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

Joal Ryan
Contributor

Jim Nabors, who used a backwoods twang to play TV’s Gomer Pyle, and deployed a precise baritone to become a popular singer, died peacefully Thursday at his home in Hawaii. He was 87. The death was confirmed by Nabors’s husband Stan Cadwallader to the Associated Press.

“I’d sing like this, and talk like this,” Nabors once demonstrated for the Associated Press, making his voice go from booming depths to high-pitched Gomer highs. “It made no sense to anybody.”

Nabors was a primetime staple in the 1960s. He played North Carolina-born Gomer on two top-rated sitcoms: first, on The Andy Griffith Show from 1962 to 1964; and, then on his own spinoff, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., from 1964 to 1969.

Born June 12, 1930, in Alabama, Nabors worked as a typist at the United Nations and a film editor in Hollywood before getting early TV exposure as a singer via talk-host Steve Allen.

Nabors said he auditioned for The Beverly Hillbillies but was rejected because he was “not handsome enough.” The Andy Griffith Show was Nabors’s first acting credit.

On Gomer Pyle, Nabors saw his character move from a North Carolina gas station to a Marine Corps base in California. Though the series was produced during the Vietnam War, the conflict was never mentioned, and Private Pyle never saw action. The character’s name was heard as a derisive nickname in the 1987 Stanley Kubrick Vietnam War drama, Full Metal Jacket.

Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle (Photo: CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images)

Gomer Pyle was as big a Nielsen success as Andy Griffith. In 1969, when the comedy was the No. 2 show in all of TV, Nabors ended the series for a shot at primetime-variety stardom. The Jim Nabors Hour ran for two seasons, from 1969 to 1971.

Nabors went on to star in the 1970s children’s series The Lost Saucer, and to appear in a trio of movies with his longtime pal Burt Reynolds (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Stroker Ace, Cannonball Run II).

He earned his only Emmy nomination for his self-titled 1978 daytime variety show.

As a singer, Nabors was a nightclub draw and popular variety-show guest. He released dozens of albums — for a time, few households celebrated the holidays without the gold-selling Jim Nabors Christmas Album on the stereo.

To racing fans, Nabors was an institution. Nearly every Memorial Day weekend from 1972 through 2014, when he announced his retirement, saw Nabors croon “Back Home Again in Indiana” prior to the start of the Indianapolis 500.

Nabors underwent a liver transplant in 1994 after contracting hepatitis B, but would recover and return to the stage.

In the early 1970s, Nabors was the subject of a joke-turned-rumor that went as viral as things could go in the early 1970s: that he and the Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson were married. Both actors were gay, but neither was out. They weren’t ever a couple, either.

Decades later, upon his 2013 marriage to his longtime partner, Cadwallader, Nabors told Hawaii News Now that he was always out to his family and co-workers, but that he wasn’t built to be a crusader for gay rights.

“This is really no big deal. My friend and I, my partner, we went through all of this 38 years ago,” Nabors said of his wedding. “So I mean, we made our vows, and that was it.”

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