The actor who played TV’s most lovable klutz
Jim Nabors 1930–2017
For a generation of Americans, Jim Nabors will always be linked with the lovable country bumpkin Gomer Pyle. Nabors first played the role on TV’s The Andy Griffith Show in 1962, with Pyle a bumbling but sweet-natured gas station attendant in the fictional town of Mayberry, N.C. Viewers ate up Nabors and his Alabama twang, and Pyle-isms like “Goll-leee!” and “Shazam!” becoming inescapable catchphrases. The character proved so popular that two years later CBS decided to make Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., in which Pyle travels to California to become a U.S. Marine. In its five seasons, the show never dropped out of the top 10 in ratings. Nabors was just as charmed by Gomer Pyle as audiences were. “If you had to play a character, I probably played the nicest character of all,” he said. “Being Gomer could bring you up from your toes.”
Born in the small town of Sylacauga, Ala., the musically gifted Nabors “sang in his school glee club and church choir and played the clarinet in the school band,” said The New York Times. He briefly worked as a typist in New York City while trying unsuccessfully to break into a stage career, and in the late 1950s moved to Los Angeles to help relieve his chronic asthma. Nabors had never acted before when Andy Griffith caught him singing at a Santa Monica nightclub, said The Washington Post. For his act, Nabors “portrayed a bumpkin whose high-pitched drawl changed to an operatic baritone when he broke into song.” Griffith loved it. “I don’t know what you do,” he told Nabors, “but it’s magic, whatever it is.” Nabors’ run on The Andy Griffith Show culminated in the fourth-season finale, which saw Pyle join the Marines.
Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. provided viewers with an escape during the turbulent 1960s, with the show avoiding hot-button issues like the Vietnam War, said the Los Angeles Times. The military in turn embraced Gomer Pyle as a sort of mascot, with Nabors performing before an audience of 40,000 cheering Marines in Vietnam in 1971. After Gomer Pyle went off the air, Nabors returned to his musical roots, recording more than 30 albums, in genres including country and opera, while hosting and appearing on variety shows. “There’s something so joyous about music,” he said. “Acting pales in comparison.” ■