I Love Joan on NBC-TV Wednesday night, Backus says he tells his wife, “I’m the only guy who comes home with lipstick on his paycheck.”
“If I’m not on time at the office, my TV wife, Miss Davis who also is my boss, wants to know ‘Why are you late?’ And if I say ‘I was working late with the boss,’ I’m in trouble. I’m married 24 hours a day.”
The confusion arising from his TV role as Miss Davis’ husband has reached the point. Backus says, that his wife has answered the telephone with, “This is Jim’s other wife.”
It also works in reverse. He recalls one occasion when he and Miss Davis were on tour and checked into a hotel in Louisville. His room was on the ninth floor and hers, on the 14th but the clerk, under the impression they were husband and .wife in real life, suggested he could provide adjoining rooms. But Miss Davis in a typical response replied, “NO, leave it like it is—he snores.”
Backus, whose role is strictly a supporting one, is convinced his is a woman’s world. On the same lot where “I Married Joan” is filmed, the Burns & Allen, Ann Sothern, Eve Arden and Harriet & Ozzy [sic] shows also are produced and, he says, “all the dames are the stars—it’s a matriarchy.”
Jim, a native of Cleveland, has seen in stock, in more than 5,000 radio broadcasts, and in a number of movie but usually in roles that left him in comparative anonymity.
It’s still that way, to a degree. His role on “I Married Joan” is that of the sane and sober judge married to Joan in which he is straight man to her comedy. The show already was competing with the first half of Godfrey and His Friends on CBS and now has to vie also with the Walt Disney show on ABC.

Young and Rubicam announced in the trade papers the following month that “Joan” was cancelled, thanks to the one-two punch of Walt Disney and Arthur Godfrey on other networks. Backus kept his humour about it. Fill-in columnist Hal Humphrey of the Los Angeles Mirror’s syndication service had this to say on July 19, 1955.

Proof that being off TV can make an actor virtually unknown today is furnished Jim Backus. He claims that since he quit playing the judge on Joan Davis’ ill-fated “I Married Joan” no one remembers him anymore.
“When flying across country on an airliner I used to go up in the cockpit and shoot
the breeze with the crew, and they were honored to have me,” Backus recalls.
“But six weeks after the show folded I tried it on a flight to Florida. The pilot took one look at me and yelled, ‘Get back n your seat, strap yourself in and eat your box lunch!’
“I tell you, no one recognizes me now. I’m beginning to feel like the Mary Miles Minter of TV,” says the saddened Backus.

Backus, as we all know, survived. He divorced Joan, went to marry Lovey and set off on a three-hour cruise with Gilligan, the Skipper, too, well, you know the song. Fans of silly ‘60s TV comedies are glad he did.

1 comment:

  1. Bob McKimson and Warren Foster got to Backus' Updike personality first, sticking it into the genie for "A Lad In Baghdad" (which actually managed to get itself embroiled in a PC controversy in 1991, when AMC theaters entered into a contract with Warners to show some of the classic Looney Tunes, and this short was screened in the aftermath of Gulf War I and some of the old lines took on new meanings).

    Jim was also the best thing about "I Married Joan", which had a lot of behind-the-camera talent involved (including Sherwood Schwartz as one of the writers) but managed to show there's a fine line between the comedic wackiness of Lucy Ricardo and fingernails on the blackboard annoying stupidity many of these episodes hd (Backus would have gotten off Scott free if they had changed the name of the series to "I Murdered Joan", because no jury even in the TV world would have convicted him).