Like a swallow to Capistrano, I return to Hawaii often: to Hilo, on the Big Island, where I trained for the Peace Corps in 1966, and to Honolulu, where I visit with old friends, one of whom happens to be Jim Nabors, a.k.a. Gomer Pyle. How did this unlikely friendship come about? Read on, gentile reader.
Long ago, in a kingdom called the Eighties, I made a music video of my song “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven (and Your Buns in the Bed)” with my friend Ruth Buzzi, one of the stars of Laugh-In. During the shoot, Ruthie repeatedly hit me over the head with her famous purse until my cowboy hat looked like a black tortilla. Later, her husband, Kent Perkins, told me, “Don’t feel bad. She’s also hit Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, John Wayne, John Lennon, Muhammad Ali, and Jim Nabors.”
“The nicest guy you’ll ever meet. Been living in Hawaii since the sixties. Look him up next time you go.”
And so I did. It was almost surreal to find myself listening to that familiar Southern twang on the telephone. I kept waiting for him to say, “Shazam!” Or maybe, “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!” Sooner or later, he was bound to intone his iconic exclamation: “Gohhhhhh-lee.” But he said none of those things. Instead, he told me, “I’d love to show you my nuts.” Only later did I learn that Jim had a macadamia plantation that took up about half of Maui.
When I finally met him the next day, I was startled by how much he looked like Gomer Pyle. Everybody else around us seemed to be doing double takes as well. It wasn’t just old farts; young people too seemed to light up when they saw him. “That’s why God created reruns,” he said.
We had lunch at the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel on the lanai in the shadow of two big, gnarled, interlocking hau trees under which, it is said, Robert Louis Stevenson lounged when he visited Honolulu in 1889. There were few hotels on the island back then; room service was even slower than it is now. Jim ordered sweetened tea, like he used to drink growing up. I ordered a piña colada, which is okay for a cowboy in Hawaii if you tell ’em to hold the umbrella.
Jim worked closely with just about every big star in the business, it seems, counting Elvis, Frank, Dean, and Lucille Ball, to name only a few, among his dearest friends. He has a rich baritonal, near operatic voice and has recorded 28 albums, a couple of which have gone gold or platinum. But he’s best known, of course, for his TV show, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., a comedic but very human portrayal of the military that rose to prominence in the Vietnam era—at precisely the time the military was being vilified. Perhaps for that reason, Gomer Pyle is the only fictional character in history to receive a promotion in real life: to honorary lance corporal, by the commandant of the Marine Corps, James L. Jones, in 2001, and then to honorary corporal, by Lieutenant General John F. Goodman, in 2007. To this day, drill instructors refer to recruits who need extra training as “gomers.”
On my next trip to Honolulu, several years later, Jim invited me to his beautiful beachfront home, where I got to meet three of his friends: Richard Chamberlain, Liza Minnelli, and Andy Griffith. When Chamberlain learned I was from Texas, he gazed theatrically over the ocean and murmured in a voice worthy of The Thorn Birds, “Texas!” I also met Daisy, Lulu, Gypsy, and Barney, Jim’s four 6-year-old Staffordshire terriers. “They’re the smartest, sweetest, most loyal dogs you’ll ever see,” he said. “They’re just like people; they need to be raised with love.” And so they are. Every July 3, in what has become a sort of pilgrimage, Jim and his pilot, Stan, load up Daisy, Lulu, Gypsy, and Barney into his twin-engine plane and fly them over to Maui. The reason? “They are frightened by the fireworks,” says Jim.
On that same trip Jim told me a story about a conversation he had had while he was waiting to meet the queen at Buckingham Palace. A man with a big mustache, a monocle, and a large, colorful sash across his tuxedo walked up to him and said, “Pity about the Wales.” The man was referring to the imminent breakup of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. Jim, however, thought he was talking about the Japanese killing whales off Hawaii. “I like to watch them,” he said. “I’ve even seen them mate a few times.” That was the only time he ever witnessed a monocle actually pop out of someone’s eye.
My most recent trip to Hawaii was in February, and of course I saw Jim, who’s now 78. He told me a story that I took home as a gift. It was 1964 and Gomer Pyle, in its first year, was already one of the hottest shows going. Someone came up to Jim on the set one day and asked, “Have you heard of Cassius Clay?” Jim said, “Yeah. The boxer.” The guy said, “Well, his mother and his little brother are here, and they’re huge fans of yours. Do you have time to say hello to them?”
Jim said, “Sure.” He went over and met them and took pictures and signed autographs, and he kind of liked Clay’s mother. She was a down-home sort of woman from Kentucky, and Jim himself is from Alabama, so he invited the two of them to have lunch with him in the commissary. Lots of stars came and went, and Jim introduced them all to Clay’s mother and little brother. Afterward, they hugged and said goodbye, and Jim never saw them again.
Twenty-five years later, Jim was having dinner with Carol Burnett at Le Dome, in Los Angeles, when a big party of people came in. The buzz was that it was Muhammad Ali and his entourage. Jim just continued with his dinner—he had never spoken to or met Ali, and he didn’t want to bother him. Also, rumors had been circulating that Ali had lost his memory from two and a half decades in the ring.
About halfway through the meal, Jim felt a tap on his shoulder. When he looked up, Ali was standing over him. Ali leaned down and said, “Thanks for being so nice to my mama and my little brother.”
That story shows just how long an act of kindness can float around the universe. It also shows how a nice guy can sometimes finish first. Aloha, Gomer. Until we meet again.