The Horn was an artifact of authentic Hollywood: A Santa Monica music hall owned by the vocal coach from 20th Century Fox; the sort of place, Andy Griffith recalled, where "you could go in . . . and order a cup of coffee and stay from 9 till 2 and never see the same act twice.” The room attracted big stars, studio insiders and brash newcomers like James Thurston Nabors.
Born on June 12, 1930 in Sylacauga, Alabama, Jim Nabors grew up singing in glee club and church choir. His father was a cop. His mother worked seven days a week at a truck stop. She also played the piano by ear, a talent she bequeathed to Jim.
“I didn’t realize I had a kind of legitimate voice until I started doing it,” Jim recalls. “I never had a vocal lesson. I was gifted with a very good ear; I could emulate sounds.”
Jim joined Delta Tau Delta fraternity at the University of Alabama and began writing skits to perform at frat parties, mostly song parodies, not unlike the act Andy Griffith had assembled at the University of North Carolina a few years earlier. Jim graduated with a business degree and moved to Los Angeles in hope that the warm, dry weather might ease his asthma. He got a job at NBC, stacking film in the warehouse and making deliveries. He was eventually promoted to film cutter.
One night, Jim showed up at The Horn. He watched Fred MacMurray leap up with his wife, retired glamour girl June Haver, and take the stage to play the saxophone while June sang. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is the real Hollywood,’” Jim recalls.
Jim retooled his fraternity act and took it to The Horn. He would talk in an exaggerated Alabama drawl, then rear back and unleash an aria from Pagliacci in a perfectly formed operatic tenor. Then he would stop, in mid-aria, and revert to his molasses drawl: Waal, you see, there was this clown fella, and everyone thawt he was a real happy fella with that painted smile and awl, but he warn’t happy a bit, cause...
The character represented the two sides of Jim Nabors: the cultured, opera-loving sophisticate on the one hand, and the gentle, unassuming naif on the other. What made the act funny was the raw shock of watching Jim transform in one breath from sophisticate to rube. Jim was caricaturing his own provincial heritage, invoking an ensemble of unflattering stereotypes drawn up by northerners and urbanites. Jim was doing with Pagliacci what Andy Griffith had done with Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. His work would later draw comparisons to Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton for its childlike innocence; but Jim hadn’t studied those men or their films. “That was from me,” Jim recalled. “That was just from my head.”
The Horn was a place where untapped talent would go to get discovered. Soon enough, Bill Dana caught wind of Jim Nabors and brought Steve Allen to see him. Jim was invited to appear on The New Steve Allen Show, which had moved from CBS to ABC and was breaking in new talent to replace Don Knotts and other departed comics. Jim Nabors briefly joined a cast of regulars that included Tim Conway, Buck Henry and the Smothers brothers.
One Sunday, a mutual friend brought “this strange-looking man” to Andy Griffith’s home in Toluca Lake and dropped him off. “I gave him a bathing suit and let him get in the pool, and I took him for a drive in the car,” Andy recalled. “And he finally left, and I was so thrilled.”
Two weeks later, the friend escorted Andy to The Horn to see Jim perform. Mayberry lore generally credits Dick Linke, Andy’s manager, with spotting Jim’s act and urging Andy to see it. But Jim says Andy arrived at The Horn in the company of a blind psychiatrist named Bill Cannon and his wife, who came from Jim’s hometown and happened to know both Andy and Jim.
“I didn’t want to go,” Andy recalled. “I went kicking and screaming. But the man got up and was electrifying.” Afterward, Andy caught up with Jim on the sidewalk outside. “I don’t know what you do,” he told him, “but it’s magic, whatever it is.” They chatted amicably. Andy pledged, “If a part ever comes up on our show, I’ll give you a call.”
Sure, Jim thought to himself. Two weeks later, the telephone rang.
The Griffith producers wanted to expand the regular cast to include another comic, someone to play a dimwitted gas-station attendant. Howard McNear’s stroke had left a shortage of funnymen on the Desilu lot; without a critical mass of comedic talent to surround Andy, the writers would be forced to dial back the comedy and retreat to “soft” episodes that relied less on humor and more on light drama.
The character was named Gomer Pyle. The first name was borrowed from cowboy radio writer Gomer Cool, the surname from TV western actor Denver Pyle. Gomer was a creation of writers Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum. “The character was inspired by an actual experience,” Everett recalled. “I was having car trouble, and the guy at the service station could think of no cure except to put more gas in the tank.” The attendant explained, “Sometimes she’ll say F when she’s E.”
Producer Aaron Ruben thought he had already found an actor to play Gomer: George Lindsey, a former college football quarterback and Broadway actor who had migrated to Hollywood and landed several bit parts on television. “He read for me and he sounded very good, a real pro, and I was about to hire him,” Aaron recalled. “And Andy came in after rehearsal one day and said, ‘Have you already hired the guy to play the filling station attendant? And I said, ‘I’m about to.’ And he said, ‘Before you do, would you meet somebody?’
“So in comes Jim Nabors. He has a script, he reads, and what he lacked in professionalism and experience he made up for with a certain naive charm that he had,” Aaron recalled. “And I said, ‘Andy, let’s try him. He sounds good.’”
Jim couldn’t believe he had gotten the part. He told the Griffith producers, “Guys, I gotta level with you, I never acted.” Andy replied, “Ain’t nothing to it.”
Andy first brought Jim to the set in December 1962. He assembled the cast and said, “This week, our guest star is Jim Nabors. Everybody be real nice to him and go real easy on him, because he’s never done this before.”
Jim’s first appearance came in Episode 76, “The Bank Job,” broadcast on Dec. 24.
On the first day of shooting, Frances Bavier walked up to Jim and asked, “Is really your first time?” He nodded. Frances retreated behind the camera to watch. Jim proceeded to read his part as if he were standing onstage at the Horn, giving a performance too broad for television. Between takes, Frances called Jim over. She told him, “Darling, the camera never misses anything. It never misses a wink or a blink or a smile. I know you’re from nightclubs. You don’t have to do any of that expository, expressive acting. Just settle down and be yourself.”
The Griffith producers thought Gomer’s Alabama drawl was a bit much, even for television. Andy reassured them: “Heck, a lot of the boys back home talk like that.” Don Knotts looked out for Jim in the weeks to come, pulling him aside in his quiet way and whispering instructions into his ear so that Jim wouldn’t unwittingly step in front of his co-star on the next take.