Friday, March 30, 2012

Well, Shazayum! It's Gomer Pyle, USMC


Like most Americans in 1962, at age 3, I was, along with both of my parents, a regular viewer of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. One of my favorite characters was the genial, slow-witted hick named Gomer Pyle who worked down at Wally’s filling station. Gomer had a good heart and could take a car apart and put it back together with his eyes closed but he was otherwise reasonably oblivious. At first perhaps a throwaway role, Gomer quickly became a regular in Mayberry, picking up the slack from Howard McNear’s Floyd who was sidelined for quite a while after a stroke.

After two years on the show, it was Andy who went to the producers with the idea of doing a spin-off that essentially ripped off his own famous stage and film role, NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS only starring the Gomer character.

Jim Nabors had been a struggling nightclub comic and singer when Bill Dana discovered him and Andy added him to his show. The basic Gomer characterization had been a part of Jim’s stage act.

In 1964, GOMER PYLE, USMC debuted to good ratings. The series would stay atop the Nielsens for the next five years as Jim molded Gomer from a stereotype into one of THE all-time great TV characters.

The premise was simple and lifted directly from Andy’s earlier play---young, naïve country boy ends up in the military and a tough sergeant doesn’t deal well with him at all. Hilarity ensues. And it did!

One of the factors really making this show was the brilliant comic performance of actor Frank Sutton as Sgt. Carter, befuddled weekly by the disingenuous antics of Private Pyle and determined to either make him or break him. Sutton played the role at the top of his lungs through much of every episode, just like a good drill sergeant should.
GOMER PYLE, USMC was basically a two-act between Nabors and Sutton. There were a few other semi-regulars including, at various times, future TV stars Ronnie Schell, Ted Bessell, Larry Hovis and William Christopher as Gomer’s fellow recruits. Schell would later return as Sgt. Carter’s corporal, a role played originally by TV Jimmy Olsen Jack Larson and then, for most of the show’s run by a blasé Roy Stuart.

Allen Melvin, the great voice actor and veteran of THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (but probably best remembered for his later role as Sam the Butcher on THE BRADY BUNCH) was around from time to time as the Mess Sergeant and both Carter and Gomer had semi-regular girlfriends. Barbara Stuart’s Miss Bunny, was the Sergeant’s long-suffering paramour and Gomer seemed to have an on-off relationship with the wonderfully named (and accented) Lou Ann Poovie, played by Elizabeth MacRae (later seen nude in Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION).

In the mid-sixties, the country had not yet turned against the war in Viet Nam but it was never mentioned on GOMER PYLE, USMC. Instead the show adhered to the time-honored clichés of the military sitcom format with little to no criticism of the Marine Corps in any way so as to stay in good with them and maintain their unofficial sanctioning. The show could, in a way, be seen as a recruiting forum. It showed the hard work and the discipline involved sometimes but overall it made the Marines look like a fun place to be.

On the series itself, Jim Nabors slowly refined Gomer into a true innocent, similar to the later Forrest Gump. He wanted to serve his country, he wanted to please his Sergeant and most of all he wanted to help people. His expressions of “Shazam!” and “Gollllllll-eeeee” became popular catchphrases.

Week after week, he would get into some mess or other either on the base or off the base by trying to do the right thing and the Sergeant would usually be dragged in with him or go in after him.  As time went on, one could see that carter was developing not just an affection for his “problem child” but an actual respect. Not that he could ever let that show.

In the meantime, Nabors caused fans mouths to fall open when it was revealed that he could sing like a semi-operatic angel! He was suddenly in great demand on talk and variety shows and ultimately put out scores of successful “easy listening” record albums.

Still doing well in the ratings but feeling the series had run its course, Nabors took the regulars into a musical-comedy variety show of his own in 1969. It’s best remembered for…well…okay it isn’t best remembered at all. Although popular for a while, Sutton in particular was just nit a sketch comedy actor. It didn’t work. The chemistry was different.

GOMER PYLE, USMC went into syndicated reruns, often dominating local markets where it aired in spite of backlash at the military by that point because of the escalated mess in Viet Nam.

Frank Sutton sadly passed as early as 1974. Jim Nabors, in spite of a long and successful career before health issues led to semi-retirement in the nineties, would never again reach the heights of popularity that he had as Gomer Pyle.

In fact, one of his last TV performances was in the acclaimed reunion movie, RETURN TO MAYBERRY, which reunited Andy, Barney, Opie and the whole surviving cast of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. Jim, of course, was Gomer Pyle. 

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