Question: Is the actor who played Sgt. Carter on Gomer Pyle, USMC still alive, and did he do any other work before or after the show? Charles C., Vidalia, Ga.
Televisionary: Sadly, actor Frank Sutton died in 1974, just five years after the last original episode of Gomer Pyle ran on CBS. He was backstage in a Shreveport, La., theater when he suffered a fatal heart attack.
As for his pre-Gomer work, Sutton had small roles in several movies and appeared in guest roles on a whole host of shows, including such series as The Naked City, The Defenders, Route 66, Have Gun Will Travel, The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Combat!, The Untouchables and The Fugitive.
He first appeared as Sgt. Vince Carter in May of 1964, when the fourth-season ender of The Andy Griffith Show found Griffith regular Gomer (Jim Nabors) joining the Marines. Gomer quickly became a hit spin-off, running for four seasons before Nabors moved on to his own variety show (and took Sutton with him). After that, Sutton made a few guest appearances on Love, American Style, but that was about it.
Sutton was well-suited to Gomer's Carter, a gruff tough guy who, of course, was a softie beneath it all. (TV Guide called his work on the series a "most master-sergeantly performance.") A former Army sergeant himself, he took part in 14 assault landings in World War II and, as a result, hated violence and wanted none of it for his son. "Somebody gave Joey a Tommy gun for his third birthday," Sutton told TV Guide in 1967. "I wouldn't allow it. Guns, violence and war are evil and horrible. I didn't want my kid to be hostile."
Not that that attitude spared Joey from any kind of combat, mind you. As a boy, Sutton's father forced him to go out and fight bullies who threatened him Dad was kind enough to referee so the actor did the same for his own son... sort of. When the lad was 9, he told Sutton another kid had threatened to use judo on him. "So we enrolled in a judo class together," Sutton said. "Joey learned how to hit and how to take a fall. And I taught him the Marine Corps thing: Don't be afraid of being hit. So after six weeks he went back and clobbered the bully.... Today he's very aggressive in sports but otherwise gentle. I always wanted him to be a pacifist. I think I've succeeded in what I wanted."
Likewise, Gomer star Nabors was nearly as positive and kind as his character. Take the time a reporter tagged along with Nabors on a public-appearance trip to Plowville, Minn. in 1965. The appearance ended up taking place in a boggy field in a downpour. Everyone called him "Gomer" rather than "Mr. Nabors" or even "Jim" (to add to the indignity, Gomer is a feminine biblical name, by the way). Even the announcer at the event referred to him as "Mr. Nabors Jim Gomer." He received a key to the state, but it turned up late, and then a local D.J. praised his tenor voice (he sings baritone) on the air. Yet Nabors insisted on putting on a show for the people who waited in the lousy weather instead of the mere "appearance" his manager fought for. Later, the same manager tried to talk him out of signing autographs, but he went out into the rain to sign them for the kids waiting there.
And Nabors certainly had to be an optimist to leave Gomer when it was a big hit, opting instead for a weekly variety show much like the successful specials he'd put together. But a surprisingly successful music career his first album sold more than a million copies and solid ratings for said specials provided encouragement, so he launched the show and, as previously noted, took Sutton along to help with the sketch-comedy portions.
The Jim Nabors Hour, which debuted in September 1969, did well, too, until CBS took it off the air as part of its rural-comedy purge in 1971. And, in a rare display of displeasure, Nabors complained publicly about it. "My variety show was number 11 the first year," he said in 1973. "The second year we slipped because we were up against Flip Wilson. The network wanted me to change the format, make the show more sophisticated. But I decided not to, so they let it drop. They said my demographics were all wrong, that I appealed to a rural audience of people over 50. Well, that summer I went on a concert tour and it just wasn't true. When you play 14 major cities from Los Angeles to New York, you really get to know your audiences. I saw them out there every night a complete cross-section of all ages and income groups."
I've made no secret of my thoughts on CBS's rural purge it was a boneheaded move and I'm no fan of TV's heavy reliance on demographics. (Ironically, CBS has been a big proponent of mass audience over demos for years now.) But Nabors still had his money to keep him happy. After all, he made a Pyle.