Aunt Bee coached Jim Nabors through his first day on set
Even Gomer Pyle needed some homespun encouragement now and again.
By the time Jim Nabors joined the cast, The Andy Griffith Show had already been on the air for two-and-a-half seasons. The characters all had a believable rapport as the actors had amassed 75 episodes of comradery and repartee. That palpable chemistry can’t be manufactured. It should’ve been intimidating, then, to join the cast that far into production, boarding a train that was already speeding along the tracks. But Gomer Pyle is absolutely better late than never.
When Andy Griffith discovered him in 1962, Jim Nabors was performing in a cabaret theater act in a nightclub called The Horn. There, as part of his routine, Nabors had developed the character that would grow to be Gomer. Impressed with Nabors’ performance, Griffith invited the comedian to bring the character to Mayberry for a one-off appearance on The Andy Griffith Show. His big break had almost come a year earlier; before Griffith, fellow-comedian Bill Dana saw Nabors was suited for Hollywood and invited him onto The Steve Allen Show, but the intended episode was canceled. Luckily, though, Nabors’ fortune would be permanently reversed when Andy Griffith became such an enthusiast.
On set though, few folks were nearly as enthusiastic. Nabors, who was suited for and trained in the world of standup comedy, did not know the rules of television acting. Instead, his performance was much the same as in nightclubs: broad and theatrical, in a way where everyone in a great big venue could see, hear, and be in on the joke. Things were different on TV, though. The rest of the actors in The Andy Griffith Show were well-versed in the more nuanced approach to screen acting. The imbalance was immediately clear, and things could have worked out much differently for Jim Nabors. Instead, fate and a friend intervened.
As Jim Nabors recalls in Daniel de Visé’s Andy and Don, Frances Bavier, TV’s Aunt Bee, approached him during that first tumultuous day, asking him his level of experience before walking off-frame to observe his delivery. “Darling,” she told him, “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.”
History shows that the advice paid off. Nabors’ Gomer Pyle was popular enough to be invited back for an additional 22 episodes before leading a spin-off, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. In addition to Nabors’ acting success, a genuine friendship grew from his exchange with Frances Bavier. The two remained close for years and would go antiquing together on weekends.