Friday, August 1, 2008

Delicious!

When I was but a mere sprat, I knew comic actor Jim Backus for two things: he played millionaire Thurston Howell III on the critically-reviled TV sitcom Gilligan’s Island (1964-67), and he voiced the nearsighted Quincy Magoo in the Mr. Magoo cartoons cranked out by UPA between 1949 and 1959. (I, of course, didn’t see the original theatrical Magoos—I had to make do with the limited animation syndicated The Mr. Magoo Show, which I would sometimes be lucky to catch at my grandparents’ home in Spelter, WV [they picked up the Pittsburgh stations, including WPGH-TV, channel 53].)

Later on life, I was able to seek out additional Backus projects: he played straight man to comedienne Joan Davis in the 1952-55 sitcom I Married Joan, and occasionally he would show up in a favorite classic movie I was watching, like The Great Lover (1949), His Kind of Woman (1951), Deadline USA (1952; “A journalist makes himself the hero of the story. A reporter is only a witness.”) and perhaps the one movie for which he’s most famous, Rebel Without a Cause (1955)—in which he plays James Dean’s dad. And of course, once I got into listening old-time radio…I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing that familiar voice in comedy shows (The Great Gildersleeve, Fibber McGee & Molly, The Mel Blanc Show [as Cary Grant-Ronald Coleman sound-alike “Hartley Benson”]) and dramatic programs (Suspense [Backus was in the classic “The House in Cypress Canyon”], Screen Director’s Playhouse, Cavalcade of America). Backus had a list of radio credits as long as your arm—but his best-remembered radio role is that of millionaire Hubert Updyke III, a character (“Heavens to Gimbels!”) he first introduced on The Alan Young Show, then found him so versatile to the point where he would appear on other shows as well, notably The Bob Hope Show in its last two seasons. If you’re thinking: “Well, golly—it’s quite a coincidence Jim played two millionaires in two comedy series”—it’s because the inspiration for Howell came directly from Updyke. Backus used what he referred to as his “FDR lockjaw” to do Hubert, getting big laughs with lines like: “Careful, or I’ll have your mouth washed out with domestic champagne.”

I was only vaguely aware until I purchased the recent Mill Creek Essential Family Television: 150 Episodes box set that Backus starred in a self-titled television sitcom in 1960 (The Jim Backus Show: Hot Off the Wire), syndicated in thirty-nine episodes by California National Productions in association with RayDic Productions. The “RayDic” in this particular instance refers to a partnership between writers Ray Singer and Dick Chevillat, two veteran OTR scribes who started out penning scripts for The Sealtest Village Store with Joan Davis and Jack Haley before reaching the pinnacle of their writing careers with The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show (starting in 1947 when it was still called The Fitch Bandwagon).

In Wire, Backus plays John Michael “Mike” O’Toole, the managing editor of the Headline Press Service, a financially-strapped wire service struggling to keep its head above water...with O’Toole always on the lookout for potential (and paying) customers. Nita Talbot played his secretary, Dora Miles, who was having a bit o’romance with her boss, and Bobs Watson was Sidney, the office boy frequently on the receiving end of O’Toole’s verbal abuse. Knowing that these Singer and Chevillat were involved with Backus’ sitcom made me buoyant that Wire was going to be a previously neglected treat—but unfortunately, they only produced the series…they didn’t write for it. (If they ever did contribute a script or two, hopefully someone out there has them on DVD in order to prove me wrong.)

The first episode I watched, “Old Army Game,” guest stars The Phil Silvers Show’s Maurice Gosfield as Orville P. “Dilly” Dillingham, an old Army buddy of Mike’s who tells him that a third chum (Vince Barnett) is in the hospital, recuperating from a beating he took when he was rolled coming out of a bar called The Purple Pelican. Mike knows that their have been a few news reports on these G.I. attacks, and so he talks Dilly into going undercover (Mike brings his old military uniform out of mothballs) at the dive to set a trap for those responsible. There, they pick up a pair of floozies (Robin Raymond, Sellete Cole) who, as it turns out, are working with the owners of the bar to rob these soldiers…and naturally, Mike and Dilly round them up, becoming heroes in the process.

There is one amusing bit in this below-par entry: O’Toole is laying out his plans for Dora, Sidney and Dave (William McLean) at the office and he puts on a pair of reading glasses to write down instructions for Sidney on how to get a hold of a cop friend that will be on hand to arrest the culprits. He then marches Dilly out the door with a barely incoherent one-two-three-four when Dilly turns to him and remarks: “Hey, Mike…you remind me of another sergeant I used to have.” (This in-joke explained to me why they didn’t just call Gosfield’s character “Doberman”—after all, he’s billed in the credits that way: Maurice “Doberman” Gosfield.)

The second entry, “The Woman’s Touch,” is a vast improvement: Mike’s having trouble getting clients for Headline, and so Dora talks him into letting her reorganize the office so that she’s the boss—an offer he doesn’t hesitate to accept. She hires a salesman (George Ives) who soon develops designs on her in a way to make Mike jealous—and in doing an article on polygamy Mike learns that the guy beating his time is a notorious polygamist! What makes this episode interesting is the supporting cast: Mitzi McCall and Dave Willock play a married couple who fix Dora up with the sales rep, Byron Foulger is a client and my friend Michael Blake’s father Larry is another one of O’Toole’s friends on the force. But I particularly enjoyed the chemistry between Backus and Talbot—Backus, not having to be the authoritarian, gets sort of loosey-goosey (and funnier) with some Magoo-like ad-libs, while Talbot’s new turn as “the boss” makes her character much more sexier and intriguing. (This might have been the way to go with this series, by the way.) Talbot, like her male co-star, also has a lengthy list of TV and movie credits—but for some odd reason I always remember her as the treacherous Russian spy Marya on Hogan’s Heroes, complete with a dead-on impression of June Foray as Natasha Fatale (“Hogan, dollink…”)

During his radio heyday, Jim Backus apparently starred in another solo self-titled show, but the details of this series are rather sketchy (it isn’t even listed in the Dunning book); from what I’ve been able to glean it was a half-hour sitcom (1947-48) sponsored by Pharmaco...and appeared to be very low-rated. The photo at the beginning of this essay is a publicity shot from that series—sadly, no recordings of it are known to exist.

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