The Untold Truth Of Jim Nabors

For anyone who was ever a fan of The Andy Griffith Show, the goofy but big-hearted Gomer Pyle was a familiar face. In fact, the character was so beloved, he went on to star in his own successful spinoff sitcom, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. We can all be thankful to actor Jim Nabors for his fantastic portrayal of the character. He was only supposed to be a one-episode guest on Andy Griffith, but Nabors knocked that performance out of the park, and no one could bear to see him go.

But few realize just how rich and diverse Jim Nabors' life was beyond the role of Gomer Pyle. He was a magnificent singer as well as a talented variety show performer. Although he made a name for himself in television, Nabors thrived best in front of a live audience. 

However, Nabors never grew to resent the character he's best known for. In an interview with American Profile, Nabors expressed just how much he enjoyed the character of Gomer Pyle: "I have never tried to rid myself of it. I love the character I did. Gomer was probably one of the nicest people in the world." This is the untold truth of Jim Nabors.

Jim Nabors' childhood ailments pushed him to perform

Jim Nabors was born in 1930 in Sylacauga, Alabama, and was the youngest of three children. His rural upbringing would later help him shape his most beloved TV character, Gomer Pyle. Nabors had severe asthma as a child, which kept him away from more rough-and-tumble activities and strenuous athletics. His parents didn't have much money, so they couldn't afford for young Jim's respiratory issues to flare up too seriously. Instead, Nabors turned to the performing arts as an outlet. He joined his school's glee club and choir and took up playing the clarinet.

Once he reached college, Nabors continued to perform and started acting. His acting debut came in the form of his fraternity's skit show. Surprisingly enough, Nabors never majored in theater or any other performing arts when he attended the University of Alabama. Seeing acting as more of a fun hobby, Nabors earned his B.A. in business administration. 

According to Biography.com, Nabors admitted that he never really saw himself as a real actor and never imagined he would have a career as a performer: "I was from a small town and, God knows, I was no leading man. You know how Hollywood was back then — everybody was a 'hero.' The only thing I could possibly think of was I could have been a character actor in a Western or something. I never had any thoughts of going into the business."

Jim Nabors had a variety of jobs

He initially didn't have any ambition to go into show business, so Jim Nabors first started with more traditional jobs. According to Reuters, one of Nabors' earliest jobs out of college was working as a typist for the United Nations in New York. Nabors only started getting into television work from behind the scenes when he worked as a film editor for a Chattanooga, Tennessee, TV station. Gradually, he made his way west and got a similar job in California with NBC.

And it was out in California that Nabors got his start in show business. He realized he had a talent for entertaining people. As noted by Biography.com, Nabors was already a trained singer, and he had a splendid voice. Soon, he started developing sketch characters, usually hillbilly comedic characters inspired by his childhood in Alabama, which delighted audiences. Nabors started getting more gig work at clubs and shows and would soon get his big break when a certain prominent actor happened to be in the audience at one of his shows.

Andy Griffith discovered Jim Nabors

Jim Nabors was already a performer before he was cast in sitcoms — at this time, he was performing in front of live audiences. But his big break came when Andy Griffith himself discovered him. According to The Hollywood ReporterThe Andy Griffith Show was going into its third season. Griffith was looking to cast a brand new character for the show — the friendly, dim-witted mechanic at Mayberry's gas station, Gomer Pyle. Griffith happened to be in the audience at one of Nabors' performances at the cabaret theater The Horn. (Nabors was one of The Horn's regular acts).

Griffith got a massive kick out of Nabors' hilarious hillbilly characters and his natural acting talent. As noted by Reuters, Nabors had not only a superb singing voice, but he was a great storyteller between songs with his Deep Southern drawl. Griffith decided then and there that Nabors was just what he was looking for in the character of Gomer Pyle. Nabors was offered the part personally by Griffith.

Jim Nabors was supposed to be a one-time guest

Today, he's a well-remembered and much beloved classic sitcom character, but Gomer Pyle was originally intended for only one episode of The Andy Griffith Show. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Nabors was only signed on to be a one-time guest star halfway through the show's third season. But audiences loved him. The show's fans loved Gomer's dim-witted persona coupled with a kind heart and affable nature that Jim Nabors played perfectly. Gomer was so popular that he appeared in 22 additional episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. Nabors' regular run on Andy Griffith ended at the close of the fourth season, when Gomer announced that he was leaving Mayberry and joining the U.S. Marine Corps.

But that wasn't the end of Gomer Pyle. Gomer may have left Mayberry, but CBS offered Nabors the starring role on his own spinoff show, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. Audiences would get to see Mayberry's goofy gas station attendant's exploits in the Marine Corps, constantly baffling his tough drill sergeant. The show was a great success and was always in the top ten in the ratings. In its final season, Gomer Pyle was ranked at number two. The show lasted five years and probably could have continued for a few more seasons, but Nabors was ready to move on from Gomer and pursue other projects.

Jim Nabors used his real singing voice

One of the running jokes on The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. is Gomer's accent: He might have a heavy and somewhat nasally Southern accent, but he could sing in a magnificent baritone. Gomer could sing opera and classic show tunes, leaving other characters stunned and amazed. This wasn't a dub — it was Nabors' real singing voice. He really was a classically trained singer. In fact, Nabors would exaggerate his Gomer Pyle voice to emphasize the stark contrast between his speaking and singing voice.

According to MeTV, during an interview with the Archive of American Television, Andy Griffith recalled the first time he ever heard Jim Nabors sing. (Before, he had only ever seen Nabors' variety acts.) Griffith had invited Nabors to join him and Don Knotts on the road to perform at Harrah's Club in Lake Tahoe. Griffith asked Nabors what he wanted to do onstage: Tell jokes? Dance? Sing? Nabors agreed that he would sing. When Griffith heard Nabors sing onstage for the first time, he was astonished.

"That boy started to sing, and you could feel the hair rising on everybody in that audience," Griffith recalled, jokingly adding that audiences loved Nabors so much afterward that they would boo Griffith whenever he came back onstage.

Jim Nabors outranked Gomer Pyle

Anyone who has seen Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. knows that Gomer always had the rank of private first class in the Marine Corps. However, in real life, Jim Nabors eventually came to outrank his fictional character. According to the Marine Corps' official website, to thank Nabors for his contributions in giving the Marines such a positive image in the media, Nabors was made an honorary lance corporal in 2001. In 2007, much to Nabors' surprise, the Marines gave him a promotion, this time to honorary corporal. The ceremony was held on September 25, the 43rd anniversary of the premiere of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. on national television.

At the ceremony, Lieutenant General John F. Goodman had nothing but high praise for Gomer Pyle and Jim Nabors: "Gomer Pyle taught the American people that Marines are people and that they have a sense of humor, in spite of what they go through. I think that brought the Marine Corps closer to the people than any other movie or TV show." And Nabors was especially thrilled by his new promotion. "Well, it took me 38 years to get to lance corporal, but only six to get to corporal," he said. "I guess I'm on the fast track now."

Jim Nabors had a rich career after Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.

Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. ended after five seasons, and by that time, Nabors was ready for the show to end. He had other projects that he wanted to pursue. Even in between shooting Gomer Pyle, Nabors was performing as a nightclub singer in Las Vegas (and making $40,000 a week!). According to The Hollywood Reporter, Nabors had become less interested in doing sitcoms and movies and was more interested in singing, live comedy, and variety: "It got down to what you think you want to be: an actor or an entertainer. I want to entertain. I don't think I'm much of an actor. The only part I ever played was Gomer. I'm the most surprised person around that I'm successful anyway."

Nabors did get his own variety show, The Jim Nabors Hour, in which he was able to show off both his comedic and singing talents. The show often featured his Gomer Pyle co-stars and lasted two seasons. He would still occasionally accept a movie role (his credits include The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Stroker Ace, and Cannonball Run II), but he would always have a preference for variety and live performances. Nabors even sang at the Indianapolis 500 for 42 years (1972-2014), always performing "Back Home Again in Indiana."

Jim Nabors was Carol Burnett's good luck charm

Jim Nabors was very close friends with comedienne and variety star Carol Burnett. When Burnett was given her own variety show, The Carol Burnett Show, Nabors always guest-starred on the show's season premiere. Burnett considered Nabors her good luck charm for the show, and that must have been the case because The Carol Burnett Show ran for 11 seasons. 

Their friendship was so close that they were even able to make a real estate deal together successfully. Already a resident of the state of Hawaii, Nabors ended up selling Burnett on the benefits of Hawaii living — and ultimately sold her and her husband, Joe Hamilton, some Hawaii property, too. As related by MeTV, Nabors sold Burnett five and a half acres on the southern tip of Maui.

Burnett was especially grieved when her friend passed in 2017, as she expressed in an statement to The Hollywood Reporter: "Jim and I remained close friends for 52 years. He was the godfather of my daughter, Jody. Every year he was always the first guest on my variety show. I considered him my 'good luck charm.'"

Jim Nabors had a severe health scare

In 1994, Jim Nabors would have the worst health scare of his life. According to Reuters, in the 1980s, he had taken a trip to India, and during his travels, he cut himself shaving with a straight razor. This led to the actor contracting hepatitis B. While he was treated for hep B after returning to the States, as noted by People, and knew he would be a carrier of the virus, Nabors didn't fully realize how much his life was at risk. By 1993, Nabors had checked himself into the Mayo Clinic after he'd begun to experience constant fatigue and swelling. The tests showed that Nabors was suffering from liver failure, as the disease had ravaged the organ. At this point, his only option was a liver transplant.

Luckily, Nabors had his best friend, Carol Burnett, at his side. Burnett proved to be Nabors' steady support during his illness and was able to help him find an excellent doctor and a new liver. The 1994 lifesaving surgery proved highly successful and gave Nabors 23 more years of healthy and comfortable living.

Jim Nabors owned a macadamia farm

When Jim Nabors first visited Hawaii in the 1960s, he instantly fell in love with the beautiful island. Deep down, he knew that he would return someday — hopefully for good. In 1976, Nabors got his wish, selling his Bel Air home in California and purchasing a macadamia farm on Maui. Nabors moved in and spent his retirement operating the farm and cultivating macadamia nuts. 

In an interview with American Profile, Nabors relished his home in Hawaii and his post-Hollywood life, stating, "Hawaii is very Eden-esque. I really appreciate it more every day." Eventually, though, Nabors did sell the farm to a preservationist organization, the National Tropical Botanical Gardens. "I always wanted it to be taken care of and end up being a park," he told American Profile.

Although he sold the property to a respected organization, Nabors still retained lifetime farming rights to the land and kept a second residence on the property for the rest of his life.

Jim Nabors married at 82

In 2013, Jim Nabors surprised many by announcing his marriage to his longtime partner, Stan Cadwallader. Although the two had been together for 38 years, once gay marriage was starting to become legal in the United States, the two married in Seattle, Washington. "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. And at my age, it's probably the best thing to do," Nabors said at the time.

Although the public was quite surprised by this new development, Nabors' friends and colleagues were well in the know about his sexual orientation. According to Reuters, Nabors told Hawaii News Now that he knew he was gay from a very young age. He didn't actively hide his orientation: He was quite open about it with his friends and colleagues but preferred to maintain some personal privacy and had no desire to become an activist. Nabors and Cadwallader remained married until Nabors' death in 2017.

Jim Nabors died at 87

Jim Nabors passed away on November 30, 2017, at the age of 87. According to Reuters, he had apparently been admitted to the hospital earlier that week but asked to be released and go home with his husband. Nabors died in his home in Hawaii in the company of his husband, Stan Cadwallader. Cadwallader admitted to the press that Nabors' health had been declining for some time, and they had expected that the end was coming soon. The liver transplant he'd undergone over two decades ago had saved his life, but it had weakened his immune system

Nabors was fondly remembered by those who knew him. Dixie Griffith — the daughter of Nabors' co-star Andy Griffith (who passed in 2012) — knew Nabors well from The Andy Griffith Show set and remembered him with great affection as she told The Hollywood Reporter, "He was very kind and generous to all of us. He and my dad [Andy Griffith] kept in touch over the years and I know there was a lot of love and respect between them." Nabors' longtime best friend Carol Burnett, who saw him through thick and thin, especially grieved for him. "My heart is heavy. I'm grateful he was a large part of my life. I miss him. I love him," she told THR.

Jim Nabors' friends and colleagues remember him for his immense kindness, great talent, and sense of humor — not entirely unlike his beloved classic character.