Golllllllly! Six years after a successful liver transplant, Jim Nabors is happy, healthy and has just released a new double CD of inspirational music, “When He Spoke.”
Celebrating his 70th birthday this year, Nabors doesn’t look much different than he did when he debuted in 1962 on the classic “The Andy Griffith Show” as Mayberry’s endearing, optimistic Gomer Pyle. In 1964, CBS gave Nabors his own spinoff series, “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” which was a ratings hit throughout its five-year run. Nabors also hosted his own CBS variety show, “The Jim Nabors Show,” for two seasons. “Andy Griffith” and “Gomer Pyle” are currently shown daily on cable’s TV Land.
Nabors, who was born in Sylacauga, Ala., has recorded 28 albums and numerous singles, and has five gold and one platinum record. On Sunday, he made his traditional appearance at the Indianapolis 500, singing "(Back Home Again in) Indiana.” He’s recently appeared in concert with several symphonies, including the Dallas and St. Louis symphonies, and appeared in such movies as “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” “Stroker Ace” and “Cannonball Run II.”
As sweet and sincere as Gomer Pyle, Nabors talked about his new album, life after the transplant and the enduring appeal of his TV character, over the phone from Holland, Mich., where he was appearing in concert at the annual Tulip Festival.
Question: Have you been performing a lot since the transplant?
Answer: I like to think of myself as sort of semiretired. I will pick about 10 or 12 concerts each year. Actually, I love the performing, I just don’t like the traveling. Yesterday, I stood in Chicago at one of the [airline] gates for three hours. But I love the people and I love being among the people. It makes you feel very alive.
Q: Because “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Gomer Pyle, USMC” have never gone off the air, you must have a very wide fan base.
A: I find now a lot of the kids who grew up with me are raising their own kids or their grandkids, good gosh, as it were.
I was walking down the hallway at O’Hare [in Chicago] yesterday. A mother and a little boy were walking along, and I could tell the minute the recognition hit the little boy. As he walked by holding his mother’s hand, he said in a real loud voice, “Look, Mother. There goes an old Gomer Pyle.” I just started laughing.
Q: Do you still live in Hawaii?
A: I have been there permanently for almost 25 years. I guess the weather in Hawaii was what initially tweaked my interest there and I would go there on vacation. Then, little by little, I went there more and more on vacation. I just fell madly in love with it. I live in Honolulu, and I farm on Maui. I raise macadamia nuts and flowers.
Q: How did the new CD come about?
A: It’s called “When He Spoke.” It’s a double CD. One CD is all the old [religious] standards we were all raised with. The second one is the new Christian music, which I really wasn’t familiar with, which is pretty awesome.
The CD came out of the fact that when I was sick, I really wasn’t sure I would ever sing again, and for that matter, I didn’t really think about it. I was thinking about saving my life. I was on “Entertainment Tonight” and I remember Mary Hart asked me if there was anything [the viewers] could do? I told her I was waiting for an organ, and I looked in the camera and I said, “I hope you all would pray for me.”
I must have gotten over 300,000 letters of prayers and good wishes. I have never been one to publicly articulate my faith [Nabors is a Roman Catholic], but I can do it with music very well. I had made about three or four gospel records over the years and so I thought I will do another one. I hadn’t recorded in about 20 years, and as a matter of fact, I wasn’t sure the chops were still there, but actually it turned out to be my very favorite one I have recorded.
Q: Have you been singing all your life?
A: To be honest with you, I just loved music. I sang in the glee club and church choir, but I never sang a solo. I never thought of myself as a singer--and that might have crossed your mind too. Actually, I started singing in college just as a fun thing to entertain. I used to work at a little nightclub in Santa Monica called the Horn. I would sing like this [Nabors drops into his baritone] and talk like this [he begins to talk like Gomer Pyle]. It was the stupidest act you had ever seen.
Q: Did Andy Griffith catch your act at the Horn?
A: He was just in there and said if a part ever came up on the show, he’d call me. Two weeks later, they called me. The character’s name was Gomer Pyle. So I read it as the character I was doing in the club. It was the first time I had ever acted.
Q: Because “Gomer Pyle” was on during the height of the Vietnam War, did the series generate any criticism?
A: No, not at all. We had established it was a peacetime situation and every episode was a peacetime situation. War wasn’t mentioned. I shot the first few episodes at the Marine base in San Diego--the opening where I was marching along. The Marines were very supportive of it. As a matter of fact, when I went to Vietnam in 1971 with Bob Hope, we went to Da Nang, which was a Marine base. I just have to say it was one of the biggest thrills I have ever had. I got the most moving ovation I have ever received in my life. There were 40,000 Marines, and all Hope said was, “Gentlemen, I bring you your leader.” And they cheered. Gosh . . . those guys . . . I tell you.
Q: Why do you think the appeal of “Andy Griffith” and “Gomer Pyle” is timeless?
A: To me, one of the reasons they are still very popular is that it’s probably the only thing on TV now that is positive. Television has become very cynical, even the comedy shows, and the cynicism from the young people just boggles my mind. In Mayberry, there was no illness. There was no war. There was no violence. There was no graffiti. We all had a good time and we laughed a lot.
* “The Andy Griffith Show” can be seen weekdays at 4, 7 and 10 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 7 and 10 p.m. on TV Land. “Gomer Pyle, USMC” can be seen weekdays at 7 a.m., 4:30 and 10:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on TV Land.