Jim Nabors was discovered by Andy Griffith while working at the Santa Monica nightclub The Horn, and he later joined The Andy Griffith Show as Gomer Pyle. Betty Lynn, Elinor Donahue, and Ron Howard are the last surviving regular cast members from that series.
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 in 2014, except for occasional absences due to health or other conflicts.
James Thurston Nabors was born to Mavis and Fred Nabors in Sylacauga, Alabama, on June 12, 1930 where he sang for his high school and church, and he has two sisters. He attended the University of Alabama, where he began acting in skits. While at Alabama, he became a member of Delta Tau Delta International Fraternity.
After graduating, he moved to New York City, where he worked as a typist for the United Nations; after a year, he moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he got his first job in the television industry as a film cutter.
Because of his asthma, Nabors moved to Los Angeles and worked as a film cutter for NBC. He also worked at a Santa Monica tavern, The Horn, singing and acting in cabaret theater. His act featured him as a character similar to the Gomer Pyle character he later portrayed. He sang in a baritone and sometimes spoke and sang in his higher-pitched comedic voice.
At the club, comedian Bill Dana saw Nabors’ act and invited him to appear on The Steve Allen Show. Nabors signed on to the show, but it was soon canceled.
Breakthrough and Popularity
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 22, 1964, 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.
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. After the cancellation of The Jim Nabors Hour, Nabors embarked on a nationwide roadshow.
Typecast from his role as Gomer Pyle, Nabors found his subsequent roles mostly comedic. In the 1970s, he appeared in the children’s television programs Krofft Supershow and Buford and the Galloping Ghost, He appeared in every season premiere of The Carol Burnett Show, because Burnett considered him a “good-luck charm”.
In a 1973 episode of The Rookies, he played his first “serious” role, a man called on to be an assassin after the death of his sister. Also in 1973, Nabors sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game One of the Major League Baseball World Series.
From 1977 to 1978, Nabors hosted another variety show, The Jim Nabors Show. Though the show lasted only one season, Nabors was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Host or Hostess in a Talk, Service or Variety Series.
Nabors eventually grew tired of the “prime-time TV grind” and abandoned television jobs for nightclub and concert engagements and a role in a touring production of Man of La Mancha. However, Sid and Marty Krofft persuaded Nabors to star in the Saturday-morning children’s television show The Lost Saucer, about two bumbling androids, Fi (Ruth Buzzi) and Fum (Nabors), who travel through time with two children. Nabors, whose character was described as a “Gomer Pyle in outer space”, sang in a few of the episodes.
In the 1980s, Nabors appeared in three feature-length films starring his friend Burt Reynolds, at the latter’s request. In The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), about a sheriff (Reynolds) who falls in love with a brothel madam (Dolly Parton), Nabors played Deputy Fred, a character similar to Gomer Pyle. Though the film was given mostly unfavorable reviews, Nabors garnered some positive comments for his performance.
In 1983, he was cast as an auto mechanic in Stroker Ace, starring Burt Reynolds as a race car driver who fights a fried-chicken chain entrepreneur. The film was panned, and Nabors earned a Golden Raspberry Award for his performance.
In Reynolds’ star-studded Cannonball Run II (1984), about a cross-country car chase, Nabors made a cameo appearance alongside such celebrities as Dom DeLuise, Jackie Chan, Shirley MacLaine, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Andy Griffith Show co-stars Don Knotts and George Lindsey.
Like Reynolds’ previous two films, Cannonball received mostly negative reviews.
In 1986, Nabors returned to television, reprising his role as Gomer Pyle in the television movie Return to Mayberry, in which the cast of The Andy Griffith Show reunited. Also in 1986, Nabors starred in the half-hour comedy pilot Sylvan in Paradise as the title character, Sylvan Sprayberry, an accident-prone bell captain at a Hawaiian hotel. The series was not picked up by NBC.
After moving to Hawaii from Bel Air, California with his partner Stan Cadwallader in 1976, he launched a show, “The Jim Nabors Polynesian Extravaganza” at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, which ran for two years. Nabors eventually experienced “bright-light burnout” and disappeared from the stage, save for an occasional performance. In 1984, after a five-year hiatus, Nabors returned to performing, starring in the “Moulin Rouge” show at the Las Vegas Hilton and other shows in Reno and Las Vegas. He made his theatrical debut as Harold Hill in The Music Man with Florence Henderson at the Burt Reynolds
In 1994, Nabors suffered from a near-fatal case of hepatitis B. According to Nabors, he contracted the disease while traveling in India; he shaved with a straight razor and “whacked face all up.”
The disease caused liver failure, and Nabors was given a dim prognosis; however, his friend Carol Burnett made an arrangement with the transplant division of UCLA and secured Nabors a transplant. Nabors later became involved with the American Liver Foundation as a result of his experience.
Shortly after recovering from his transplant, Nabors embarked on another tour, with stops in Phoenix, St. Louis, and Washington.
From 1997 to 2006, Nabors starred in the Burton White-produced A Merry Christmas with Friends and Nabors, a live performance at the Hawaii Theatre Center in Honolulu. The production, featuring local and national artists, ran for 40 performances and was directed by Tom Hansen until Hansen’s death in 2006. The final performance run was directed by John Rampage and dedicated to Hansen.
March 2014, Nabors announced that the 2014 Indianapolis 500 would be his final appearance, saying that his health was limiting his ability to travel.
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.
Nabors married his partner of 38 years, Stan Cadwallader, at Seattle, Washington’s Fairmont Olympic Hotel on January 15, 2013, a month after same-sex marriage became legal in Washington.
Although he had been closeted before this, his sexual orientation was not completely secret, with Nabors bringing his then-boyfriend Cadwallader along to his Indy 500 performance in 1978 for instance.
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 on November 30, 2017, aged 87.