Saturday 29 June 2019

Tired of Magoo

After a while, an actor just gets tired of playing the same role. How many stories have you read over the years about someone on TV wanting to move on to something different?

Jim Backus was the same way. He had been a fairly successful radio actor, mainly on The Alan Young Show, and then on TV was cast opposite Joan Davis in I Married Joan. In between, his buddy Jerry Hausner got him a voice job at UPA which eventually blossomed into another career for him. He won the part of Mister Magoo.

Then came “after a while.”

We’ll get to Backus’ unhappiness with Magoo in a moment. First, let’s see what else he was doing in 1959. Gilligan’s Island was five years away (and may be what Backus is known for these days). Backus was always a good interview. Here, he bares all to columnist Hedda Hopper in a piece published on November 3rd. This, by the way, may be the only time you see the name “Jim Baxes” on this blog. He was a journeyman minor league infielder and bounced around the Pacific Coast League in the ‘50s. If I recall, he spent a little time in the majors with Cleveland. The PCL had left Los Angeles (it still had a team in San Diego) when this interview was done.
Irons in the Fire
HOLLYWOOD — I asked Jim (Magoo) Backus how many irons he had in the fire. "I have so many in the fire I'm afraid I might put the fire out. I've been working in 'Ice Palace' since July and the end is not in sight."
"Oh, that will let you put a new wing on your house."
"Yes, and I'm going to make it for name it for Vincent Sherman, our director. Until this picture I haven't done much that was important since I played Jimmy Dean's father in 'Rebel Without a Cause,' and getting this was a coincidence. I was on a plane to New York with Jack Warner. He'd asked me were I'd been. I told him I hadn't been able to get near his studio since I did 'Rebel.' He said, 'I'm marking it down and you'll be working within two weeks,' and I'll be darned if I wasn't. Did you know 'Rebel' is still playing in Paris in both English and French, also in Japan?"
"You must have made a mint on your book 'Rocks on the Roof.' "
"I would have if my publishers had been more co-operative. You know I had to pay my own expenses to New York, St. Louis and Chicago to pro mote it then I d get into a town and there wouldn't be any books there."
"I think it would make a funny picture. Have you sold it yet?"
"No, but there have been inquiries. If they do it, Henny wants Mitzi Gaynor to play her and Lemmon for me. But I'd like Henny played by Brigitte Bardot and play myself. However, by the time you write your life story you're too old to act in it.
"I have 'Magoo's 1000 Arabian Nights' [sic] coming out around Christmas time; it's the first full length color cartoon since 'Snow White' and 'Sleeping Beauty.' " "But your bank account got fat on those Magoo ads, didn't it?"
"It would have if I had not had a lousy agent; he was so busy getting mirrors for stars' dressing rooms and kowtowing to big name clients he didn't have time to make money for me.
"I have a record coming out that'll set music back 50 years titled 'I Was a Teen-age Reindeer'; on the other side is a monologue 'The Office Party,' a Magoo type businessman character. And I'm making a TV pilot called 'The Newspaper Story.' We need a young girl like Eve Arden for my secretary."
"Residuals are still rolling in from 'I Married Joan,' the series you did with Joan Davis, aren't they?"
"It's gone around six times and is being shown over the world. You have to be careful before taking on a TV series. When you do one it's the biggest step you can take outside of getting married." Then he said with a sly wink: "I have a new TV quiz, Stop the Money—I give away music."
I asked if his wife Henny has any picture plans. He told me no but she has a new sable cape and is burrowing a tunnel through to Saks.
"Did you know that Henny bought a book by Bill Randall called 'The 12th Step' and sold it to Columbia? It's about alcoholics—a sort of 'Grand Hotel' of sanitariums and Bob Ryan will star in it. I hope there'll be a part in it for me. There is good one, but whether I'll get it or not is a moot question."
We got on to the quiz and he told me that Steve Allen once said: "When I was in school the teacher gave us the answers all year long and some of us still flunked."
"I was with Jackie Coogan the night he blew the $64,000 question," Jim said. "He was given an area they were going to question him about but he still didn't know the answers."
I asked Jim which of his pictures he liked best. "Well," said he, "that's something like romance, you always love the last one. I think 'Ice Palace is good. Carolyn Jones has the best acting part and she's great in it. As Bob Ryan says, 'It's "Giant" on the rocks, a saga of a family.' I was disappointed I wasn't finished in time to play in 'Elmer Gantry,' but you can t do everything. Richard Burton, who's in 'Palace,' and I became great friends. And glory be, our wives liked each other too. His wife Sybil has gone to their home in Switzerland to have the baby which is expected in December."
"I hear you made some funny cracks at the stag dinner given for ballplayer Larry Sherry."
"Oh, I merely said, 'The reason I came was to honor Mr. Sherry—I thought it was Dore, and the reason they invited me was because they thought I was Jim Baxes, so we were even. I understand Mr. Sherry is from Fairfax Ave. and Jewish. Baseball has become very popular with the Jewish people but then they've always been very athletic. There was that fellow who hit that big guy with a slingshot And I learned something, too, when I went to see 'The Vikings'—even the Vikings were Jewish—Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis.' "
And with that, he said: "I've got to go now and be made up as a 75-year-old for 'Ice Palace.' I age from 28 to 75 and it takes two hours to get the stuff on my face, then when it's off I scratch for another two—Well, so long."
But what about Quincy Magoo? Backus talked of being tired of voicing the character and explained why in this wire service story of October 7, 1959.
Jim Backus Tired Of Being 'Mr.Magoo'
UPI Hollywood Writer
HOLLYWOOD.(UPI)—Jim Backus, originator of chuckle-voiced "Mr. Magoo," is "getting awfully sick" of the near-sighted little character.
"He causes me lots of trouble sometimes," Jim says. "For instance, drunks come up to me in bars and insist I do the 'Magoo' voice for their whole table. "I've almost had fights because I wouldn't," he said with mock horror. "Thank goodness, I'm a devout coward."
"Mr. Magoo" is being heard on TV commercials these days, but contrary to what many people think, Backus isn't doing the voice work.
"Imitations of 'Magoo' are being done every day on TV and there's nothing I can do about it," Jim said. "I'm flattered, except when I go to the bank. The only money I get out of 'Magoo' on TV is from one commercial.
"Oddly enough, though, if another actor went on TV and imitated 'Magoo' it would be O.K. But, I need permission from the company that owns the character rights if I want to do him.
"That's because I originated the voice" he explained.
Waiting in his dressing room before facing the cameras in "Ice Palace," Jim claimed little "Magoo" has even cost him movie roles.
"My name has come up for a role in the past and a producer would say 'He's the Magoo guy, sorry, we can't use him,' " Jim complained.
On rare occasions "Magoo" comes to Jim's rescue.
"I remember one time I couldn't get a table in a busy restaurant when I called them up," he said. "So, I just called back and used Magoo's voice. I got the table!"
Because of the voice characterization in cartoons and his "I Married Joan" TV series, Jim is thought of as a comedian. However, he claims only three comedy roles in 82 movies.
"I usually play "best friend' roles," he said offhandedly. "It seems I'm always in the stands with the football player's wife.
"The lines in that case would be: 'Gee, look at him go. You're married to a great guy.'"
What strikes me as odd in these stories is 1959 was the year Stag beer had a contest to “Name Mr. Magoo’s car” (a fancier one than in those weak TV Magoo cartoons). Backus most definitely did the voice of Magoo in the Stag spots and, to be honest, I’ve never heard anyone else in the role.

When Magoo’s theatrical run ended, Backus did the TV Magoos, as well as a number of series and specials over the years starring Rutgers’ most famous graduate. Backus spent the last few years of his life in poor health and died in 1989. Backus’ Magoo lives on for those who have snagged DVDs over his theatrical and TV cartoons and even 1001 Arabian Nights during the last decade.


  1. Even when a bombshell like Ms. Monroe invited him in her dressing room, she giddily exclaimed "do Mr. Magoo!"

  2. There was a Jim Baxes in baseball, but it was a different guy. Baxes was a career minor-leaguer who played one season in the majors (1959), split between the Dodgers and Indians. He spent 15 seasons in baseball, mostly in the minor leagues, and retired in 1962.

    His real name was Dimitrios Speros Baxes (1928-1996).

    Baxes does have one movie appearance. He played a 3rd baseman in the William Bendix movie, Kill the Umpire (1950). It was uncredited, but shows up on IMDB. His son is actor James Coleman, and his daughter is model Catherine May Hawn, who was Dean Martin's 3rd wife.

    And that, folks, is more than anyone outside his family ever cared to know about Jim Baxes, the ballplayer. :-D

    Info courtesy of and IMDB.

  3. Magoo was from the Cleveland, Ohio area and was always a great interview for the local newspaper people. He even did personal appearances for a local bank in connection with The Jim Backus Show in 1959-60. His nephew, Johnny Bell was a personality for KYW Radio 1100, just as Backus had been an actor in the early 1930s for KYW's predecessor, WTAM..

  4. That "Mr. Magoo" bit in the Simpsons episode "Last Tap Dance in Springfield", where the trio of bullies have fun with a crusted-eyed blinded Homer Simpson was cool.

  5. Hans Christian Brando7 July 2019 at 17:32

    Magoo's "1001 Arabian Nights" the first full length color cartoon since "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty"? Mr. Backus clearly was not a fan of the genre. Actually, several of the same animators worked on both "Sleeping Beauty" and "1001 Arabian Nights" and a year later would be making limited animation Popeye cartoons for "Arabian Nights" director Jack Kinney (which is why Popeye looks a bit like Magoo in those).