Jim Nabors, the Alabama-born entertainer who put “gawwwleee” in the vocabulary of baby boomers by playing a gullible, well-meaning Marine in the 1960s television sitcom “Gomer Pyle,” has died. He was 87.
The actor died at his home in Hawaii, the Associated Press reported, citing his husband, Stan Cadwallader. Nabors had heart surgery in 2012 and a liver transplant in 1994.
Nabors became a household name in the early 1960s with his portrayal of a bumbling gas-station attendant from Mayberry, North Carolina, on “The Andy Griffith Show.” He then adapted the same character for the spinoff series “Gomer Pyle: USMC,” which ran from 1964 to 1969 on the CBS network.
As American involvement in the Vietnam War escalated, Pyle offered comic relief to a war-weary public with his catchphrases “Shazam!” and “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” Nabors’ fame grew as the show ran in syndication in the U.S. and abroad.
Set at a fictional military base in California, the program focused on the farcical relationship between Private Pyle and the gung-ho Korean War veteran Sgt. Vince Carter, played by Frank Sutton. The lovable, long-jawed Marine was a constant source of frustration as he empathized with the enemy, preferred talk to action and wore down his hot-tempered superior officer with disarming honesty. Carter eventually warmed to Pyle’s gentle demeanor, refusing his transfer request in the final show.
“Gomer Pyle taught the American people that Marines are people and that they have a sense of humor, despite what they go through,” Lt. Gen. John F. Goodman said in 2007 when promoting Nabors to honorary corporal on Pyle’s behalf. “I think that brought the Marine Corps closer to the people than any other movie or TV show.”
“Gomer Pyle,” which avoided discussion of Vietnam, was one of several 1960s sitcoms, such as the World War II-themed “Hogan’s Heroes” and “McHale’s Navy,” that had cultural significance for their treatment of the military. Though “Gomer Pyle” had a peacetime setting, Nabors said he had trouble watching the show’s opening, which featured Pyle marching with many soldiers who were later among the 58,000 U.S. personnel killed in Vietnam, according to the internet Movie Database.
“By the 1960s, World War II had receded far enough in history to be a safe topic, and perhaps for the first time, American television viewers, many of whom had lived through it, were ready to laugh about their wartime experiences while simultaneously dealing, at an unconscious level, with their Vietnam-related fears and concerns,” according to “Prime-Time Television: A Concise History” (2006) written by Barbara Moore, Marvin Bensman and Jim Van Dyke.
Nabors, who hosted visitors such as President Ronald Reagan and actress Debbie Reynolds at his home in Honolulu, resonated with fans long after CBS canceled the show. Starting in 1972, he was a hit with motor-racing enthusiasts at the Indianapolis 500, where he sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” more than 30 times in annual pre-race ceremonies, according to his website. He also recorded almost 30 albums of songs.
“I feel like I am an Indianan now,” Nabors said. “I feel like they truly adopted me. If I didn’t live in Hawaii, I’d probably live there.”
James Thurston Nabors was born on June 12, 1930, in Sylacauga, Alabama, to Fred and Mavis Nabors. The youngest of three children, he suffered from severe asthma as a child and was unable to participate in athletics.
Nabors received a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1952 from the University of Alabama, where he began acting. Following graduation, he moved to New York, spending a year as a typist at the United Nations.
After later moving to Los Angeles to help alleviate his asthma, he performed at the Horn, a cabaret club in Santa Monica that featured aspiring talent. Nabors appeared on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1961 and was later discovered by Andy Griffith during a performance at the Horn that mixed hillbilly monologues and arias from operas, according to his website.
After “Gomer Pyle,” Nabors hosted “The Jim Nabors Hour” from 1969 to 1971 and “The Jim Nabors Show” in 1978. Nabors also performed in Las Vegas and had roles in the films “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (1982) and “Cannonball Run II” (1984), both starring Burt Reynolds.
In 2013, Nabors married Cadwallader, his partner of 38 years at the time, in Seattle one month after Washington State made same-sex marriage legal, CBS reported. They lived in an oceanside home in Hawaii, where Nabors also owned a macadamia nut farm.
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“Gomer Pyle has been nice to me and I’ve always tried to be a nice guy,” Nabors said in an interview on his website. “I never stepped on anybody, never bad-mouthed someone. It’s never my style.”