Jim Nabors in Paradise
by Paulette Cohn
These days, Jim Nabors is 39 years and 2,390 miles away from his days serving as America’s favorite U.S. Marine private on television’s Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
“Hawaii is very Eden-esque. I really appreciate it more every day,” he says with only a trace of Pvt. Pyle’s trademark “Gawwwwl-lee!” accent from his 100-year-old plantation-style home in Diamond Head on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where steps run all the way down from his yard to the crystal blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Nabors’ love affair with the 50th state began on vacations he took during the 1960s, at the height of his TV fame. In 1976, he sold his house in Bel Air, Calif., and moved to the islands permanently. He’s been there ever since.
“I’ve met more interesting people here than I ever did in Hollywood,” he explains. Unlike many actors who feel “trapped” by a single role that made them famous, Nabors is comfortable in acknowledging the homespun Marine private who brought him acclaim and success beyond his dreams.
“I have never tried to rid myself of it. I love the character I did,” says Nabors, 77. “Gomer was probably one of the nicest people in the world.”
The same could be said of the man who played him.
A lot like Gomer
“The one thing Jim has in common with Gomer is his kindness,” says actress and comedienne Carol Burnett, Nabors’ longtime friend, who named him godfather to her daughter Jody. “He loves people and is very gregarious. But he is also very smart. Not that Gomer wasn’t, but Jim isn’t naive. He keeps his eye on things.”
Keeping watch is a big part of how Nabors now spends his days. First thing each morning, he checks in on his numerous investments and the operation of a 500-acre macadamia nut and flower farm on the neighboring island of Maui that he owned for 25 years before selling it several years ago to the National Tropical Botanical Gardens, a preservationist organization.
“I always wanted it to be taken care of and end up being a park,” says Nabors, who retains lifetime farming rights to the land and maintains a second residence on the property. Then it’s lunch at a local restaurant, a nap, and a dip in the ocean or a walk along the beach.
Nabors considers himself retired from show business, with the exception of singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” each year at the Indy 500. And with Hawaii operating as a command center for America’s military presence in the Pacific, he’s often Johnny-on-the-spot when functions require a performance of “The Star Spangled Banner.” For residents of his adopted home state, he has hosted an annual gala each year for the last decade, donating his time and talents to the event.
Finding his voice
Born in Sylacauga, Ala., to Mavis and Fred Nabors, he and his two older sisters were close, although the family didn’t have a lot of money and often just scraped by.
“As a young boy he was sick most of the time,” recalls his sister Freddie Danelutt, who still resides in Alabama. “He had asthma really bad, but he was always fun-loving and a sweet boy.”
Unable to play sports because of his respiratory condition, Nabors turned to music, singing in the high school glee club and church choir, and playing clarinet in the high school band. Little did he—or his family—suspect that his robust baritone voice would some day take him around the world. “He would sit at home, play the piano and sing. We would tell him to be quiet, so we could get our homework done,” Danelutt says with a laugh.
Nabors’ first trip away from home was to the University of Alabama, where he graduated with a degree in business administration. At college, he also got his first taste of acting, performing skits as a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
As much as he enjoyed acting, he never felt he was show-biz material. “I was from a small town and, God knows, I was no leading man,” Nabors says modestly. “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.” So he packed up his business degree and headed to New York, where he worked as a typist for the United Nations. When his mother became ill, he returned home for a while, eventually moving to Burbank, Calif., and finding a job in the production department at the NBC television network. “I was looking for a direction in life, and you try to weigh all the options,” he says.
While the move west was made to help his childhood asthma, it ended up being so much more than that. Nabors would play hooky from his job to perform music and comedy at The Horn, a cabaret club in Santa Monica, Calif. Andy Griffith saw him there and brought him aboard his popular network television show to play Mayberry’s dim-witted but good-hearted mechanic. His acting career was born, first as a regular on The Andy Griffith Show and then in his own spinoff, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., the third season of which was released last month on DVD.
Despite his success on television, music remained Nabors’ first love. He has recorded 28 albums and released dozens of singles.
“I wanted to go into music, because I really felt that I had longevity there, more so than acting,” he concedes, displaying his business acumen. “I opted to go to Las Vegas and start working there. I ended up there 35 years.”
For four decades, Nabors was never without a job, either on camera or on stage. That’s one of the reasons, he says, he never settled down and had a family.
“I was really more married to my career than anything else, but I was pretty fulfilled,” says Nabors, who shares his Hawaii homes with four Staffordshire bull terriers named after characters from The Andy Griffith Show.
A close call
Nabors’ charmed life almost came to an end in 1994. He was diagnosed with liver failure caused by the hepatitis B virus. The Mayo Clinic, where he went for his annual physical, didn’t hold out much hope.
“He called and said he probably didn’t have much time left,” Burnett remembers. “I said, ‘This is ridiculous.’”
And, despite promising she wouldn’t tell anyone, Burnett immediately got on the phone and hooked her friend up with the head of the transplant division at the University of California-Los Angeles.
Nabors says he was about a week away from death when he was matched with a liver. “When you get a transplant, you can’t pray for the organ, because somebody has to die (in order for you) to get your organ. So I thought, ‘What will be, will be.’ I felt that I had been blessed in my life. I had a great family. I had a great career. I had wonderful friends. If God seemed fit to take me, it was OK.”
But it wasn’t Nabors’ time, and a motorcycle accident in San Diego provided him with the life-saving liver. The operation, and his recovery, made him “aware of the person I am,” he says, “and the person I was trying to be.”
And just who is that?
“I try to be a good person, a nice person,” he says. “One interviewer asked me, ‘What do you want on your tombstone?’ The only thing I could think of was: ‘He was a nice guy.’”
Paulette Cohn is a writer in Valley Glen, Calif.
first appeared: 1/13/2008