Honoring our favorite TV sergeant Frank Sutton, 45 years after his death
Sutton's exceptional character work brought joy to millions.
Born in Clarksville, Tenn., Frank Sutton’s acting interests were piqued in his first role in the school play at age 9. He later was an active member of his drama club at East Nashville High School. Sutton said, “The first time I walked out on a stage, I had a warm feeling. I knew then I wanted to be an actor.” He graduated from high school in 1941.
Initially, Sutton had enlisted for the Marines Corps during World War II, but he was turned away for failing to pass the physical. According to doctors, one of his arms was bent too far back at the elbow and would therefore hinder his physical abilities in the Marines. Instead, he joined the Army.
Once the war was over, his first job was as a radio announcer on a local Nashville radio station. When this didn’t satisfy his need to perform, Sutton returned to school and joined the drama program at Columbia University in New York City, where he would graduate cum laude. He immediately joined the throng of performers in the real world all vying for a role.
Despite working plenty between 1950 and 1963, it wasn’t until 1964 that we saw him in his most well-known and beloved role, Gunnery Sergeant Vince Carter on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. In this role, Sutton was finally able to become a member of the Marine Corps, albeit just on TV.
His character Sgt. Carter had a rich backstory that allowed Sutton to dive into the part. Born and raised in Wichita, Kansas, prior to his work with Gomer and crew, Sgt. Carter was a Korean War veteran. With just these two small details, Sutton the country-boy-turned-Army-veteran was able to build a hilarious and believable character with rich depth and detail, making him the memorable sergeant that fans still love watching get all riled up today.
The role premiered on an episode of The Andy Griffith Show earlier that year, acquainting audiences with Sgt. Carter before the spin-off aired. Typically gruff and easily angered, Sutton played the sergeant as a parody of similar characters seen in other movies and TV series. He exaggerated the tough-guy nature of the role and embraced the lovable caricature of the quick-tempered drill instructor. Many recognize this character for his wide-flaring nostrils and short, spiky haircut, always plotting ways to get Gomer Pyle transferred out of the Marines (until, of course, the two become best friends).
As if he couldn’t be any more of a great actor, Sutton’s love of performing expanded beyond Gomer's camp into the world of theater as well. He normally took on humorous character roles, further using his gift for comedic timing and expression in works like The Odd Couple, Anything Goes and No Hard Feelings. Then on June 28, 1974, Sutton died suddenly of a heart attack while backstage at the Beverly Barn Dinner Playhouse. He had been preparing for a role in the absurd comedy Luv by Murray Schisgal.
Today marks 45 years since the passing of actor, Army veteran and family man Frank Sutton. While audiences certainly remember his rallying cry – “Move it, move it, move it!” – his memory is proof that a great American treasure was lost too soon.