Classic series The Andy Griffith Show featured an impressive cast of theater and film actors.
Andy Griffith had proven his mettle in the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd; Don Knotts was well-known for his work as a comedic performer and actor; and Aunt Bee actor Frances Bavier was a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and worked with greats such as Henry Fonda.
Even Ron Howard at the age of 5 had already gained a great deal of acting experience.
One member of the 1960s comedy set in Mayberry didn’t have any such lengthy resume. In fact, this person had never acted in his life.
Andy Griffith discovered Jim Nabors at the latter’s nightclub act
Griffith had met nightclub performer Jim Nabors in 1963 through a mutual friend. He’d heard that Nabors was performing and went to see what he’d heard would be a great show.
Daniel de Visé wrote in 2015’s Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show that the mutual friend “escorted Andy to see Jim perform. ‘I didn’t want to go,’ Andy recalled. ‘But the man got up and was electrifying.'”
Nabors’ act was a full display of his enormous talent: singing operatic arias in one moment and waxing eloquent in what would become known as his ‘Gomer Pyle’ voice in the next. Griffith was more than impressed with Nabors. He wanted him on his show.
“Afterward, Andy caught up with Jim on the sidewalk outside,” de Visé said. “‘I don’t know what you do, but it’s magic, whatever it is. If a part ever comes up on our show, I’ll give you a call.'”
Nabors was honest with Griffith about his lack of acting experience
Before long, a part did come up that was perfect for Nabors, “a dim-witted gas-station attendant named Gomer Pyle.”
The producers of the show originally had considered George Lindsey (who ended up playing Gomer’s cousin Goober Pyle) for the part. Griffith asked them to wait on hiring Lindsey for the role until they’d met Nabors.
Producer Aaron Ruben recalled, according to de Visé, “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.”
Nabors was hired on the spot
Ruben was ready to hire him on the spot, but Nabors must have panicked that these seasoned Hollywood professionals weren’t aware he was an absolute amateur.
“Jim couldn’t believe the part was his,” de Visé wrote. “He told the Griffith producers, ‘Guys, I gotta level with you, I never acted.'” Andy wouldn’t hear it and announced to the cast, ‘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.'”
Nabors’ first episode on the show was “Man in a Hurry” in 1963. He went from guest star to regular cast member quickly.
And by the end of the following year, Nabors’ star rose even further when he was rewarded with his own spinoff from The Andy Griffith Show titled Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. It lasted five seasons until 1969. That year, Nabors was given his own variety show The Jim Nabors Hour, which ran until 1971.
Not bad for someone who said they couldn’t act.