When Oscar Backlund returned home from Army service in Germany during World War II, he walked into a bar and asked the bartender about a box on the wall.
"Where have you been?" the bartender questioned. "It's television."
Backlund's love of movies and the burgeoning television industry triggered a 40-year career as a broadcast journalist and stage and movie actor.
He played character roles in more than 100 theater productions and had small parts in the movies "Grumpy Old Men," "Grumpier Old Men" and "D3: The Mighty Ducks."
He died Jan. 4 of natural causes at Walker Care Suites in Edina. He was 94.
Backlund was born in Minneapolis and graduated from Vocational High School in Minneapolis. He was excited to be drafted into the Army in World War II because his cousin was already serving in Europe. He didn't see a lot of action, but he was shot at once and didn't like it, said daughter Elizabeth Danielson of Golden Valley.
A Laurel and Hardy movie was playing on the television Backlund noticed when he walked into the bar that day after he returned from the war. But the television industry hadn't really taken off, so he decided to train in radio and got a job with WCCO-AM.
That lasted a few years before the lure of television brought him to WTCN-TV, which later became KARE-11. He did everything behind the scenes, including editing commercials into programs and filming stories for the morning news broadcasts, said Danielson.
"Sometimes when the station would get movies, the commercials weren't in the right spots and he had to fix the movies so they hung together," she said. "Everything was on film or live. Bringing TV to people was what he did."
During the Twin Cities blizzard of 1965, he was picked up by another company employee to come to work "and turn the station back on," she said.
Backlund worked at KARE for nearly 40 years before retiring in 1996. The day before he left the station, the morning show brought him in front of the cameras to talk about his career. During the interview, he said he never gave much thought about how much the industry changed over the years.
His workdays started in the early morning, but he could usually be found on the stage at night. He did more than 100 productions at Theater in the Round, Edyth Bush Little Theater, Chimera Theater, Actors Theater, Old Log Theatre and the St. Paul Opera. He acted in several productions with Joe Franken, father of former Minnesota U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
Backlund was a fan of horror movies, but he had small roles in several comedies filmed in Minnesota. He was a stand-in for a minister in "Grumpy Old Men" and was in other movies where you had to stop it to see his role, said Danielson.
"He was very humble about his work," she said. "He joked that he had an area called 'Ego Alley' in his house where he kept shots of his movie roles. It wasn't a big deal to him and he never boasted about it."
He was active in the Legends of Broadcasting, a group of people who met for lunch to talk about the industry. He also was involved with the Sons of Norway and served as its president.
Backlund belonged to the VFW and Bethlehem Lutheran Church. He also had long-running roles as Santa Claus at KARE, the Eden Prairie Center and for visitors and children at Walker Care Suites.
In addition to his daughter Elizabeth, he is survived by another daughter, Alice Backlund of Westchester, Pa., and three grandchildren. Services will be held at a later date.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465