Jerry Summers: Gomer Pyle In Chattanooga

  • Monday, August 23, 2021
  • Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The awkward and clumsy country bumpkin seen every day and night in the re-runs of the Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. in real life was quite a different person.  James Thurston Nabors was born in Sylacauga, Alabama.  He attended the University of Alabama and graduated with a degree in business administration in 1951.  He also stated his acting career at Tuscaloosa by performing in skits.  After graduating from college he moved to New York City where he worked at the United Nations as a typist.

            He came to Chattanooga after leaving New York and obtained a job as a film cutter for Channel 3 (WRGP) in the 1950’s splicing commercials with movies to make them fit certain time schedules.

He would also participate in local acting roles and as a singer.  In May 1958, he appeared in his first leading role in the Little Theatre musical of The Fireman’s Flame where he received a good review for “exhibiting a remarkably good singing voice and no mean talent at the soft shoe.”

            While at Channel 3 he would meet fellow employee Farol Faye Seretean who would become his manager and circulated his first records.

            He later moved to San Francisco where he performed in a night club as a singer and comedian.  He arrived in Hollywood acting in a variety of supporting roles.  After Andy Griffith saw one of his shows he was selected to play the country bumpkin Gomer in the Andy Griffith Show and he also attracted the attention of Steve Allen who invited him to be a guest performer on his variety show.

            His role in the Andy Griffith Show led to a successful acting career.  He was on the show from 1962-1964 but appears to have an eternal place in the re-run market on cable television because of its popularity.  His talents in the Mayberry comedy led to the equally successful program Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. where Nabors was portrayed as a bungling boot camp recruit in the Marine Corps.  This production was on the air from 1964-1968 and is also a popular re-run show on cable.

            Nabors has never forgotten his Chattanooga roots and made several return trips in later years to the city.  In addition to the Sereteans, he developed longtime friendships with businessman Olan Mills, III, and his wife Norma Jean (Butch) Mills.  He also served as a pallbearer at Farol Faye’s funeral in 1992.

            In 1965 he came with actress Kay Starr to Chattanooga for a three-day stay with his old friends.  Among those who came to visit Nabors were country music stars Eddy Arnold, Minnie Pearl, Earl Scruggs of Flatt and Scruggs, and Dr. Nat Winston, Tennessee’s Commissioner of Mental Health.  Assuming his old role of Gomer, he remarked, “This town is sure growed up since I left.”

            After his stay in Chattanooga he made a trip to South Carolina where he was made president of a boys home in the Greenville area.  A new chapel named after Jim was dedicated in his name.

            In 1976 he moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, and later purchased a 500-acre farm on Maui and became a successful macadamia nut farmer.  He sold the property to a conservation organization around 2001 but still owns a home on the property and retained farming rights on the land.       

            From 1972-2014 Nabors sang the unofficial Indiana anthem “Back Home in Indiana” prior to the start of the Indianapolis 500 Race held on Memorial Day every year.

            He has continued to perform in numerous roles in movies and on a variety of shows although in 1994 he had to have a liver transplant that was arranged by his good friend Carol Burnett at UCLA Medical Center.  Burnett always considered Jim to be her “good luck charm” and would regularly have him as a guest on her Christmas specials.

            Questions concerning Nabors' masculinity frequently emerged in the gossip world of Hollywood.  He was falsely alleged to have had a relationship with his good friend the late Rock Hudson. As a result they would never visit or speak again to each other prior to Hudson’s death.

            After same sex marriage became legal in some states Nabors and his male companion of 38 years, Stan Cadwallader, traveled to Seattle, Washington, and they were married in 2013.

            While in his late 80s, Nabors limited his professional and public appearances and basically retired to enjoy the scenic beauty of the Hawaiian Islands. He died in 2017. He had a long and successful career which in part was started in Chattanooga.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.co

Jim Nabors
Jim Nabors
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