Born On This Day, 1930: Jim Nabors

Jim Burroway

June 12th, 2016

Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle (left), with Frank Sutton as Sgt. Carter.

Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle (left), with Frank Sutton as Sgt. Carter.

The Sylacauga, Alabama, native learned to sing at his high school and church, but he didn’t get into acting until he attended the University of Alabama. After graduating, he eventually landed his first job in television: cutting film for a television station in Chattanooga. He eventually decided to move to Los Angeles because of his asthma. While singing and acting in a local Santa Monica cabaret, he developed an unusual comedic character — a naive, golly-gee southern bumpkin with a high-pitched voice and thick accent would would suddenly launch into a nearly operatic baritone when singing. That’s where Andy Griffith discovered him, and signed Nabors to turn his character into a not very bright gas station attendant named Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show in 1962. It was only supposed to be a one-off appearance, but Gomer proved so popular that Nabors became a regular for the 1963-64 season. The following year, Nabors headlined his own spinoff, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., which ran from 1964 to 1969.

Nabors was among a handful of actors who were openly gay among friends and co-workers, but who were never out publicly. “I haven’t ever made a public spectacle of it. Well, I’ve known since I was a child, so, come on. It’s not that kind of a thing. I’ve never made a huge secret of it at all,” Nabors said recently. What made Nabors so unusual is that he never bothered to play the game of “dating” women for publicity’s sake.

But things did get very uncomfortable for Nabors in 1971, when a rumor went around that Nabors had “married” Rock Hudson. The rumor traced to a joke invitation to a party in Huntington Beach, thrown by several gay friends. The invitations, engraved and everything, went out to about 500 people who attended the annual party, reading, “You are cordially invited to the wedding reception of Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors.” The joke continued with the line saying that Hudson would take the last name of Nabors’s character and become “Rock Pyle.” That line should have tipped everyone off to the joke, but a fan magazine conveniently decided to ignore that. It published the rumor, but without naming names but dropping a few hints. Everyone in the business knew who it involved. A Chicago disk jockey described the couple as “sort of the rock of Hollywood” and “a plain guy … just neighbors.”

Both Nabors and Hudson, who had been friends but nothing more, feared that the rumors could ruin their careers. Nabors considered suing the magazine for libel, but his lawyer talked him out of it. But it does bring up the only time I know of when Nabors gave the standard 1960s response to why he wasn’t married. “I love kids,” he said. “But I’ve been so busy with my career that I really haven’t given marriage much thought.” The rumor also ruined Nabors’ friendship with Hudson. “I’ll tell you one thing that makes me sad about this,” said Hudson. “And that’s that Jim Nabors and I are no longer friends. We can’t be seen together.”

Jim Nabors and Stan Cadwallader

Jim Nabors and Stan Cadwallader

By 1969, CBS had gained the nickname of “Country Broadcasting Service” thanks to its lineup of rural-themed shows: The Andy Griffith ShowThe Beverly HillbilliesGreen AcresPetticoat JunctionHee Haw, Maberry, R.F.D.,  and Gomer Pyle. Tired of that rut and being typecast as a hick, Nabors decided to quit his show in 1969 in favor of his own variety show. Despite decent ratings, The Jim Nabors Hour fell victim to CBS’s “rural purge” when the network replaced all of its cornpone offerings in favor of programs designed to appeal to the more urban and younger audiences that advertisers favored. Nabors continued to make guest appearances on other programs, including a few children’s programs, and he also returned to theater, concert halls, and night club venues. By the mid-1970s, he was mostly done with TV, although he would show up from time to time through the first half of the 1980s. He moved to Hawaii in 1976, where he and his then-longtime partner and now husband, Stan Cadwallader, have made their home.

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