Quincy Magoo (or simply Mr. Magoo) is a cartoon character created at the UPA animation studio in 1949. Voiced by Jim Backus, Quincy Magoo is a wealthy, short-statured retiree who gets into a series of comical situations as a result of his nearsightedness, compounded by his stubborn refusal to admit the problem. However, through uncanny streaks of luck, the situation always seems to work itself out for him, leaving him no worse than before.
Affected people (or animals) consequently tend to think that he is a lunatic, rather than just being nearsighted. In later cartoons he is also an actor, and generally a competent one except for his visual impairment.
In 2002, TV Guide ranked Mr. Magoo number 29 on its ’50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All Time’ list.
Mr. Magoo’s first appearance was in the theatrical short cartoon The Ragtime Bear (1949), scripted by Millard Kaufman. His creation was a collaborative effort; animation director John Hubley is said to have partly based the character on his uncle Harry Woodruff, and W. C. Fields was another source of inspiration. In a legend circulating among medievalists, Harvard professor Francis P. Magoun is also said to have been the model for the character. However, there is no evidence that artist Hubley knew the scholar. Columbia was reluctant to release the short, but did so, only because it included a bear. However, audiences quickly realized that the real star was Magoo, one of the few “human” cartoon characters ever produced in Hollywood at the time. The short became a box-office success.
The Magoo character was originally conceived as a mean-spirited McCarthy-like reactionary whose mumbling would include as much outrageous misanthropic ranting as the animators could get away with. Kaufman had actually been blacklisted, and Magoo was a form of protest. Hubley was an ex-communist who had participated in the Disney animators’ strike in 1941. Both he and Kaufman had participated in the blacklist front and perhaps due to the risk of coming under more scrutiny with a successful character, John Hubley, who had created Magoo, handed the series completely over to creative director, Pete Burness.
Under Burness, Magoo would win two Oscars for the studio with When Magoo Flew (1955) and Magoo’s Puddle Jumper (1956). Burness scrubbed Magoo of his politicized meanness and left only a few strange unempathic comments that made him appear senile or somewhat mad. This however was not entirely out of line with the way McCarthy came to be perceived over that same era. Magoo was frequently accompanied in his on-screen escapades with his nephew Waldo, voiced at various times by Jerry Hausner or Daws Butler.
On talk shows, Backus often told the tale of how he originally discovered Magoo’s voice when he put on a fake rubber nose that pinched his nose slightly, giving it the nasal sound. He was only able to perform the voice with the help of the rubber nose for some time, but eventually learned how to re-create it without its assistance. He would usually pull out the nose (or a facsimile, since the original had been lost some years before) and put it on and break into the familiar voice.
In 1957, the record album Magoo in Hi-Fi was released. Side 1 consisted of a dialog between Magoo and Waldo taking place while Magoo was attempting to set up his new sound system. Music on the album was composed and conducted by Dennis Farnon and his orchestra. Side 2, “The Mother Magoo Suite”, was a series of musical pieces which included two solos by Marni Nixon.
In 1959, Mr. Magoo starred in 1001 Arabian Nights, directed by Jack Kinney, UPA’s first feature-length production.