NEW YORK — Jim Nabors made good on his last name when he brought Gomer Pyle to “The Andy Griffith Show.” His big-hearted, ever-cheery gas-pump jockey was a neighborly fit in the easygoing town of Mayberry.
But when Gomer enlisted in the Marines for five TV seasons, he truly blossomed. So did the actor who portrayed him.
Nabors, who died Thursday at 87, made Pvt. Gomer Pyle a perfect foil for the immovable object of Marines boot camp: Grinning, gentle Gomer was the irresistible force.
On “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” a spinoff from “The Andy Griffith Show” that premiered in 1964, Gomer arrived in the fictional Camp Henderson with a happy attitude and eager innocence that flew in the face of everything he found awaiting him there, especially irascible Sgt. Vince Carter, played by Frank Sutton.
It's a measure of Nabors’ skill in inhabiting the anything-but-militaristic Gomer that this character was widely beloved, and the show a Top 10 hit, during an era when the Vietnam War was dividing America. His trademark “Shazam,” ‘'Gollllll-lee,“ and ”Surprise, surprise, surprise" were parroted by millions.
But Nabors had another character to offer his fans: himself, a booming baritone. In appearances on TV variety programs, he stunned viewers with the contrast between his twangy, homespun humor (“The tornado was so bad a hen laid the same egg twice”) and his full-throated vocals.
He was a double threat, as he demonstrated for two seasons starting in 1969 on “The Jim Nabors Hour,” a variety series where he joshed with guest stars, did sketches with Sutton and fellow “Gomer” veteran Ronnie Schell, and sang country and opera.
Offstage and off-camera, Nabors retained some of the awed innocence of Gomer. At the height of his fame in 1969, he admitted, “I still find it difficult to believe this kind of acceptance. I still don't trust it.”
After his variety show, Nabors continued earning high salaries in Las Vegas showrooms and in concert theaters across the country. He recorded more than two dozen albums and sang with the Dallas and St. Louis symphony orchestras.
During the 1970s he moved to Hawaii, buying a 500-acre macadamia ranch. He still did occasional TV work, and in the late 1970s, he appeared 10 months annually at Hilton hotels in Hawaii. The pace gave him an ulcer.
“I was completely burned out,” he later recalled. “I'd had it with the bright lights.”
In the early 1980s, his longtime friendship with Burt Reynolds led to roles in “Stroker Ace,” ‘'Cannonball II“ and ”The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."
He returned to concert and nightclub performances in 1985, though at a less intensive pace. Among his regular gigs was singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” at the Indianapolis 500 each year, which he first did in 1972. That first time, he wrote the lyrics on his hand so he wouldn't forget.
“I've never thought of (the audience reaction) as relating to me,” Nabors said. “It is applauding for the tradition of the race and the excitement.”
Illness forced him to cancel his appearance in 2007, the first one he had missed in more than 20 years. But he was back performing at Indy in 2008, saying, “It's always the main part of my year. It just thrills you to your bones.”
In 1991, Nabors was thrilled to get a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. He was joined for the ceremony by pals Carol Burnett, Loni Anderson, Phyllis Diller and Florence Henderson. His reaction? “Gollllll-lee!”
Nabors, who had undergone a liver transplant in 1994 after contracting hepatitis B, died at his home in Hawaii after his health had declined for the past year, said his husband, Stan Cadwallader, who was by his side.
“Everybody knows he was a wonderful man. And that's all we can say about him. He's going to be dearly missed,” Cadwallader said.
The couple married in early 2013 in Washington state, where gay marriage had recently been made legal. Nabors’ friends had known for years that he was gay, but he had never said anything to the media.
“It's 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,” Nabors told Hawaii News Now at the time. “And at my age, it's probably the best thing to do.”
An authentic small-town Southern boy, he was born James Thurston Nabors in Sylacauga, Alabama, in 1930, the son of a police officer. Boyhood attacks of asthma required long periods of rest, during which he learned to entertain his playmates with vocal tricks.
After graduating from the University of Alabama, he worked in New York City for a time, and later, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he was an assistant film editor and occasional singer at a TV station.
He moved on to Hollywood with hopes of using his voice. While cutting film at NBC in the daytime, he sang at night at a Santa Monica club.
“I was up there on the stage the night that Andy Griffith came in,” Nabors recalled in 1965. “He said to me afterward, ‘You know somethin,’ boy? You're good. I'm going to bring my manager around to see you.’”
Nabors soon landed a guest shot on Griffith's sitcom as Gomer Pyle. That grew into a regular role as Gomer proved a kindred spirit with other Mayberry locals. By then, he had proved he was also a kindred spirit with millions of viewers.