Actor Jim Nabors, best known for his U.S. television character Gomer Pyle, died Thursday at his home in Hawaii at age 87.
Nabors, born in Alabama, exaggerated his Southern accent for the Pyle character. The dull-witted but lovable Pyle became a beloved presence on television’s The Andy Griffith Show in 1962. The show about a sheriff and his family and friends in North Carolina is remembered today for its idyllic portrayal of small-town American life in the 1960s.
After two years, the popular Nabors character was given his own spinoff. In Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., the gentle, sweet-natured Pyle joined the U.S. Marine Corps and delighted audiences by clashing repeatedly with a no-nonsense drill sergeant, played by Frank Sutton. The show ran for five seasons.
Nabors gave his character a number of catchphrases still remembered by fans today. Among them were “Surprise, surprise, surprise!,” “Shazam!,” and an awestruck utterance of “Gollll-ly!” that stretched the word into four syllables.
For two seasons beginning in 1969, CBS presented The Jim Nabors Hour, on which he joshed with guest stars, did sketches with Sutton and fellow Gomer Pyle veteran Ronnie Schell, and sang country and opera.
‘Difficult to believe’
Offstage, Nabors retained some of the awed innocence of Gomer. At the height of his fame in 1969, he admitted, “For the first four years of the series, I didn’t trust my success. Every weekend and on every vacation, I would take off to play nightclubs and concerts, figuring the whole thing would blow over someday.
“You know somethin’? I still find it difficult to believe this kind of acceptance. I still don’t trust it.”
He was an accomplished singer, recording 28 albums of love songs, sacred music and holiday tunes in his rich baritone voice.
Among his regular gigs was singing Back Home Again in Indiana at the Indianapolis 500 auto race each year, which he first did in 1972. The 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’s always relating to the song and to the race. 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. 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 2014, Nabors announced he would be singing for the last time at the race, because his health was limiting his ability to travel from his home in Hawaii.
Nabors lived in Hawaii with Stan Cadwallader, his partner of more than 40 years. He had told Hawaii News Now, years earlier, that he had first visited the farthest-flung U.S. state in the 1960s and knew he wanted to make it his home.
Friendliness of Hawaii
“I just walked off that plane and knew this is where I wanted to be,” he said. “It was the air and the friendship and the friendliness and the people, you know. I just knew — there’s something inside me that told me, ‘Hey, you’re gonna end up here.’ ”
Nabors ended up buying a flower-and-nut farm on the island of Maui.
Nabors, who underwent a liver transplant in 1994 after contracting hepatitis B, died peacefully at his home in Hawaii after his health had declined for the past year, said 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.”
In 1991, Nabors got a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in ceremonies attended by pals Carol Burnett, Loni Anderson, Phyllis Diller and Florence Henderson. His reaction? “Gollll-ly!”
The late Associated Press Entertainment Writer Bob Thomas wrote biographical material for this story.