When I was growing up, Jim Nabors, who died today at 87, struck me as an otherworldly figure. Like so many other kids, I first saw him a Gomer Pyle, the slack-jawed yokel whose “Gollll-ly” and “ShaZAM!” catchphrases were staples of the schoolyard. We followed as he was spun off from the Andy Griffith Show to Gomer Pyle, USMC, moving from Mayberry to the Marines, but not gaining even a drop of worldliness, an innocent who was abroad even in his own country. With its Southern California backdrop (the made the celebrity cameos easier to explain), it was obvious to this pre-teen critic that Gomer Pyle was little more than the Beverly Hillbillies in olive drab, where a yokel, armed only with his good country sense, takes on—and bests—the city slickers. I didn’t mind, because for all my grade school worldliness, I assumed that Pyle, Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, Griffith, and even Hee Haw! all existed in the same imaginary rural universe, so outside anything I experienced, the fact that the show never mentioned the war which, if you thought about it, Sgt. Carter was drilling them to fight, was just one more improbability.
What made Nabors seem unfathomably strange was when he opened his mouth to sing. Instead of the high-pitched innocence of Pyle, he sang in a baritone that sounded almost cantorial in its bottomless seriousness. I was convinced he was faking at least one of them; I couldn’t believe both sounds could come out of the same body. He was never hip, but there was something about him that made him intriguing.
I grew up, and after five seasons, Pyle went off the air in 1969 (without ever mentioning Vietnam and Nabors pretty much slid off my radar. His variety show and the series of movies he did with his friend Burt Reynolds in the 1980s struck me a vehicles from another age. A goofy man with a deep voice is a trick that only works for so long. But looking back at his life, what impresses us is how he kept his dignity in the face of rumors about his sexuality, eventually marrying, Stan Cadwallader, his partner of 38 years, in 2013.