Jim Nabors, TV's Gomer Pyle, Dies at 87

Jim Nabors, 87, died on Thursday (Nov 30) at his home in Honolulu.
Jim Nabors, 87, died on Thursday (Nov 30) at his home in Honolulu.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - 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, died Thursday (Nov 30) at his home in Honolulu. He was 87.

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

Gomer Pyle, the character that so indelibly stamped Nabors' 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, North Carolina, a sleepy fictional town where Griffith played the widower sheriff, Don Knotts his deputy, Ron Howard his son and Frances Bavier his matronly Aunt Bee.

Nabors' 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 recognisable 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.

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 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.

Nabors played supporting roles in three movies starring his friend Burt Reynolds: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), Stroker Ace (1983) and Cannonball Run II (1984).

James Thurston Nabors was born on June 12, 1930, in Sylacauga, Alabama, 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.

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 comic actor Bill Dana, a regular performer on The Steve Allen Show. Invited by Dana to audition, Nabors was soon making frequent appearances on the Allen show as it neared the end of its long run. (It was cancelled in 1961.)

Griffith also caught his act and decided that Nabors' 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,'" Nabors once recalled.

The Gomer Pyle persona never left Nabors, but he was comfortable with that. "I've never found doing Gomer to be that limiting to me," he said in 1990. "I've always enjoyed the character, and I see no reason to change it."

The Marines have recognised the character, calling Nabors "a great American". In 2001, in a whimsical ceremony in Honolulu presided over by General James L. Jones Jr., commandant of the Marine Corps, Pfc Gomer Pyle - Nabors, in character - was promoted to lance corporal.