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Jim Nabors, Television’s ‘Gomer Pyle,’ Dies at 87

Gomer Pyle

Jim Nabors, who became famous as Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle USMC, has died at the age of  87:

Jim Nabors, a comic actor who found fame in the role of the amiable bumpkin Gomer Pyle in two hit television shows of the 1960s while pursuing a second career as a popular singer with a booming baritone voice, died on Thursday at his home in Honolulu. He was 87.

His husband, Stan Cadwallader, confirmed the death. He said that Mr. Nabors’s health had been declining for a year and that his immune system had been suppressed since he underwent a liver transplant in 1994.

At the time, Mr. Nabors announced that he had contracted hepatitis B in India several years earlier when he cut himself shaving with a contaminated straight razor, which he had bought there.

Gomer Pyle, the character that so indelibly stamped Mr. Nabors’s career, originated in 1962 as a supporting role on ”The Andy Griffith Show,” a bucolic CBS comedy that had been running since 1960. Gomer was a guileless, sweet-natured gas-station attendant in Mayberry, N.C., a sleepy fictional town where Mr. Griffith played the widower sheriff, Don Knotts his deputy, Ron Howard his son and Frances Bavier his matronly Aunt Bee.

Mr. Nabors’s character, a village innocent who tended to make a mess of things, became a favorite, and his sheepish “gawwwleee” and wide-eyed “shazam!” became popular catchphrases.

In 1964, the character was spun off into his own series, “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” in which Gomer, still bumbling but well meaning, joined the Marines and, on a weekly basis, tried the patience of his loudmouthed drill sergeant, Vince Carter (Frank Sutton).

Gomer was a recognizable kind of American hero: a good-hearted, gentle, unsophisticated sort (not unlike Forrest Gump of a later era) who encounters a harder, more cynical modern world — in this case embodied by Southern California — and helps redeem it.

“Sheldon Leonard and his co-creators astutely chose a Southern California Marine base for their hero,” Gerard Jones wrote in his 1992 history of the American sitcom, “Honey, I’m Home!”

He added: “In various episodes Gomer connected with the movie and TV industries, the music business, the surf scene, the Beverly Hills rich — all the easy symbols of modernity. Everywhere he went he left a trail of fond smiles and innocence — at least temporarily — restored.”

But “one thing Gomer never, ever connected with,” Mr. Jones added, “was the Vietnam War,” which was raging at the time, just as he and his neighbors in Mayberry had remained isolated from the civil rights movement in the South. “He somehow existed in the peacetime military when there was no peace.”

Mr. Nabors first showed off his booming singing voice for a national TV audience in a guest appearance on “The Danny Kaye Show” in 1964. To fans who knew him only as Gomer, his full-throated, almost operatic baritone was surprisingly striking, if strangely incongruous.

“Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” lasted five seasons, ending in 1969, when Mr. Nabors was given his own CBS variety show and with it more opportunities to sing. “The Jim Nabors Hour” lasted until 1971. In 1975 and 1976, he and Ruth Buzzi starred as a pair of androids in the ABC children’s show “The Lost Saucer.” He was a frequent guest on “The Carol Burnett Show.”

He also made dozens of albums, recording ballads, show tunes, gospel and sacred music, country songs and Christmas carols, and performed regularly in Las Vegas showrooms and in concert. He regularly sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” at the Indianapolis 500 auto race, first in 1972 and most recently in 2014.

(…)

James Thurston Nabors was born on June 12, 1930, in Sylacauga, Ala., the third child and only son of Fred and Mavis Nabors. His father was a police officer. Jim sang in his school glee club and church choir and played the clarinet in the school band.

After earning a degree in business from the University of Alabama, he moved to New York, where he worked as a typist at the United Nations while harboring hopes for a stage career. Those hopes went unfulfilled.

He then moved to Tennessee, where he worked as a film cutter for a Chattanooga television station. By the end of the 1950s he had moved to Los Angeles, partly to relieve his chronic asthma.

Taking a job as a film cutter at NBC, he started to perform, for no pay, at the Horn, a cabaret in Santa Monica, where his hillbilly monologues and operatic arias caught the notice of the comic actor Bill Dana, a regular performer on “The Steve Allen Show.” Invited by Mr. Dana to audition, Mr. Nabors was soon making frequent appearances on the Allen show as it neared the end of its long run. (It was canceled in 1961.)

Mr. Griffith also caught his act and decided that Mr. Nabors’s nasal twang and down-home ways made him a natural for “The Andy Griffith Show.”

“Andy saw me, and he said, ‘I don’t know what you do, but you do it very well,’ ” Mr. Nabors once recalled.

He spent much of his later years in Hawaii, where he had a home in Honolulu and a 500-acre farm in Hana, on the island of Maui, growing macadamia nuts and tropical flowers. He also had a home in Montana.

Mr. Nabors married Mr. Cadwallader, his companion of 38 years, in January 2013 at a hotel in Seattle, a few weeks after same-sex marriage became legal in Washington State. Although he was quoted at the time as saying that he had “never made a huge secret” of his homosexuality, and that people in the entertainment industry had long known he was gay, he had not publicly acknowledged it until his marriage.

Mr. Nabors told the television news operation Hawaii News Now at the time that before the marriage it had been been “pretty obvious that we had no rights as a couple.”

“Yet when you’ve been together 38 years, I think something’s got to happen there, you’ve got to solidify something,” he said. “And at my age, it’s probably the best thing to do.”

I was too young to see either The Andy Griffith Show or Gomer Pyle USMC when they were originally broadcast, of course, but caught both in reruns when I was growing up. Nabors character was always a funny, often sweet and sentimental, part of the show and he brought a unique sense of timing and comedy to the role that only a truly talented person can display. It wasn’t until several years later that I learned about his singing career or even heard him sing, most likely by watching the coverage of the Indianapolis 500. The contrast between his singing voice and his “Gomer” voice was, of course, quite marked and his singing voice was quite a pleasant surprise. He will be missed.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. HelloWorld! says:

    Both classic shows! No one else could have every played his part.

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  2. DrDaveT says:

    He was also a favorite guest on The Carol Burnett Show, both as a comedian and as a singer.

    Awesome voice, though not so much my taste in tunes. Apparently a great guy in real life, too.

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  3. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Well… at 87, you can’t say it’s a Surprise (Surprise, Surprise).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TnkJ8_BmSI

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  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Damn, I’m gettin’ old. JN? Rip.

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  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    And I got to say, this is the first time in 3 or 4 weeks the spam filter has allowed me to comment.

    Sigh….

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