Jim Nabors didn’t just create one of the great sitcom characters in television history with his goofy Gomer Pyle.
He also exemplified what older folks mean today when they pine, wistfully or angrily, for the time when the going was good in America, doggone it.
Nabors, who died in his Hawaiian home Thursday morning at the impressive age of 87, originally signed to play the good-hearted and slow-thinking Gomer as a one-off in a December 1962 episode of The Andy Griffith Show.
Gomer’s wide-eyed wonder at the world around him (“Gaaawwwwlllleeee” was his signature phrase) proved so endearing that he returned for another 22 Andy Griffith shows before enlisting in the television Marines and starring for five seasons in his own spinoff, Gomer Pyle, USMC.
Nabors mustered out of the show while it was still a big audience fave. He wanted to work at his real first love, singing, and he got to do a lot of that while hosting a variety show for the next two years.
Actor Jim Nabors, who played 'Gomer Pyle' in the classic 60's sitcom of the same name, has come out of the closet after years of speculation, ...
After that he did a little acting and a lot more singing. He sang the opening song at the Indianapolis 500 for decades. He also moved to Hawaii, where he met his eventual life partner, Honolulu firefighter Stan Cadwallader.
They settled down there, among other things running a macadamia nut farm. Nabors performed on occasion, picking his spots, and didn’t seem to mind that he could have played Luke Skywalker or Batman and he still would have been known to most of the world as Gomer Pyle.
Part of that affinity is a tribute to his performance skill. While he always insisted he wasn’t an actor, creating Gomer was something he only made look easy. The roadside of television history, particularly early television history, is littered with stereotype “hicks” who were seen as harmless, one-dimensional and forgettable.
Nabors made Gomer human, and it didn’t hurt that we first got to know him alongside Griffith, who gave a small-town Southern television sheriff as much dimension as a sophisticated big-screen movie star.
Together, and of course with the help of Barney Fife, Aunt Bee, Opie and the rest of the Mayberry posse, they created the image that the World War II generation and the early Baby Boomers are referencing when they talk about the good old days when the whole country felt like family.
You didn’t have to lock your doors at night. The kids could play anywhere. Everyone had a good job, all families got along and no one had any secret problems.
That America existed. It really did.
In the real-life 1967, the national crime rate was higher than it was in 2016. In the real-life 1950s, you didn’t want to be a black person or a woman looking for a fair shot, or any shot, at much of the American dream. If you were gay, like Jim Nabors, the wrong whisper could ruin your life.
But much of television, in those days, was an escape to the world we wanted. Where modern shows like Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead or The Sopranos send us into a world far more menacing than anything we face after we turn the TV off, much of 1950s and early 1960s television conjured the world we wish we had.
Especially the sitcoms. Leave It To Beaver, anyone? Ozzie and Harriet?
In a 1980 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Nabors said that was a good thing.
“In Mayberry, there was no illness,” he said. “There was no war. There was no violence. There was no graffiti. We all had a good time, and we laughed a lot.”
He could have added that Gomer Pyle, USMC, never dealt with the Vietnam War, though some 10,000 real-life Marines and more than 35,000 other U.S. soldiers died there during the years it was on.
That’s not a criticism of the show. It simply reflects what Nabors, and the era of television he helped define, brought to American culture.
It isn’t hard to understand why we miss that time, even if a lot of what we miss was only found on the 17-inch Magnavox.