Jim Backus somehow starred in two competing TV shows in the same time slot
The success of one series nearly killed another of his beloved characters.
Image: The Everett Collection
Jim Backus rose to fame by making us laugh on the hit comedies I Married Joan and Gilligan's Island. But the actor was not exactly a fan of sitcom gigs. "You're like the living dead. They throw you in in September and let you out in June," he carped in a 1969 interview. He joked that he had formed a support group for television actors called Series Anonymous to help them cope with landing roles. "They call me up, bring over a bottle of booze, and I talk them out of it."
If it seems as if Backus had an inner conflict about his job, perhaps its because he had a real-life outer conflict with his job. In 1965, he was starring in two new television shows on two different networks — and they were scheduled against one another.
One of them, of course, was Gilligan's Island, on which he played stranded millionaire Thurston Howell III. The CBS series was an immediate sensation, easily winning its 8:30 p.m. time slot on Saturday nights. The castaways earned an impressive 24.7 rating, enough to rank it the 18th most-watched show on television, according to Nielsen. That put it above the likes of Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, McHale's Navy and The Addams Family.
Meanwhile, over on NBC, the peacock network was premiering a new primetime cartoon that year, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo. Thanks to the popularity of The Flintstones, The Jetsons and Jonny Quest, animation was suddenly an evening affair. NBC looked to continue the cartoon craze with a new Mr. Magoo. The lovable, excessively near-sighted character dated back to 1949. Mr. Magoo theatrical shorts had twice won Oscars in the 1950s, and a syndicated television series produced 130 episodes of the old man's adventures. Throughout it all, Jim Backus had provided the voice of Mr. Magoo.
The holiday special Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol continued the success in 1962. That yuletide treat, which placed the Mr. Magoo character into a familiar tale, inspired The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, which inserted the nearly-blind fellow into classics like Robin Hood, Treasure Island and Don Quixote. There was even a Dick Tracy episode.
NBC launched the series on Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. Which was all well and good, until the network decided to move the program mid-season.
Yep, NBC pushed The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo back half an hour to compete directly with Gilligan's Island.
Mr. Howell drubbed Mr. Magoo in the ratings. NBC canceled The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo after a single season. Mr. Magoo was never quite so popular again. Talk about being a victim of your own success.