‘Gilligan’s Island’: When and How Did Jim Backus Die?

by Joe Rutland

Jim Backus remained relevant thanks to his role on “Gilligan’s Island” as Thurston Howell III but the actor is remembered for more.

Backus, who provided the voice for cartoon character Mr. Magoo, died on July 3, 1989, at 76 years old. That’s according to an obituary from The New York Times. He died from pneumonia complications after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for two years. He was born on Feb. 25, 1913, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Obviously, classic TV fans have watched Backus play the rather boisterous rich character on “Gilligan’s Island” for decades. Yet his career goes far beyond Mr. Magoo and the CBS sitcom.

‘Gilligan’s Island’ Star Had Career In Radio and Films As Well

Backus had a radio career, appearing on shows like “The Jack Benny Program” and “The Alan Young Show.” Young, by the way, starred in the classic TV show “Mr. Ed.” But Backus also in a number of memorable movies, too.

They included “Deadline – U.S.A.” with Humphrey Bogart, “Pat and Mike” with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, and “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

But movie fans may hold Backus’ role as Frank Stark in the 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause” most dearly to their hearts. It’s not so much because of Backus but his co-star, James Dean. The movie pits Dean as Jim Stark as a rebellious teenager against his father.

Television Work For Backus Dated Back To ‘I Married Joan’ In 1950s

As for television, the “Gilligan’s Island” star worked alongside comedian Joan Davis as her husband in the 1950s sitcom “I Married Joan.” He also made a memorable guest-starring appearance on The “Beverly Hilbillies” as Commerce Bank president Milburn Drysdale’s [Raymond Bailey] boss.

His work in the entertainment industry by that time had earned Backus a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

Backus was married twice in his life. His first marriage to Betty Kean was between 1939-42. Backus married Henny Backus in 1943 and she remained Backus’ wife until his death.

Yet any discussion of the actor’s career definitely has to involve some words about “Gilligan’s Island.” Backus was used to playing affluent characters like Howell in his career. But the show, created by Sherwood Schwartz, provided comedy and laughs for its three-year run on CBS.

What has happened with the show is that it’s been a classic TV mainstay for more than five decades. That’s a whole lot of new generations discovering Jim Backus as Thurston Howell III as one of those seven stranded castaways.

Jim Backus will never be forgotten because “Gilligan’s Island” and Mr. Magoo are going to be embraced over and over again. They never will go out of style and that’s a credit to Backus and his performances.