Remembering Jim Nabors
By Jim Clark
When Jim Nabors died on November 30, Mayberry lost one its giant stars. And the world lost a gifted man with a giant heart.
Jim, who had been in failing health for a few years, died at home in Honolulu with husband Stan Cadwallader by his side. He was 87. In addition to Stan, Jim is survived by a niece and a nephew.
“Everybody knows he was a wonderful man. And that’s all we can say about him. He’s going to be dearly missed,” said Stan, who was Jim’s partner for 42 years. They were married in Seattle in 2013.
The outpouring of affection from Jim’s many friends and legions of fans as they learned the sad news was instant and emphatic. Jim’s extraordinary talents entertained countless millions for more than 50 years. His genuine kindness toward all who knew him well, or even merely met him, was absolute.
James Thurston Nabors was born in Sylacauga, Ala., on June 12, 1930. He was the son of policeman Fred Canada Nabors and homemaker Mavis Pearl (Newman) Nabors. Sister Freddie Mae was four years older and sister Annie Ruth was two years older.
Jimmy, as he was known until he became a professional performer, suffered with severe asthma from an early age. His lifelong search for air that was less humid and easier to breathe would be part of his motivation to move to California and eventually to Hawaii.
Another motivation was his natural talent for singing and performing. But a career as a performer was virtually an impossible dream for a young boy in rural Alabama as the country was just coming out of the Depression and was heading into its second World War.
Because his asthma prevented him from playing sports, Jim tried various performing arts, including singing in the school glee club and at church and playing clarinet in the school band. He also could play the piano and ukulele. A favorite pastime was doing vocal impersonations to amuse friends and Nabors.
Jim’s first foray into acting was doing skits as a member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity at University of Alabama, where he would earn his degree in Business Administration.
After graduation, Jim headed to New York City, but not primarily to pursue a dream of stardom on TV or Broadway, though he did audition for a part in No Time for Sergeants. Rather, he landed a job as a typist at the United Nations. That gig didn’t last long, and in 1957 Jim moved back closer to home. (For a short time, when his mother was ill, he even moved back to Sylacauga to help take care of her.)
He was editing commercials at WRGP-TV, Chattanooga’s NBC affiliate (now WRCB-TV) in 1958 when a performer didn’t show up for station’s live “Holiday for Housewives” show. The station needed an emergency replacement–someone who could do something to help fill airtime. Jim allowed as how he could sing a little. That is believed to be Jim’s first televised performance.
Still in pursuit of the elusive better air to breath and what increasingly seemed like a possible dream of performing for a living, Jim moved to Los Angeles.
He cut film at NBC in Burbank by day, and then by night performed his unique mixture of comedy and singing whenever he could get even a non-paying performance slot at local clubs. One of those clubs was The Horn, a Santa Monica venue run by former Hollywood voice coach Ric Ricardi. The Horn was known for having the rare combination of delicious Italian food and great entertainment.
Comedian Bill Dana saw Jim perform one night in late 1961 and was inspired to book him for an appearance on “The New Steve Allen Show,” for which Dana was the head writer at the time. It’s not known if Jim sang in his true baritone that night or just did some of his comedy. (It has been reported that he made other appearances on the Allen show, but those are not currently documented.)
One night in 1962, after repeated urging from friends (including Bill Dana), Andy caught Jim’s act the at The Horn. During Jim’s performance, when Jim switched from the hillbilly twang of his comedy to his operatic baritone singing, Andy was astounded. Afterward, he told Jim words to the effect of, “I don’t know what it is you do, but it’s magic, whatever it is!” Andy and his manager, Richard O. (Dick) Linke, agreed that they had to find a part for Jim and his unique talents on TAGS.
Another Alabamian, George Lindsey, had been all but assured of getting the role of Gomer Pyle on TAGS, but Andy pressed producer Aaron Ruben to give Jim a look. (And it probably didn’t hurt Jim’s chances that TAGS co-owner Dick Linke had also signed Jim to a personal management deal.)
In the “it’s a small world” department, Jim and George had both been cast in “Butterball Brown,” a TV pilot for Universal around that same time. The pilot, about minor league baseball, didn’t sell.
Instead, Jim got the part of Gomer. The rest is TV history. As was George Lindsey’s TV set after he kicked in the screen upon hearing that he had lost the part. (But hey, things eventually worked out for George, too. Can any of us now imagine anybody better to play Gomer than Jim or anybody better than George to be Goober?)
Jim was a hit on TAGS from the first ding on the gas pump at Wally’s, and quickly the part of Gomer, originally conceived as being for just a single episode (the classic “Man in a Hurry”), was expanded to a featured role.
The Gomer character helped fill a void from Howard McNear (Floyd) being off the show after suffering a stroke earlier in that third season.
Gomer was such a popular character that, after being on the show essentially for just the last half of the 1962-63 season, it was already apparent he could carry his own show.
Howard McNear was able to return as Floyd in the next season, which also made it easier to allow Jim to depart (which in turn also opened the door for George Lindsey to join the series as Gomer’s cousin Goober). Howard and Jim were in only two episodes together: “Andy Saves Gomer” and “The Rumor,” both near the end of the fourth season in 1964. George and Jim were in only one episode of TAGS together, “Fun Girls.”
Jim would end up being in a total of 23 episodes over a period of a season and a half before legendary producer Aaron Ruben was given the task to take Jim and go create “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” The show would run for five seasons and 150 episodes.
Jim and Gomer were once again an immediate hit in their new show. “Gomer Pyle” finished third in the Nielsen ratings for the 1964-65 season, (TAGS was fourth), second for the 1965-66 season (TAGS was sixth), tenth for the 1966-67 season (TAGS was third), third for the 1967-68 (TAGS was first for its finale season) and second for its last season in 1968-69 (“Mayberry R.F.D.” was fourth).
Throughout his time on TAGS and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” Jim did lots of work in numerous TV variety shows, including ones also starring Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. Those shows also parlayed into very successful live shows in Las Vegas and similar venues, often for casino entrepreneur Bill Harrah.
When Jim was ready to move on from “Gomer Pyle,” CBS was eager to keep the popular star on for “The Jim Nabors Hour,” a variety show that drew good ratings for its two seasons. The show also featured “Gomer Pyle” alums Frank Sutton and Ronnie Schell (another Dick Linke client).
Even with all of success with acting and doing comedy, Jim’s first love was always music. Beginning in 1965 with an album of music called Shazam! (featuring a cover photo of Jim as Gomer in his Marine Corps dress blues), Jim released a steady string of recordings of his favorite songs.
Eventually producing 34 albums (sometimes releasing as many four albums a year, most through Columbia Records) and many more EPs and singles, Jim earned one Platinum record and either three or five Gold records, depending on who’s tabulating.
Everywhere except probably Indiana, “The Impossible Dream” is generally considered Jim’s signature song. However, he often said the song that was his personal favorite was “How Great Thou Art.”
Getting back to Indiana, Jim’s home away from home, beginning in 1972, Jim sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” 36 times during pre-race festivities of the Indy 500. His last time singing the song at the race was 2014. (For the record, his 2012 performance was recorded in Hawaii for playback at the race, because Jim was too ill to travel to Indy that year.)
In 1976, Jim sold his home in the Bel Air area of Los Angeles and bought a 500-acre macadamia nut and flower plantation in Hana on the island of Maui. He continued to do guest appearances for TV (he was Carol Burnett’s good luck charm, appearing as the guest star in the first episode for all 11 seasons of “The Carol Burnett Show” from 1967 to 1977).
In 1976, Jim and Ruth Buzzi starred in 16 episodes of “The Lost Saucer,” a children’s show created by Sid and Marty Krofft. And Jim hosted 50 episodes of “The Jim Nabors Show,” a syndicated show in 1978, for which he was nominated for a Daytime Emmy as Outstanding Host.
He also appeared in three 1980s movies (Stroker Ace, for which he received a “prestigious” Razzie Award; as Pvt. Homer Lyle in Cannonball II; and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) with friend Burt Reynolds, as well as in Return to Mayberry with old Mayberry pals in 1986. He also toured in concerts on the mainland and performed his stage show for long stints at Hilton hotels in Hawaii.
Jim always worked hard at his profession as an entertainer. He would sometimes mention that he could never quite make himself believe his popularity and financial success from entertainment were real or secure. He felt compelled to continue working even during times that were allotted for vacation.
All the work eventually took its toll. More and more, he just wanted to spend time on his farm, tending to his macadamia trees and often doing the tractor work himself. (And almost always, throughout his life, Jim had at least one dog around–and after his Mayberry years, as likely as not the dogs were named after a character on TAGS.)
About the especially hectic period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jim once said, “I was completely burned out. I’d had it with the bright lights.” Farming was his refuge. It was literally more down to earth, natural and tangible for somebody who had grown up amid limited means in the red clay of Alabama.
Furthering his escape into the great outdoors in the 1980s, Jim bought a home in Whitefish, Mont., and split time between there and Hawaii when he wasn’t doing limited touring and personal appearances. He sold the Montana home in 2000.
In 2002, Jim sold his Maui plantation to the National Tropical Botanical Garden, a nature conservancy. As part of that deal, though, it was stipulated that Jim could still farm the macadamia nuts and maintain his residence there for the rest of his life. Jim also owned a century-old plantation-style home at Diamond Head in Honolulu, which is where spent most of his time in recent years and is where he died.
Ever since he had been diagnosed with Hepatitis B in 1993 and was days away from death when he received a life-saving liver transplant in 1994, Jim knew he had been blessed with a second chance. He continued to live life to the fullest and bring joy to audiences in Hawaii and on the mainland.
From 1997 to 2006, Jim donated his time to present “A Merry Christmas with Friends and Nabors,” a benefit at and for the historic Hawaii Theatre and for other local arts.
A need for heart surgery in 2012 further curtailed Jim’s performances, and he officially retired, even from his beloved Indy 500, in 2014.
Jim was presented many awards and honors over the years. He received his Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (located at 6435 Hollywood Blvd.) in 1991 and was inducted into the Alabama Stage and Screen Hall of Fame in 2006.
The United States Marines loved to honor him. They made him an Honorary Lance Corporal in 2001, promoted him to Honorary Corporal in 2007 and promoted him to Honorary Sergeant in 2013.
Fans of Jim Nabors all have our favorite memories. For his portrayal of Gomer, many fans cite catchphrases like yelling “Citizen’s arrest!” at Barney or “Shazam!” on any number of occasions.
Or maybe it’s Gomer’s proudly and slyly revealing his porous yellow socks during his date with Mary Grace (“A Date for Gomer”). Still others might favor his songs, including “Santa Lucia” in “The Songfesters” episode of TAGS or “The Impossible Dream,” “O My Papa” or his duet round with Carol Burnett on “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”
When asked one time what he wanted inscribed on his tombstone, Jim, with typical humility, replied, “He was a nice guy.”
Yes, go ahead and chisel that in stone.
Update, January 20, 2018: A private memorial service was held on this date at the Pacific Club in Honolulu. Here’s a link to a report in the Honolulu Star Advertiser.
Friends Pay Tribute to Jim
Here is a sampling of the outpouring of comments from some of Jim’s professional colleagues and friends after they heard the news of his passing.
When WXII-TV came to the Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy for their coverage on the day Jim died, they talked by phone with Betty Lynn, who said she had recently talked to Jim.
“He sounded pretty good on the phone, I thought. He told me he loved Hawaii and he lived on top of Diamond Head and he had a great view. He said he wasn’t able to travel anymore. His legs had given out, but his voice was still good, so he could still sing and everything. He did have a beautiful voice. I really loved Jim. He was a sweet, good person.”
A Tweet from Ron Howard (who had lost his own father, Rance, five days earlier):
#JimNabors. Talented, intelligent and so fun-loving & gracious. I loved acting with him on the #TheAndyGriffithShow. His public persona belied his worldliness gained through travel & curiosity. A fascinating good-hearted guy. This is a rough week.”
A Statement from Burt Reynolds:
“I am deeply saddened to hear of Jim Nabors’ passing. He was a great friend. We did several movies together. His stage debut in The Music Man at my Dinner Theatre had a tremendous response, and it was basically Jim being Jim. He had a big voice and a bigger zest for life. I loved him and so did millions of others.”
From the Hulman-George Family (Owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway):
“Jim Nabors was such a kind, caring man, and we will miss him greatly. Jim was born in Alabama, but he became a Hoosier to all of us almost immediately after he began his superb performances of ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ starting in 1972. He loved coming back home to the Speedway almost every May for more than 40 years and seeing his friends and race fans, who loved him dearly. Jim was not only a treasured friend, but truly a cherished member of our family.
“We will never forget his genuine kindness, sincerity and loyalty. He was a wonderful man who inspired millions of people across the globe every May and throughout his entire life.”
A Statement from Carol Burnett:
“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.’ My heart is heavy. I’m grateful he was a large part of my life. I miss him. I love him.”
Tweet by Al Unser Jr.:
Very sad to hear about Jim Nabors passing away. He was a tradition at the speedway that I always looked forward to listening to before I got in the car.
Maggie Peterson and Jim both performed at The Horn and knew each other even before “The Andy Griffith Show.” (The broadcast of Jim’s first episode as Gomer aired about three months before Maggie’s first as Charlene Darling.) Here are some of Maggie’s comments to the Las Vegas Review-Appeal:
“We had the same manager, Dick Linke, and we did shows together and premieres, things where we needed to be seen. We didn’t get paid in money–we got paid in spaghetti sauce. But it was an important club that featured singers–real singers, Broadway-type singers.”
She added, “Jim was not only the nicest guy you’d ever meet, but he was a super-talented man. He performed a great balance between his comic character and a singer with this incredible, operatic voice. There really was nobody else like him.”
Facebook Message from Jackie Joseph:
“Jim Nabors was a blessing beyond compare… I’m at a loss for words.”
Faceboook Message from Ronnie Schell (Duke Slater):
“Today I lost one of my oldest and dearest friends. Jim Nabors was like an older brother to me. Caring. Interesting in everything I did. In fact, he held my wedding reception at his mansion. We were nose to nose for 7 years from “Gomer Pyle” to the “Jim Nabors Hour” and never had an ill word to each other in all that time. I will dearly miss him!”
Comments to The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer by Elizabeth MacRae,who played Lou Ann Poovie in 15 episodes of “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”:
“It makes me so sad. I loved working with Jim. We just clicked.”
She added, “The thing I can say most about Jim is that he was one of the most generous people I ever knew. He would do concerts, and benefit to his charities. … I loved him to pieces.”
Tweet from The Muppets:
“As one of our first #MuppetShow guests, #JimNabors became part of the Muppet family. We’ll miss his laughter, his singing and his friendship.
Tweet from Kermit the Frog:
“I will never forget #JimNabors‘ country kindness and the way he made this country frog feel at home in show biz. So long, good friend.”
Tweet from Legendary Pilot Chuck Yeager:
“My friend Jim Nabors died. That is very sad. We had great times together at the Indy 500 several times & in Hawaii. Nice man. Very talented. A great singer & storyteller.”
Tweet from Ruth Buzzi:
“Nobody was more thoughtful, loving and special to his friends and family than Jim Nabors. The many laughs and journeys we shared will be with me until we meet again someday, on an old lost saucer we once flew, somewhere in space. Rest in peace, my friend. Love always, Ruthie.”
Tweet by Barbara Eden:
“I just learned that Jim Nabors has passed. He was a talented, sweet, darling man. My husband and I had a condo in Kahala Hawaii and saw him often at the grocery store. My sincerest condolences to his husband Stan in this difficult time.”
Tweet by the United States Marine Corps:
Semper Fi, Gomer Pyle.
Rest in peace Jim Nabors, one of the few to ever be named an Honorary Marine.