James Thurston Nabors was an American actor, singer, and comedian. Nabors was born and raised in Sylacauga, Alabama, but he moved to southern California because of his asthma. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that Nabors had been in declining health for the last few years. He had entered a hospital on Wednesday for tests and asked to be released to go home, his husband Stan Cadwallader told the newspaper.
Nabors was born June 12, 1930, and grew up in Sylacauga, Alabama, where his father was a police officer. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a business degree, he moved to New York and took a job as a typist at the United Nations. From there, he went to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and worked as a film editor for a television station.
Another film editing job took him to Los Angeles, where he spent off-hours performing at the cabaret where Griffith spotted him, and he later joined The Andy Griffith Show as Gomer Pyle.
The character proved popular, and Nabors was given his own spin-off show Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C..
Nabors was known for his portrayal of Gomer Pyle, although he became a popular guest on variety shows which showcased his rich baritone voice in the 1960s and 1970s, including two specials of his own in 1969 and 1974. He subsequently recorded numerous albums and singles, most of them containing romantic ballads.
Nabors was also known for singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” prior to the start of the Indianapolis 500, held annually over the Memorial Day weekend. He sang the unofficial Indiana anthem almost every year from 1972 until his final time performing the song in 2014, except for occasional absences due to illness or scheduling conflicts.
It was at The Horn where Nabors was discovered by Andy Griffith and was hired to play a one-shot role of Gomer Pyle, an “addlebrained” gas station attendant, on The Andy Griffith Show (Season 3, episode 13 – “The Bank Job”). Nabors’s character (based on his act at The Horn) became so popular that he was made a regular on the show and was later given his own show, the spin-off Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., in which his character joined the United States Marine Corps. The show, which placed Nabors’ bungling, naive character opposite Sergeant Vince Carter (Frank Sutton), was also popular.
Despite its run during the Vietnam War, Gomer Pyle remained popular, because it avoided war-related themes and instead focused on the show’s rural roots and the relationship between Pyle and Carter. Nabors resigned from Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. after five seasons—prompting producers Aaron Ruben and Sheldon Leonard to ask CBS to cancel it—because he desired to move to something else, “reach for another rung on the ladder, either up or down.”
Nabors revealed his rich baritone voice first on the February 24, 1964, “The Song Festers” episode of The Andy Griffith Show and on April 8, 1964, on The Danny Kaye Show, and subsequently capitalized on it with numerous successful recordings and live performances. Most of the songs were romantic ballads, though he sang pop, gospel, and country songs as well.
Nabors’ show business break came in the early 1960s when Andy Griffith saw him in a Los Angeles cabaret – singing in a sophisticated, ear-grabbing voice and telling stories between songs in a Deep South drawl – and offered him a part on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Griffith’s sitcom – tales of down-home people in a slow-moving Southern town – was one of the most popular on U.S. television at the time and Nabors’ Gomer Pyle character was a hit after joining the cast in 1962.
Gomer was the town’s rustic, kind-hearted gas station attendant who was given to exclamations of “golly” and “shazam” when he was impressed, as well as “surprise, surprise, surprise” and “shame, shame, shame” – depending on the circumstances and stretching each word to several syllables.
After two years on the Griffith show, Nabors was given his own sitcom, “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” with Gomer enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps. It proved to be a viewers’ favorite, sometimes reaching No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings.
After five years of “Gomer Pyle, USMC” Nabors was ready for a different challenge and left the show. His subsequent variety show, “The Jim Nabors Hour,” had a two-year run and he made frequent guest appearances on other television shows.
The climactic vocal performance on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. came in an episode titled “The Show Must Go On”, aired November 3, 1967, in which Pyle sang “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” in Washington, D.C., at a U.S. Navy relief show, accompanied by the Marine Corps Band. A clip from the show, in which Pyle says “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” appears in the Pink Floyd album The Wall in the song “Nobody Home”. He hosted a variety show, The Jim Nabors Hour (1969–1971), which featured his Gomer Pyle co-stars Ronnie Schell and Frank Sutton. Despite a poor critical reception, the show was popular and earned an Emmy nomination. After the cancellation of The Jim Nabors Hour, Nabors embarked on a nationwide roadshow
Nabors was so strongly identified as Gomer that it limited the roles he was offered. His career was helped along by friend Burt Reynolds, who put him in three of his 1980s movies – “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” “Stroker Ace” and “Cannonball Run II.”
In 1986 Nabors revived Gomer for the TV movie “Return to Mayberry,” a reunion of “The Andy Griffith Show,” and he kept busy performing in revues, nightclubs and small theaters. Nabors also appeared in several children’s television shows and frequently appeared on friend Carol Burnett’s variety show.
When he wasn’t acting, Nabors was singing in a glorious baritone that made listeners forget all about Gomer Pyle’s hayseed twang. He recorded dozens of albums of country, inspirational and religious music with five of them selling more than 500,000 copies.
Nabors made headlines in January 2013 when he married Cadwallader, a former Honolulu firefighter and his partner of 38 years at that time, in Seattle shortly after the state of Washington made same-sex marriage legal.
Nabors, who moved to Hawaii in the 1980s, told Hawaii News Now that his television colleagues knew he was gay in the 1960s and ‘70s but that he never sought to publicize it because he preferred privacy.
“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 said of his marriage. “And at my age, it’s probably the best thing to do.”
Nabors began vacationing in Hawaii in the 1960s, and in 1976, moved from Bel Air, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii. For 25 years, he owned a macadamia plantation on Maui before selling it to the National Tropical Botanical Garden, a conservationist organization, though he still retained farming rights to the land and owned a second home on the property.
Allegations about Rock Hudson
A longstanding rumor maintains that Nabors “married” Rock Hudson in the early 1970s, shortly before Nabors began his relationship with Cadwallader.
Not only was same-sex marriage not yet legal in any U.S. state at the time, at least publicly, the two were never more than friends. According to Hudson, the story originated with a group of “middle-aged homosexuals who live in Huntington Beach”, who sent out joke invitations for their annual get-together.One year, the group invited its members to witness “the marriage of Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors”, at which Hudson would take the surname of Nabors’ most famous character, Gomer Pyle, becoming “Rock Pyle”.The rumor was spread by those who failed to get the joke, and because Nabors was still closeted at the time and Hudson never publicly admitted to being gay (despite widespread suspicion that he was), the two never spoke to each other again.
Nabors died at his Honolulu, Hawaii, home on November 30, 2017, aged 87.
The United States Marine Corps released a statement on Nabors: “Semper Fi, Gomer Pyle. Rest in peace Jim Nabors, one of the few to ever be named an Honorary Marine.”Second Lady of the United States and former First Lady of Indiana Karen Pence wrote a statement on Twitter: “So sad to hear about the passing of Jim Nabors. We heard him sing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ at the Indianapolis 500 countless times. We will miss his beautiful voice.”
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Carol Burnett paid tribute to Nabors saying they were “close friends for 52 years….My heart is heavy. I’m grateful he was a large part of my life. I miss him. I love him.”INDYCAR legend Tony Kanaan praised Nabors’s performance of “Back Home Again in Indiana”. Journalist Larry King praised Nabors as a “gentle man with immense talent” while sending condolences to his family.
Nabors’ successes have earned him accolades.
- He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991.
- “Gomer Pyle” received an honorary promotion to Lance Corporal from the Commandant of the Marine Corps James L. Jones in 2001, and on September 25, 2007, he was promoted from Lance Corporal to Corporal by Lt. General John F. Goodman.
- The Hawaii Pacific University awarded Nabors the Fellow of the Pacific Award for his “outstanding leadership, service, and dedication to the community”.
- He was inducted into the Alabama Stage and Screen Hall of Fame in 2006.
- He received honors from the University of Alabama on September 2, 2006, before a football game against the University of Hawaii.
- Nabors, along with U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, was honored on January 19, 2007, at “A Night of American Heroes”, a yearly dinner held in benefit of the Battleship Missouri Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
- In October 1978, the state of Alabama named a section of U.S. Route 280 in Talladega County, Alabama “Jim Nabors Highway” in honor of the Sylacauga native.
- Jim Nabors was made an honorary Sergeant during the 238th Marine Corps birthday ball celebration on November 15, 2013 by Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos