Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Jim Backus, Radio and Recovery

Network radio allowed performers to be versatile. In television today, could you picture an actor intoning about the latest war news on one show, and chatting with Ambrose the Talking Horse on another? It happened on radio in 1942.

And the actor in question was Jim Backus. Granted, on “This Nation at War” on the Blue Network, he used the moniker James G. Backus. He was plain old Jim Backus on his self-titled comedy/variety show the same year. And as strange as it seems, considering Backus became famous for his funny stuff, the quasi-documentary show stayed on the air longer than the other one.

Today, Backus is known either from his work as animated filmdom’s Mr. Magoo, or as the filthy-rich Thurston Howell III on “Gilligan’s Island.” But he made his name in radio, though not without some struggles, and ones that can’t compare with the ones he went through after Gilligan.

The earliest mention I can find of Backus in radio isn’t on a radio show. It’s in a 1940 print ad for bourbon. Backus is billed merely as “radio announcer” and his home address in Cleveland is listed, making it appear like an endorsement from an ordinary guy. He soon headed to New York and by February 1942, he was stooging on Kay Thompson’s show on CBS. (Note: Please see Sam Irvin’s insight about this in the comment section). ‘42 looked to be his year. On May 26, he landed the narrator role on “This Nation at War” (one story announcing the gig pointed out he had written for Dinah Shore), then on June 18, he got his own show featuring Jeff Alexander and his Ragtime band, vocalist Mary Small, the Eight Balls of Fire chorus, announcer Frank Gallop, regulars Carl Eastman, Eddie O'Shea and Hope Emerson, and the aforementioned Ambrose. Oh, and a young man named Art Carney. It flopped. Big time. The NBC show lasted three weeks and was pulled off the air.

July 7, 1943: Backus landed another starring role, this time in the crime drama “Flashgun Casey” on CBS. For some reason, Backus was replaced by the end of August and the show went on to a long run under the name “Casey, Crime Photographer.”

Backus, in his autobiography Rocks on the Roof, practically laughs about his next failures. Beatrice Kaye got him hired to play her love interest in a comedy/variety show called “Gaslight Gaieties,” sponsored by Teel Dentifrice. It debuted November 11, 1944. The love interest had the upper-crust Eastern seaboard voice that Backus gave to Thurston Howell III. What worked on “Gilligan’s Island” didn’t work for liquid tooth goo. Said Backus, “This job lasted a grand total of three weeks before some obscure vice-president heard the show and decided my new voice had homosexual overtones.” He related how he got a call a week later to be on Milton Berle’s new show; “Let Yourself Go” had changed networks and debuted on NBC on January 3, 1945. But Backus said he never appeared during the 13-week gig because the hammy Berle kept running so long they never got to his part. No matter. By May, the people running Alan Young’s radio show on ABC figured Backus’ snooty-rich character voice would be perfect to put in Young’s rival, and thus Hubert Updyke III was born and went on for a four-year run. One of the writers was a chap named Sherwood Schwartz, who created “Gilligan’s Island” and, well, you can put the pieces together.

By December, Backus was heard on “The Danny Kaye Show” as Mr. Singleton, the sponsor. His radio career was finally moving ahead.

Everything I’ve read suggests Backus was pretty funny when he wasn’t on the air. This syndicated newspaper story from 1947—when Backus was getting a credit at the end of every Alan Young show—reveals he was into puns.

In Hollywood
Staff Correspondent.
HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 17.—(NEA)—You’ve never heard the Backus Banter? Probably not. You’ve probably never even heard of Backus — first name Jim.
Jim Backus is a radio comedian who has appeared on as many as 15 radio programs a week, under the names of the characters he creates for specific shows.
He's probably better known as Hubert Updyke, of the Alan Young show, than he is as Jim Backus.
Anyway, Jim has come up with a new parlor game for Hollywood. Here’s a typical story, titled Travelogue or Inside Backus, in Backus Banter fashion:
“Just before we were to set sail, my wife had a Preminger that something would happen, but I assured her that everything would be all right. The ship’s whistle gave three short Janet Blairs and we cast off for unknown waters. That night a storm beset us, and, while I weathered it, Virginia Van Upped twice.
“I gave her a Seymour Nebenzal tablet and she was soon calm. The wind was to the Louis Hayward, and sent us off course somewhat to the south. The following morning, the lookout sighted something off the starboard bow, and the next thing we knew the first mate had Harpoed a Marx. Presently we sailed into enchanting Turhan Bey and anchored for the right.
“At dawn the next morning, the natives awoke us with cries of Za-Nuck, Za-Nuck, and we cast off in our dinghies. I was brought to the native chieftain who was wearing a Deanna Durban. He placed a native conveyance at my disposal, a Deborah Kerr, with which we went into the interior, molested only by British soldiers armed with Martha Vickers. At a native market, I saw a pocketbook that I wanted for my wife, and since the exchange was down I purchased it for three Hume Cronyns.
“I watched the native sport, which is racing Audrey Totters and watched the native women make sweaters from the wool of Lanaturners. Finally, I returned to the ship. Imagine my Cyd Charisse when I noted I had lost my wallet. Some; unfriendly bartender must have slipped me a Mickey Rooney.
“With this note, we slipped out of the lagoon of Turhan Bey, never more to return. The drowsy natives were softly humming a native chant, titled Helmut Dantine, which means ‘There’s gum on your hat’.”
That’s the way it goes, says Backus.
But it’s easy to stuff your ears with Joe Cotten.

Radio careers morphed into television careers (for some), and we’ve discussed Backus on television in the pre-Gilligan days HERE. His post-Gilligan career was touched with sadness, coupled with hope.

Vernon Scott of United Press International interviewed Backus several times over his career. You can sense some discomfort in this story, reported on June 8, 1984.

Comedian Jim Backus recovering from mysterious six-year illness
By Vernon Scott
United Press International
HOLLYWOOD – Jim Backus, the voice of cartoon character “Mr. Magoo,” is fighting for a new life after six years of paralyzing illness, a heart-breaking, career-destroying case of extreme hypochondria.
A series of psychosomatic illnesses made him almost a total recluse, convinced that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
He appeared to have all the symptoms. A phalanx of doctors told him the disease could not be diagnosed, only evaluated.
Backus’ mind began playing tricks on him. He found himself incapable of leaving his luxurious Bel Air home for months at a time, refusing to see old friends, afraid to go to restaurants, terrified of working in front of a camera.
A former scratch golfer, he refused to touch a club. The author, with his wife Henny, of two uproarious books — “Rocks on the Roof” and “What Are You Doing After the Orgy?” — he could not force himself to write.
He became paranoid, convinced he was doomed. The more he was examined by doctors, psychiatrists, hypnotists and a scattering of frauds, the worse he grew, sure he was a goner.
His half-dozen years of nightmare challenges anything in Kafka.
Backus, again with the help of Henny, has set the whole eerie story down with frightening and funny details in his new book, “Backus Strikes Back.”
The other day Backus sat in a chair in his home, a frightened, insecure man, contrasting tragically with the raucous, extroverted Backus of old, needing reassurances he wasn’t, indeed, in the clutches of a life-threatening disease. His eyes pleaded for optimistic opinions of his appearance.
As a matter of fact, he did look healthy, perhaps even robust except for the haunted shadows in his eyes.
“Part of Jim’s trouble is the misevaluation of a disease that is hard to diagnose — Parkinson’s,” Henny said as Jim nodded agreement.
“Jim was so frightened it caused him to suffer a complete crackup. He’s only 80 percent well right now and doing very well, but it has been a very rough go. Our book isn’t sad. It’s funny and it has an hilarious foreward [sic] by George Burns.”
Jim, his voice as strong and raspy as it ever was, said, “My problem was a long time in coming. I was working terribly hard. I did 13,000 radio commercials. It’s in the Guinness Book of Records.
“I was going full barrel and I was suffering the classic overwork symptoms of dizziness, light-headedness, irascibility, the usual. Then I started to faint and fall down a lot. They put me in the hospital and gave me the works and evaluated it as Parkinson’s.”
“Jim’s an actor and the minute they said Parkinson’s he went right into the act because he knew a lot about the disease,” Henny said. “He’s been a life-long hypochondriac. He was psychologically duplicating what he heard about the disease.”
Henny turned to Jim and said, “Once you learned we suspected you had Parkinson's you went out and read everything on the disease and convinced yourself you had it.”
“Psychosomatic is an over-used word,” Jim countered. “To me the physical problems were very real and still are. There is still no accurate evaluation of what I have.”
“Of course, he didn’t have Parkinson’s,” Henny said. “He had perfectly normal days. What the doctors did find is a basic 1 percent basal ganglion, which is a mild disease neither of us understands.
“What he really suffers from is what 15 percent of this country suffers—total panic, stress, anxiety. And I hope the book helps people as fans have helped us with their letters of encouragement.”
“I haven’t been out of this house for almost six years,” Backus said. “I was terrified when the doorbell rang. I’d run and hide. I’m trying to get over acute panic right now as we talk.”
Backus grinned engagingly and popped a few wisecracks exactly as he did a decade ago. But when he stood up, his posture was that of an invalid. His steps were the shuffle of an old man—which Backus is not.
“Your mind can do this to you,” Backus said. “You know it’s doing it to you but you’re powerless to stop it. I’ve tried. I’ve gone to the best shrinks, yoga, hypnosis and even had a layer-on of hands who set fire to my hair.
“It’s a matter of mind over matter and I’m determined to get well. The book was therapy and inspired by Norman Cousins’ book, ‘Anatomy of an Illness.’ In the final analysis the only way out is laughter.”

Backus evidently overcame his fear. He went out and plugged his book, even making an appearance on ‘The Today Show.’ Psychosomatic or not, anyone who saw Backus on TV the last few years of his life could see he didn’t look well. He died of pneumonia on July 3, 1989. At a memorial service, Milton Berle recalled how he visited Backus in hospital for two hours and, as he turned to leave, said “I hope you get better.” Backus’ response: “You, too.”

Even Uncle Miltie couldn’t top that exit line. Jim Backus was funny to the end.


  1. Wonderful posting on the hilarious Jim Backus! I did quite a bit of research about Jim for my Simon & Schuster book KAY THOMPSON: FROM FUNNY FACE TO ELOISE (, and I interviewed Jim's widow Henny. Here are some
    extra details of Jim's start in radio...

    The comment section has word limits, so I will post it in sections.


    In 1941, radio’s top producer-director Bill Spier (“The March of Time,” “Suspense,” “The Adventures of Sam Spade”) had become head of development at CBS and was in charge of “Forecast,” a summer series that presented pilots of proposed radio programs to test audience reaction and fish for sponsors.

    Eager to create a vehicle for his fiancée, Kay Thompson (who, back then, was a major radio singer and personality), Spier created a 30-minute farcical backstage melodrama entitled “51 East 51,” set in a mythical Manhattan supper club of the same name (the real-life address of Spier’s New York apartment). Kay would play a fictionalized version of herself, working at the nitery as a singer, with four songs interspersed throughout the story.

    After it’s broadcast on July 21, 1941, reaction was upbeat. In Variety’s words: “This program has the good sense to discover Kay Thompson in a bigger and better way than this first-rate artist has heretofore been discovered. Both as a song stylist, where she is among the best, and as a leading lady in featherweight gaiety (oh, blessed breeze in a heavy world!) Miss Thompson is about the most plausible candidate in her class for general discovery hereabouts.”

    Reviews like this gave Spier ammunition to press for a series commitment. CBS chairman William S. Paley adored Kay but felt a continuing storyline set in a nightclub was too limiting. He preferred another pilot that Spier had presented on “Forecast” that same summer called “Class of ’41” (broadcast August 11, 1941), a sketch comedy revue featuring an ensemble of fresh comics including then-unknown Jim Backus.

    “I had about eight cents in my pocket,” Backus recalled. “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.’”

    Shrewdly, Spier suggested taking the obvious strengths of both shows (Kay Thompson and Jim Backus) and combining them. As luck would have it, a Wednesday night series, “Meet Mr. Meek,” would be going on hiatus for five weeks beginning September 3, 1941, creating a void that had to be filled with something. Slam-dunk. “The Kay Thompson Festival” was born.

    PART TWO continues in next comment block...

  2. PART TWO (continued from previous comment block):

    At first, CBS financed "Kay Thompson and Company" themselves—with hopes that a sponsor would soon come forward to foot the bill.

    The first installment of “The Kay Thompson Festival” (CBS, September 11, 1941) included an amusing sketch spoofing soap operas entitled “Life Can Be Life,” starring Kay as a heroine so distraught over something, she fails to reveal just what it is—for the duration of the entire sketch.

    “I’d rawther you didn’t repeat it,” Kay pleads to Jim Backus.

    “Don’t worry, I won’t,” Backus replies, keeping the audience mystified.

    The entire sketch can be heard on the recently-released 3-CD compilation THINK PINK! A KAY THOMPSON PARTY (Sepia Records), available on Amazon and elsewhere. (For more information, visit: )

    Dry and sophisticated, the humor of that first episode was not everyone’s cup of tea. Variety preferred the singing of “the stylistic Miss Thompson” over sketches “decidedly on the weakish side.”

    As the weeks ticked by, no sponsor turned up with an open checkbook, forcing CBS to continue financing the series. When “Meet Mr. Meek” returned after its five-week hiatus, “The Kay Thompson Festival” lost its time slot and appeared to be doomed.

    “We didn’t, any of us, know what we were doing,” Kay Thompson told a reporter. “But despite the fact that we were an instantaneous flop, we all learned a lot from it. It was my first chance at coordinating a whole project, and it enthralled me.”

    With the series on the verge of cancellation, Spier finessed a move to Saturday mornings beginning October 11, 1941, under the new title “Kay Thompson and Company.”

    In her opening monologue, Kay made light of the less-than-desirable time slot: “It appears now that the really big, up-and-coming, new favorite time for listening is Saturday mornings.”

    But the sarcastic style of humor that had not gone over very well with the Wednesday night cocktail crowd fell even flatter with the Saturday morning coffee klatch.

    Nonetheless, Kay enjoyed herself immensely and developed a solid chemistry with her partner in crime, Jim Backus—so much so, it occasionally made waves with Jim’s fiancée, Henny. During the run of the show, Jim married Henny but delayed their honeymoon because of Thompson.

    “We can leave for our honeymoon tomorrow right after the party,” Jim told his blushing bride.

    “What party?” Henny asked.

    “The party I persuaded Kay Thompson to give to celebrate our marriage,” stated Jim matter-of-factly.

    The bride’s mood went black. “You asked Kay to give us a party?”

    Jim replied, “Well, we’re doing the radio show together every week. It’s the least she can do.”

    Henny later admitted to moments of jealousy: “Jim feels that working closely with someone he likes creates a mystic bond. If he had his own way, he would go through the complete Indian rite of blood brotherhood. I didn’t understand it at the time, but a party was a party, and who was I to complain.”

    The last show of the initial thirteen-episode commitment was broadcast on November 29, 1941. With no sponsor and only moderate listenership, Kay and the others were certain they’d be unemployed by month’s end. To everyone’s amazement, however, Spier persuaded Paley to renew the series for a second round of thirteen episodes.

    The first show of Season Two of “Kay Thompson and Company” was broadcast on Saturday morning, December 6, 1941. The new beginning reinvigorated everyone and hopes were high, but within twenty-four hours, all that changed.

    On Sunday morning, December 7, America awoke to the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The mood of the entire country turned grim as tens of thousands of men were mobilized into military action.

    PART THREE continues in next comment block...

  3. PART THREE (final section, continued from previous comment block):

    In light of the situation, “Kay Thompson and Company” dropped its supercilious attitude and became patriotic. Kay opened with a pitch for United States Defense Bonds and introduced a new “Kiss the Boys Hello” segment dedicated to soldiers, with performances of flag-waving songs like “Of Thee I Sing.”

    Comedy sketches with Thompson and Backus were designed to have heartwarming conclusions.

    As scores of women bade farewell to servicemen, the sentimentality of Kay’s signature sign-off song, “More Wonderful Than These,” hit home.

    No longer aloof, the show was suddenly dealing with real, raw emotions. Empowered by this, Spier got CBS to move the show back to prime time on Wednesday nights starting January 28, 1942. But with only five weeks left in the season commitment, there was precious little time to reestablish a foothold.

    In a last-ditch effort to attract listeners and a sponsor, Spier and Thompson called in favors from personal friends like Vincent Price, who performed a vignette from his new Broadway smash, “Angel Street.” (The thriller was later adapted into the movie “Gaslight.”)

    For added oomph, Kay brought in the Martins Quartet to join her singing “Buckle Down, Buck Private,” a militarized makeover of “Buckle Down, Winsocki” from Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s “Best Foot Forward,” still running on Broadway.

    On the air, Kay asked Martin and Blane, “Who writes the titles of your songs?”

    “I do,” Hugh and Ralph blurted out simultaneously.

    Fast on her feet, Kay ad libbed, “I now pronounce you man and wife.”

    The show had found its footing, but all the effort and good intentions still did not attract a sponsor—hardly surprising during the uncertainties of war, yet essential nonetheless.

    Unwilling to pay the tab any longer, CBS decided against renewing the program. After twenty-six weeks of giving it their best shot, Thompson, Backus, and the rest of the gang were retired.

    Even so, Jim Backus would forever be indebted. Exposure on “Kay Thompson and Company” had finally gotten his career rolling, resulting in an avalanche of ongoing character parts in a slew of shows—not only for him, but also for his wife Henny.

    “Seventeen was my record one week,” Henny Backus marveled, “and twenty-three was Jim’s.”

    Five years later, “The Jim Backus Radio Show” was launched, which led to him becoming the voice of Mr. Magoo in scores of cartoons starting in 1949—and, of course, later fame on television in “Gilligan’s Island” (CBS-TV, 1964-67).

    The pompous accent Jim used for his character, “Thurston Howell,” on “Gilligan’s Island” dated all the way back to his radio days on “Kay Thompson and Company.”

    Searching for a sort of upper crust, “Harvard” delivery on one of the comedy sketches with Thompson, his wife Henny suggested, “Why don’t you play it like that rich guy you always do at parties? You know, that imitation you do right before you put the lampshade on your head and I have to call a cab.” He did--and the rest is history.

    For more about the book KAY THOMPSON: FROM FUNNY FACE TO ELOISE (Simon & Schuster) and for free online extras (including 500 pages of credits, endnotes, sidebars), visit:

    Sam Irvin
    Author of “Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise”

  4. Sam, thanks so much for the wonderful insight. All I found about the people supporting Kay on her show were vocalist Bob Hannon and the Walter Gross orchestra.

  5. Hevaens to Gimbrels..I just rememebred that this is probaly the 23rd anniversary of Backus'sAND MNel Blanc's death.:) Steve

    ps The talking horser seems like a predecessor to Mr.Ed. I wonder who plkayed the raido hors..

  6. ANd yes, Jim Backus AS TOTALLY funny to the end as you write, Yowp.hearing him on Gilligan or seeing hiom on Gilligan, just to name his key role that are so rememebred now, are examples, as well as the other roles not always mentioned by the pubnlic..btw he also did the 50s-60s wine ad, I forget which one, "that li'l old winemaker me".:)Steve J.Carras