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Jim Nabors, Gomer Pyle Character and Baritone Singer Dies at Age 87

Thu November 30 2017 1:09 pm
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Barney Fife (Don Knotts) on a traffic stop with Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) in The Andy Griffith Show.

Jim Nabors, who starred as auto mechanic Gomer Pyle in the small town of Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show died early Thursday morning, November 30, 2017 in Hawaii. Nabors, who also starred in Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1964-1969) and in his own sitcom before retiring. Jim Nabors died at age 87.

At home with Jim Nabors on WISH TV, Indianapolis.

Since 1972, Nabors sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” during the opening ceremonies for the Indianapolis 500. He last on sang “Back Home in Indiana” at the Indy 500 for the last time in 2014 with only a few absences since 1972. The song was composed by James F. Hanley with lyrics by Ballard MacDonald, and published in January 1917.

A native of Alabama, Nabors also recorded more than two dozen albums with a rich, operatic baritone voice that was in strong contrast to the small town “Gawwwleee!”, “Shazam!”, “Sur-prise, sur-prise, sur-prise!”, and “shame, shame, shame! with a Southern twang whiled cast in the small fictitious Mayberry, North Carolina.

The son of a policeman, James Thurston Nabors was born June 12, 1930, in Sylacauga, Alabama. After graduating with a degree in business administration, he moved to New York and worked as a typist and answered phones at the United Nations.

Nabors had gained experience in singing in high school and acting in fraternity productions at the University of Alabama.

Nabors returned to the South and worked as a film cutter for a TV station in Chattanooga, Tennessee, then moved to Los Angeles with hope that the climate would alleviate his asthma. He was also a film cutter at NBC in Los Angeles. At nights, he sang and spun tales as a Gomer-like character at The Horn, a cabaret theater on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, California.

In the early 1960s, Nabors was a regular performer at The Horn, when Andy Griffith, scouting new talent, took notice of Nabors. In the middle of the third season of the Andy Griffith show, Griffith chose Nabors as the perfect actor to play Gomer Pyle — a dimwitted, lovable mechanic at Wally’s Filling Station in Mayberry and a cousin of Goober, played by George Lindsey.

Nabors was initially signed for only one episode in the middle of the season in December 1962, but Gomer proved popular, and Nabors went on to appear on 23 more episodes of the series. Nabors’ run on The Andy Griffith Show culminated with the fourth-season finale, in which Gomer joins the U.S. Marines. That episode served as the pilot for the spinoff sitcom Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., scrutinized by tough but caring drill sergeant Vince Carter, played by Frank Sutton. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. aired for five years from 1964-69 on CBS, and gained successful ratings — always in the top 10 and No. 2 in its final season. However, Jim Nabors wanted to transition from acting to entertaining. Nabors decided to pursue other activities, which included hosting his own variety show — The Jim Nabors Hour.

Nabors had first demonstrated his singing ability to television viewers in 1964 on The Danny Kaye Show on CBS, and on a Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. episode that aired in November 1967. Acting as Gomer Pyle, Nabors sang “The Impossible Dream” from Man of la Mancha. “The Impossible Dream” became a concert staple for him. His 1980 album, The Heart-Touching Magic of Jim Nabors, went platinum.

Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle USMC sings “The Impossible Dream” with proud Sgt. Vince Carter in awe backstage.

Nabors showcased his singing and comedic talents on The Jim Nabors Hour for two seasons. Many shows featured some of his Gomer Pyle co-stars.

Jim Nabors also perform opposite his lifelong friend Burt Reynolds in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), Stroker Ace (1983) and, as “Pvt. Homer Lyle,” Cannonball Run II (1984), Nabors was also cast as a beatnik in Take Her, She’s Mine (1963), starring James Stewart and Sandra Dee. His voice was dubbed in the film.

In the 1970s, Nabors starred with Ruth Buzzi as time-traveling androids on the ABC series The Lost Saucer, produced by Sid and Marty Krofft, and hosted his own syndicated talk show.

He was back as Gomer Pyle for the 1986 NBC reunion movie Return to Mayberry, but did not star in the CBS show Mayberry R.F.D. — a series produced as a spin-off and direct continuation of The Andy Griffith Show that ran from 1968–1971

Nabors admitted that he had trouble watching Pyle’s opening credits when the series was playing in syndication because many of the Marines with whom he marched were killed in Vietnam. The sitcom never addressed the war or any anti-war sentiment.

In January 2013, Nabors exchanged wedding vows with Stan Cadwallader, his partner of almost four decades, before a judge in a Seattle hotel room. Nabors met Cadwallader, a former firefighter in Honolulu, in 1975.

Asked in a 2000 interview with the Los Angeles Times about why The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle continued to be so popular, Nabors said, “Television has become very cynical, even the comedy shows, and the cynicism from the young people just boggles my mind. In Mayberry, there was no illness. There was no war. There was no violence. There was no graffiti. We all had a good time, and we laughed a lot.”

Jim Nabors as Pfc Gomer Pyle and Carol Burnett as Sgt. Carol sing a medley of several songs. The clip is from Gomer Pyle USMC season 5, Episode 28 – “Showtime with Sgt. Carol”.

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