The Millionaire and His Wife: Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer

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Today we continue our month-long series about the characters on Gilligan’s Island and the stars who portrayed them. We begin with the millionaire, Thurston Howell III, and his wife, Lovey. On the island, their money is worthless, but it doesn’t stop Mr. Howell from bribing other captives when it’s in his best interest.  He must have been a boy scout who learned the motto, “Be prepared,” because he and his wife took clothes on a three-hour tour to last a few years. In real life, Natalie Schafer was the millionaire. Both Backus and Schafer had very interesting careers.

 

Jim Backus

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Jim Backus was born in Cleveland in February of 1913. He was one of those stars who seemed to excel in everything:  radio, Broadway, animation, big-screen movies, and television series. In an interesting aside, Margaret Hamilton who would go on to have a full career including the Wicked Witch of the West at the Wizard of Oz, was one of his grade school teachers. Jim grew up in a wealthy area, attending Shaw High School in East Cleveland. His father was a mechanical engineer. I could not find exact proof of this but several articles mention he was expelled from the Kentucky Military Institute for riding a horse in the mess hall. He later attended the American Academy of Dramatic Art.

In 1939 he married Betty Kean; they divorced in 1942. One of his famous quotes was “Many a man owes his success to his first wife and his second wife to his success.”

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In the 1940s, Backus began appearing on radio as the “rich man,” which he often portrayed afterward on radio and television. He played the role of aviator Dexter Hayes on Society Girl on CBS Radio Network. He also appeared on the Mel Blanc Show as Hartley Benson, an arrogant character, and as Hubert Updike on The Alan Young Show. He also showed up regularly on The Jack Benny Program.

During his radio years, he married Henny Backus whom he was married to the rest of his life.

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He began his big-screen cinema career in 1949 and would go on to appear in almost 100 movies, including Here Come the Nelsons, Pat and Mike, and Rebel Without a Cause (seen above). His most famous movie role was probably Tyler Fitzgerald in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. My favorite movie of his is Hello Down There with Tony Randall and Janet Leigh from 1969.

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During the 1950s, he began auditioning for roles on television. He would go on to appear on 18 different series during that decade, including I Married Joan, on which he starred with Joan Davis. On the show, Backus played a respected judge and Davis was his scatterbrained wife. The show was very popular and lasted three seasons.

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As if he wasn’t busy enough with acting in the 1950s, he also made a song recording with Phyllis Diller that hit the top 40 in 1958. It was called “Delicious,” and the two of them would take a sip of champagne throughout the song, saying “Delicious.” As the song continues, they get more drunk and a bit giddy, slurring their words and laughing hysterically.

 

His television career continued to be demanding in the 1960s. He appeared on 25 series, and four of them had regular starring sitcom roles. In 1960, The Jim Backus Show debuted. The program focuses on Backus in the role of Mike O’Toole, the editor/proprietor of a low rent wire service struggling to stay in business.

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He had made movie shorts about Mr. Magoo in the 1950s and in 1960, he starred in 130 episodes of Mr. Magoo and would make 26 more episodes under the title The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo in 1964-1965. Mr. Magoo was an older nearsighted man who was very popular, appearing in ads and merchandise for years. The humor of the show was based on the difference between what Mr. Magoo thinks he sees and the reality of what was really there. Jim Backus liked to repeat a story about his famous character. He was in the movie, Don’t Bother to Knock, with Marilyn Monroe. She asked Jim to meet her in her dressing room later and his curiosity got the best of him, so he went, only to learn she wanted him to portray Mr. Magoo which he did.

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This was also the decade he was offered the role of Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island in 1964. That same year he was asked to play the role of Abner Kravitz on a new show, Bewitched but turned it down because he was committed to Gilligan’s Island. Gilligan’s Island would run from 1964-1967 and he would go on to appear in several Gilligan revivals including the far-fetched The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.

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During 1968-1969, Backus took the role of Mr. Dithers in a revival of Blondie.

During the 1960s, he also appeared on 77 Sunset Strip, The Beverly Hillbillies, Daniel Boone, The Wild, Wild West, and I Spy, among others.

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Backus continued his television work into the 1970s where he appeared on 31 shows. He appeared in a variety of genres including I Dream of Jeannie, Young Dr. Kildare, Medical Center, The Brady Bunch, Gunsmoke, Ellery Queen, Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat.

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Backus also continued his commercial work in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the spokesperson for La-Z-Boy furniture and General Electric. He and Natalie Schafer appeared in an ad for Redenbacher’s popcorn. They played their characters from Gilligan’s Island but apparently had been rescued and were in a luxurious home. In a sweet ending, it was the last television appearance for either of them.

When Jim Backus had a little bit of free time between acting jobs, he loved to golf. He also tried his hand at writing a few books and film scripts, including his autobiography which he wrote with his wife, Only When I Laugh in 1965.

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In July of 1989, Backus died from pneumonia, after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for many years.

He had a long and varied career and seemed to have many friends in the business.

 

Natalie Schafer

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A millionaire in real life, Natalie Schafer seemed like a very fun woman, a bit of a character. She was born in November of 1900 in New Jersey and raised in Manhattan. She was quite secretive about her age, often claiming she was born in 1912.

She began her career in Broadway, appearing in 17 plays. She married actor Louis Calhern in 1934 and they divorced in 1942. She moved to Los Angeles in 1941 to become a film actress and received parts in 34 movies. Incidentally, she and her ex remained friends and appeared together in the movie Forever Darling in 1956.

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Like Backus, Schafer typically played wealthy and sophisticated roles. She did not have the versatility her tv husband had but continued to stay busy acting on television.  While Gilligan’s Island was her only long-term role, she appeared on 21 shows in the 1950s (including I Love Lucy, Loretta Young, Phil Silvers, and Topper); 8 in the 1960s (including The Beverly Hillbillies, 77 Sunset Strip, and Route 66); 15 in the 1970s (including Mayberry RFD, The Brady Bunch, and McMillan and Wife); and an additional 8 shows in the 1980s before she passed away (including Three’s Company, The Love Boat, Trapper John, and Simon and Simon).

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Schafer made most of her money from investments, particularly in real estate.

Several sources revealed that much of her fortune was bequeathed to either her Gilligan’s Island co-star Dawn Wells or to care for her dogs; however, at least $1.5 million was donated to the Lillian Booth Actors’ Home to renovate their outpatient wing. I never saw any answers from Wells about inheriting money, but on Vicki Lawrence’s talk show, she did say that Schafer spent her last years living with her. Like many wealthy people, she was quite thrifty.  She often admitted that she accepted the role of Mrs. Howell because she got a free trip to Hawaii to film the pilot and didn’t expect it to get picked up.

 

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Everyone seemed to like her on the set. Dawn Wells said she especially adored Schafer and Backus. Schafer was a hard worker and liked to keep fit. In a Chicago Tribune article from October 25, 1965, she relayed her secrets for staying in shape. For one thing, she did her own stunts on the show. She also said she swam nude every morning and evening, doing 100 strong kicks at the side of the pool. She also invented an ice cream diet for herself. She claimed to eat a quart a day, saying she had a bowl of vanilla ice cream with her coffee, two bowls of varying flavors for both lunch and dinner, and another single bowl for an afternoon snack. She claimed that she would lose three pounds in five days.

In 1990, Schafer passed away from liver cancer. After her death, she wanted people to realize her true age, and many of her closest friends were quite surprised to learn she was 12 years older than she claimed.

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While Thurston Howell III and his wife Lovey were two interesting characters, I don’t think they can compete with the characters who were Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer. I had a lot of fun learning about them.

I Wish You a “Busy Christmas”

Merry Christmas!  I hope you are all enjoying a peaceful and happy day. We have a lot of holiday traditions in our family. When it comes to pop culture “must see” shows, we always watch Frosty, The Snowman; How the Grinch Stole Christmas; and a Charlie Brown Christmas, and the other specials are extras if we get them in.  Christmas movies are different for each generation.  I like White Christmas, while my oldest son never misses Elf.  But when it comes to television, one episode we all agree on is “Busy Christmas” from the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.  Our family makes an effort to watch this every year together. There is something charming about watching an episode that is more than 60 years old but still speaks to us in how we celebrate Christmas.  Ozzie, after vowing not to, involuntarily agrees to so many Christmas activities that he has no time to put up lights or buy a tree.

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The show first aired in December 19, 1956 . It was the 12th episode of season 5. It was written by Jay Sommers, Don Nelson, Ozzie Nelson, and Alfred Nelson.  Alfred’s only writing credits were 4 Nelson episodes.  Ozzie, of course, helped write almost every episode.  Don Nelson, another brother, enjoyed a long writing career.  He helped Ozzie write the movie Here Come the Nelsons and he went on to write for a variety of shows including Bachelor Father, the Donna Reed Show, the Mothers-in-Law, the Doris Day Show, Bridget Loves Bernie, Herbie the Love Bug, Julia, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Nanny and the Professor, as well as a few episodes of Ozzie and Harriet’s later show, Ozzie’s Girls and 326 episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Jay Sommers got credit for 146 of the Nelson episodes and went on to write for Dennis the Menace, wrote many Petticoat Junction shows, almost all the Green Acres scripts, and, surprisingly, Hello Larry which we looked at a few weeks ago.

Produced by Ozzie and Leo Pepin, the show’s set decoration was created by Jack Moore.  Moore had six Academy Award nominations and won for Little Women in 1949. The costume designer was George Sedilla, and the show was filmed at the General Service Studios, 1040 N. Las Palmas, Los Angeles.

In addition to the regular cast, Phil Arnold appears as a tailor and Isabelle Randolph is Mrs. Brewster.

This episode opens with Ozzie and Harriet looking at some of their Christmas cards.  Ozzie mentions he wished people took time to write in their cards.  He sees one that is a perfect example of what a card should say.  It has a very warm and sentimental message.  When Harriet agrees it is nice and asks who sent it, Ozzie replies, “Acme Cleaners.”

 

Modern Christmas cards were started by the Hall brothers whose company would become Hallmark.  They were post cards, but people did not have enough room to write what they wanted to tell people they didn’t see often. In the 1930s, Hallmark switched to a “book format” which is our card today.  The cards increased in popularity from the mid-1930s to the 1960s. Hallmark began commissioning famous artists to design cards including Salvador Dali, Grandma Moses, and Norman Rockwell. The Nelsons would have had to use regular postage stamps, because Christmas stamps did not debut until 1962. It’s funny that the switch to these cards was made so people could write more, but Ozzie’s complaint (and one you hear often today) is that people didn’t write anything personal.

 

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Scene 2 cuts to Ozzie trying to maneuver through a mad rush of people shopping in a department store.  His arms are full of wrapped packages. He tries to ask a clerk for a Donkey Party game.  Giving up, he takes cover in a seating area and ends up sitting next to Mrs. Brewster.  We learn it is a week before Christmas. They are watching a busy crowd and listening over the speaker as Irving Muller is lost and they attempt to find his mother.  Eventually they find her, but now Irving is gone.  Ozzie reminisces about a Christmas when he and Harriet were first married.  They were looking at the tree when all the sudden they heard “Silent Night” and were caught up in the beauty of the song and the carolers on Christmas Eve.  Mrs. Brewster says that is perfect because they would like the Nelsons to join them for caroling this Christmas Eve.  Ozzie says he’ll talk to Harriet, and if she agrees, they will.  Mrs. Brewster smiles and says Harriet has already agreed to it if Ozzie was willing. Over the loudspeaker they hear little Ozzie Nelson is missing and then the message is corrected that Mrs. Nelson is looking for Mr. Nelson.

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Donkey Party was a version of pin-the-tail-on-the donkey. It came with a poster and 24-30 tails. Some of the other classic toys from this year are Candy Land, Mr. Potato Head, a Slinky Dog, and a Lone Ranger guitar.

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Following World War II, the nation displayed an era of peace, productivity, and prosperity and this could be seen in the nation’s department stores.  At Christmas the windows were magical places where beautiful scenes were created, often with moving parts.  Ozzie’s presents were wrapped because that was a service department stores provided, saving the customer time later. Here are some vintage options Ozzie might have been able to choose from.

 

By Scene 3, a few days have passed. Ozzie is helping Harriet hang a wreath on the wall. When Harriet asks him about the tree and putting up lights, he says it’s too early to get the tree, and he decided not to put up lights this year.  He tells her he is not going to get overly busy again this year.  The doorbell rings and Doc Williams enters in.  Doc tells Ozzie that he has been appointed entertainment chairman of the Men’s Club for Christmas, and instead of the regular pageant, they have decided to do a shortened version of the Christmas Carol. Doc will be playing Bob Cratchet. Ozzie tells Harriet this is exactly what he was talking about.  They make one of the busiest men in town chairman and how unfair that is.  Doc looks confused and then starts to laugh.  He assumes Ozzie is auditioning for the role of Scrooge and he gives him the role. Doc asks when the lights are going up, and when Harriet says Ozzie isn’t putting them up this year, Ozzie says yes he is, he just hasn’t gotten around to it yet.

 

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I have a beautifully illustrated book of  The Christmas Carol, and I try to find time to read it each year.  I also have a Scrooge in his striped night shirt, who is about 4 feet and I love him, although most of my family find him creepy.  My grandfather had a set of Dickens books and liked The Christmas Carol, and I find it inspiring that many generations have enjoyed and learned from this book.

Scene 4 finds Ozzie in his garage a day or so later trying to untangle lights. His friend Joe Randolph stops by and says the guy who always helped as Santa at the orphanage Christmas Eve party moved away.  Now they realized he used his own suit.  Ozzie offers his suit; however, Joe thinks his is also offering to be Santa.  Joe has to hurry off before Ozzie can explain.

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Ozzie would be filling in for Santa because the real Big Guy was too busy Christmas Eve delivering gifts. NORAD began tracking his movements in 1955, so the Nelsons would have been able to follow his progress around the globe.

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Scene 5 is December 23. Mrs. Brewster has dropped off a song, and Doc has dropped off his part. Ozzie climbs the ladder to hang lights and has Rick practice the part of Scrooge with him.  Rick, wearing a sheet like a ghost, leans out the window and plays Marley, ad-libbing the part till Ozzie tells him he must learn the part the way it’s written. David comes in the room and tells Rick to take off the sheet because it’s from David’s bed.  The boys get into a conversation and walk off, leaving Ozzie wondering what is going on.  Ozzie remembers he has to get the Santa suit out of the attic and goes to retrieve it. Mrs. Brewster stops by before he can get back on the ladder to bring more music and asks him to please learn the bass part, because she is short on basses. As he goes back up the ladder to put up the lights, he is called to dinner.

 

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Scene 6 begins on Christmas Eve day.  Ozzie is walking around practicing his play part and singing his bass parts. He is just leaving the house to get a tree when the phone rings.  It’s Joe Randolph saying that there are so many children at the orphanage, they will have to do two parties instead of one.  Then Doc stops by and says he was called to the hospital for an emergency and Ozzie will have to go pick up the costumes. David offers to drive him.  They rush to pick up costumes from the tailor, then to the orphanage, and then to the play.  During the play, Ozzie knocks a picture off the wall, then drops a prop and, when he picks it up, his pants rip.

Everyone is back at home for Scene 7.  Ozzie is complaining that once again he was too busy.  He talks about how embarrassing the play was and how he hurt his knee hopping in and out of the car.  David says the audience thought what Ozzie did was part of the play and it was funny. Then David says he got a parking ticket.  That is the last straw for Ozzie, but when Harriet inspects it, she realizes it is an invitation to the Policeman’s Ball. At that moment, the carolers arrive to pick up the Nelson family. They are singing “Silent Night” and the family gets quiet and listens to the song, realizing how beautiful it is and what Christmas is all about.  Ozzie goes to get his coat which Harriet has put in the den.  Ricky comes into the hall with a Charlie Brown tree saying that was all they had left when he got to the lot.  As Ozzie opens the den door, a huge tree is revealed decorated with bulbs and tinsel with tons of presents under it. Harriet and Ricky said they did it while Dave and Ozzie were gone.

Tree decorations is one area that has changed drastically today.  Rarely do you see tinsel, garland, or snow flocking.  Back in the 1950s you might have seen bubble lights, or popcorn strands, and the rainbow colors of Shiny Brite ornaments.

 

They go outside for Scene 8 to join the carolers.  It begins to snow lightly. Doc mentions it’s too bad lights didn’t get put up, but then Ricky hits the light switch and he explains he and Harriet took care of those too. The group moves off singing “Deck the Halls.”

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That’s the end of the 1956 episode, but in 1964, Ozzie replayed this show and added a Scene 10.  It is now 1964.  David is married to June Blair and they have a son Danny. Rick is married to Kris Harmon and they have a daughter Tracy. The entire Nelson family gathers around the tree.  Ricky plays his guitar, sitting in front of the fireplace and decorated tree and sings “The Christmas Song.”  While he sings, the camera pans around watching the rest of the family. It ends with everyone wishing the viewers a merry Christmas.

 

So much of our culture has changed today from 1956; however, thankfully many Christmas traditions remain.  We still send and get cards, although some of them are on the computer.  We still put up lights and a tree; we just tend to do it earlier, so we can enjoy it longer. We still do things for others like orphanage parties; we just don’t have actual orphanages much anymore. We also can get quiet, listening to “Silent Night” and be deeply touched by the season and what it means to us. This episode is a reminder of that for me every year, and I look forward to it.

 

 

 

 

America’s Favorite Family

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For the last two weeks of 2017 we are going to spend some time with the Nelson family. Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky visited our home every week from 1952-1966. America watched the boys grow from young boys to adult men. Let’s see how the show developed.

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Oswald George Nelson was born in New Jersey in 1906. He attended Rutgers and graduated with a law degree, but in the 1920s he put a band together to see if he could make a living from music.  A new vocalist named Peggy Lou Snyder joined his band in 1932. Her parents were actors and she grew up on the stage. She had married a comedian Roy Sedley, but he was not funny at home; he was abusive, and she had their marriage annulled. When she joined Ozzie’s band, she changed her name to Harriet Hilliard, and she changed it again in 1935 when she married Ozzie.

 

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They did a few radio shows, eventually ending up on the Red Skelton Show. In 1944, they received their own radio show and they called it The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Their boys were played by actors until 1949 when Ozzie and Harriet felt they were old enough to join the cast. Later Ozzie would be criticized for putting his boys on the show and destroying their childhood, but David said his parents tried hard to give the boys a normal upbringing.

 

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In 1952, Ozzie and his brother wrote a movie called Here Come the Nelsons which was shown on the big screen.  It functioned as a pilot for a television show they began that same year.  Decades before Seinfeld, these two put together a how about nothing — and everything.  It was about their life and what was happening at home.  Unfortunately, the downside of portraying yourself on television was the pressure of trying to appear the perfect family when everyone realizes there is no such thing.   Growing up before the cameras put a lot of stress on the boys especially to always be “acting.”  David once was quoted as saying, “It’s an awfully big load to carry, to be everyone’s fantasy family.”

 

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The Nelsons lived at 822 Sycamore Rd, but the exterior shots were that of their real home at 1822 Camino Palmero St., Hollywood, LA, California.  The interior shots, built to resemble their own home, were filmed at Selzick International Studios in Culver City.

 

Hotpoint was one of their first sponsors, and viewers would have watched a young Mary Tyler Moore as Happy Hotpoint, a dancing pixie. Actors often addressed the audience directly, drawing them into their life.

 

Other characters who showed up regularly were their next-door neighbor Thorny played by Don DeFore; Don’s son said in real life he was much like Thorny.

 

Ozzie and Harriet’s friends Clara and Joe Randolph (Mary Jane Croft and Lyle Talbot) and Doc Williams (Frank Cady) were on the show regularly. Ricky’s friend Wally (Skip Young), and Jack (Jack Wagner) who worked at the malt shop also appeared regularly.  On several episodes you can see a young Barry and Stan Livingston before they were Steve Douglas’s sons.

 

The show produced 436 episodes, all written in part by Ozzie, produced by Ozzie, directed by Ozzie, and even set buildings were supervised by Ozzie who was considered a workaholic and quite different from the stammering, hesitant, and slightly absent-minded father he played on the small screen.

 

When Ricky decided he wanted a rock and roll career, it was written into the show, and his popularity is what kept the show going for a good part of the 1960s.

 

When David married June Blair, she was written into the show, and when Ricky married Kris Harmon (sister of Mark Harmon and mom of actress Tracy Harmon and the Nelson twins who had the band Nelson), she was written in as well.

A lot of the shows centered around the boys. Many of the situations were taken from real life.  When they’re younger, we see them learning life lessons; as they became teenagers, we watched them go through dating issues; and when they became adults, we followed their marriages, parenting choices, and careers.

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In 1966, the show began to be considered old-fashioned even though Ozzie tried to update the scripts. When the show was cancelled that year, it was replaced by a new show starring Adam West called Batman.

 

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Ozzie and Harriet tried television again in 1973 with Ozzie’s Girls where Ozzie and Harriet rent out the boys’ rooms to two college students, but the show failed after a year.

 

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Ozzie would go on to appear on the Mothers-In-Law, Adam-12, Night Gallery, Bridget Loves Bernie and three episodes of Love American Style. He passed away in 1975 from liver cancer.

 

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Harriet appeared in a variety of shows also including Bridget Loves Bernie, Love American Style, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Aloha Paradise,  and Happy Days but after Ozzie died, she became a bit of a recluse. The last show she appeared on was her granddaughter Tracy’s show, Father Dowling’s Mysteries. She died in 1994 from emphysema and congenital heart disease.

 

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Ricky had a variety of movie and television performances.  His music career continued successfully, although his drug abuse ruined his marriage and stalled his career.  He was killed in 1985 in a plane crash on his way to a performance.

 

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David appeared in quite a few movies when the show was over and got into directing and producing.  He and June divorced in 1975, and he married Yvonne O’Connor Huston. He passed away in 2011 from colon cancer.

I cannot imagine living your growing-up years under the microscope of the entire American public.  We have all experienced living near neighbors when they hear something we prefer they didn’t, or we hear something we prefer we didn’t.  This family had millions of people watching them, seeing if they lived up to their perfect image.

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It’s hard to discuss the show without discussing the repercussions it had on the Nelson clan, but the show itself was a chance to watch a family we admired and hoped to be more like when we became parents.  I have learned that you need to love characters for who they are — period.  Because, often the real humans behind them will let you down and make you sad.  It was hard for me to adjust to watching some of my favorite characters after learning disappointing things about the actors or actresses who portrayed them; often they were not such nice people.  So I made a determined effort to keep characters I love separate from any real life issues.

That said, I think Ozzie and Harriet did the best they could to raise their children under the spotlight with as much normalcy as possible.  They had to deal with real-life issues at home and then come together and play America’s favorite family.  I give them credit just for being able to do that for fourteen years.