Surprise, Surprise, Surprise! It’s Gomer Pyle USMC.

Continuing my “We Salute You!” blog series, today we look at one of the most-loved television characters, Gomer Pyle.

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Danny Thomas in Mayberry

In the late 1950s Make Room for Daddy was one of the most popular sitcoms. On one episode in February of 1960, Danny found himself in Mayberry, picked up for going through a stop sign. Although Sheriff Taylor came off a bit of a country bumpkin, viewers enjoyed the episode and the following fall, The Andy Griffith Show (TAGS) aired on CBS. When the series debuted, Andy was portrayed more of a wise sage and the folks of Mayberry were a quirky but lovable bunch. The show was in the top ten every year it was on the air. In fact, it seemed to get better as it went, making #3 in 1966-1967 and #1 in 1967-68. Andy left the show the following year, and it turned into Mayberry RFD which continued for three more seasons. The first two it was also in the top 10 and the third year it slipped a bit into the top 15. Although it was one of the most successful shows on CBS’s schedule, it was eliminated with a lot of other popular shows in the famous rural purging in the early seventies.

One night, Andy Griffith saw Jim Nabors performing at The Horn in Santa Monica and decided he would be a perfect fit for Mayberry. He offered him a job, and Gomer Pyle began working at Wally’s gas station.

Two writers, Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell were said to have created the character. Greenbaum had dealt with an incompetent gas station attendant. He stopped by a station with motor trouble. The man could not think of any way to fix it except to keep adding gas to the tank, so Greenbaum thought a character based on him should be part of an episode on TAGS. He derived the name from Gomer Cool, a writer and Denver Pyle, the actor. Everett and Greenbaum (along with many TAGS writers) would continue to write for TAGS as well as Pyle episodes.

Gomer was one of the most popular characters on the show. Surprisingly he was only in 23 episodes in the two years he was with the show. Traveling around the country, you would be able to hear people repeating his “gawwwleee,” “surprise, surprise, surprise,”  or “shazzam” which all became part of our language at the time.

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Gomer at Wally’s Gas Station

Because Gomer Pyle was so popular, Andy, Aaron Ruben, and Sheldon Leonard decided to give him his own show and Gomer Pyle USMC was created. In this show, Gomer who is naïve, kind-hearted and morally upright has to deal with life in the marine corps and his gruff Sergeant Carter (Frank Sutton). Although Carter gets driven to distraction by Pyle and his “do-gooding,” we all realize he has a soft spot for Pyle and his main concern is protecting him.

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Carter and Pyle

The show was on the air from 1964-69 and had a solid supporting cast. Like TAGS, Gomer Pyle USMC was in the top ten for its entire run.

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With Ted Bessell

The show was on Friday nights, except for season three when it moved to Wednesdays. I was a bit surprised it stayed in the top ten, because it had some competition at times. Season one it was opposite Jack Benny and Twelve O’Clock High. Season two it went up against Honey West on one network and a variety of music shows on the other. Season three it was at the same time as Peyton Place and season four it was on opposite Star Trek.

Although the show depicted military life on base, war was never discussed. The series began at Camp Wilson in North Carolina and was moved to the fictional Camp Henderson in California. The actual show was filmed at Camp Pendleton and, along with TAGS, at Desilu’s Cahuenga studio and the RKO Forty Acres backlot. Unlike TAGS, Pyle used a single-camera setup because much of the shooting was outside.

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Don Rickles, Guest Star

The US Marine Corps worked with Leonard, giving the show unlimited access to their equipment because they felt the series was good for their image. The opening scene of the show was that of marching recruits from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. Nabors commented that it was very difficult for him to see that footage because so many of those service men were killed in Vietnam. In real life, Frank Sutton could not pass the Marine Corps physical for WWII but was able to serve in the US Army, taking part in 14 assault landings including Luzon and Bataan.

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I had heard of universities bestowing honorary degrees to actors even if they did not attend the school, but I did not realize the military could do something similar. During the show, Gomer’s highest rank was Private First Class. In 2001, the US Marine Corps gave Nabors an honorary promotion to Lance Corporal, and in 2007 he was raised to Corporal.

Obviously, there were a lot of military vehicles used in the filming of the show. Chrysler Corporation provided them. Jeeps were also prominent in the show, but Jeep did not become part of Chrysler until 1987. As an aside, the vehicles for TAGS were provided by Ford.

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Gomer and his friend Duke Slater

Pyle’s loyalty and good-natured attitude made him a favorite of both his platoon members and many of the women whom he came in contact with. One of Pyle’s friends was Duke Slater played by Ronnie Schell. Schell was written off after the third season when he left to star in Good Morning World. When that sitcom did not get renewed, he returned to Pyle. Some of the other platoon members included Roy Stuart as Corporal Boyle, Forrest Compton as Colonel Edward Gray, Ted Bessell as Frankie, and William Christopher as Lester.

Gomer gets to meet a lot of people when he goes to town. He especially loves movies and one of his favorite all-time pictures was Godzilla.

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Sergeant Carter and his girlfriend Bunny

As mentioned, Sergeant Carter eventually becomes a father figure to Gomer. Carter’s girlfriend Bunny (Barbara Stuart) also tried to help Gomer (I could not find anything to indicate that Roy and Barbara Stuart are related). Gomer often causes trouble between Carter and Bunny by trying to “help” Carter. In season three, Gomer also got a girlfriend in Lou-Ann Poovie (Elizabeth MacRae). She is a singer in a local nightclub, but eventually Gomer talks her into returning to Turtle Creek, NC to marry her old beau Monroe. She leaves but returns, informing Gomer she wants him for her boyfriend, and she gets a new job as a clerk at a record store.

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Gomer and Lou-Ann

Several TAGS alumni made appearances on the show. Allan Melvin was part of the cast as Staff Sergeant Hacker for four years, Carter’s rival on the show. Denver Pyle who was Briscoe Darling on TAGS showed up on Gomer Pyle as a farmer. Andy, Aunt Bee, Goober and Opie all were seen at the base at one time or another, including when Opie ran away from home.

With a show on the air so long, many well-known guest stars showed up at Camp Henderson as well, including Carol Burnett, Ted Knight, Rob Reiner, Don Rickles, and Jerry Van Dyke.

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After the fifth season, Nabors expressed an interest to do a variety show, so Gomer Pyle was not renewed. He brought Ronnie Schell and Frank Sutton along for his new show which was on the air for two seasons. Carol Burnett called Nabors her good luck charm. He was one of her best friends and he was always on her season opener each year.

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Best Friends

In an interview with Jim for American Profile, writer Paulette Cohn (Jim Nabors Lives Happily in Hawaii, January 13, 2008) quoted Carol Burnett’s perspective of Nabors vs Pyle: “ ‘The one thing Jim has in common with Gomer is his kindness,’ says actress and comedienne Carol Burnett, Nabors’ long-time friend, who named him godfather to her daughter Jody. ‘He loves people and is very gregarious. But he is also very smart. Not that Gomer wasn’t, but Jim isn’t naïve. He keeps his eye on things.’ ”

Considering how popular Gomer Pyle USMC has been in reruns, I was surprised to learn it wasn’t until 2006 that CBS Home Entertainment released the show on DVD. By 2008, all the seasons were available.

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Let’s end with a few quotes that captures the essence of the show’s characters.

Gomer: I’m gonna be a fighting fool, you’ll see.

Sergeant Carter: Well, you’re halfway there.

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Gomer: One of my favorite little sayings is, ‘To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.’

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Gomer: A word of kindness is seldom spoken in vain, while witty sayings are as easily lost as the pearls slipping from a broken string.

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Carter: All I can say is, if the idea of desertion ever crossed your mind, you’ll never find a better time to look into it.

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Carter: I don’t get it Pyle, how come you can knock that Phillips flat, yet you can’t handle that little Lombardi guy?

Gomer: Well sir, you see the big feller needed a lesson, the little feller didn’t.

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Although Gomer Pyle USMC might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it was a well-done and popular show. I think its success, like TAGS and many of the other shows considered classics, comes from the fact that it’s a character-driven show. We start to consider the characters our friends and enjoy spending time with them. The show can currently be seen on MeTV nightly at 9 pm EST.

Stars Who Jump From the Big Screen to the Small Screen Don’t Always Land on Their Feet

While it is not uncommon for stars to transition from television to movies–think about Robin Williams, Sally Field, Melissa McCarthy, and Tom Hanks–it is less likely to see stars move from the big screen to the small screen.  Jane Fonda has transitioned to television in Frankie and Grace and Fred MacMurray did it with My Three Sons.  For most stars, the move has not worked out very well. Let’s look at a few stars who tried to make the conversion.

That Wonderful Guy – Jack Lemmon (1949)

Neil Hamilton (best known as Commissioner Gordon on Batman) plays Franklin Westbrook, a conceited drama critic who dislikes almost everything. Jack Lemmon plays Harold, a Midwesterner who thinks working for Westbrook will help him become worldly and give a boost to his acting career. His girlfriend is played by his real wife Cynthia Stone. The episodes revolved around his romantic and business adventures in New York City.  Perhaps Westbrook panned the show because it was cancelled after three episodes.

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Heaven for Betsy – Jack Lemmon (1952)

Three years later, Lemmon gave it another try. In this show, Lemmon plays Peter Bell, a toy store buyer. His wife Cynthia again played his wife Betsy. The series was based on a sketch “The Couple Next Door” that Lemmon and his wife played regularly on the Frances Langford/Don Ameche Show. Each episode lasted 15 minutes, and it told about the newlyweds’ struggles in New York City. Instead of three episodes, this series lasted three months.

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Honestly Celeste – Celeste Holm (1954)

After playing Ado Annie in Oklahoma, Holm tried her hand at television. She plays Celeste Anders, a Minnesota college professor living in Manhattan, who is getting journalism experience working for the NY Express. Celeste wrote stories ranging from modern art to underprivileged families. She also dated the publisher’s son Bob Wallace, played by Scott McKay. After three months, she was sent back to school in Minnesota. What was most surprising about this failure was that Norman Lear (who would go on to create dozens of shows) and Larry Gelbart (who later created M*A*S*H) were both part of the writing staff.

 

Going My Way – Gene Kelly (1962)

Bridging television and movies, Gene Kelly redid Bing Crosby’s movie from 1944 for the small screen. Kelly is Father Chuck O’Malley, a progressive priest assigned to the slums of New York. Father Fitzgibbon played by Leo G. Carroll is a cantankerous, old priest. Dick York was his boyhood pal Tom Colwell who ran the community center. Mrs. Featherstone (Nydia Westman) played the rectory housekeeper. The list of guest stars on the show was very impressive, but after a year, the network told Kelly to keep going and cancelled the show.

 

The Bing Crosby Show – Bing Crosby (1964)

I guess Bing decided if Gene Kelly could enter television with his old movie, he might also give it a try. He plays Bing Collins a former singer. He is now an electrical engineer married to Ellie (Beverly Garland) with two daughters Janice (Carol Faylen), 15, and boy crazy and Joyce (Diane Sherry), 10, who had a high IQ. It lasted one season. Not surprisingly, this series also attracted a lot of big-name guest stars including Frankie Avalon, Jack Benny, Dennis Day, Joan Fontaine, and George Gobel. Apparently, Garland had a thing for engineers because she would marry aeronautical engineer Steve Douglas on My Three Sons.

 

Mickey – Mickey Rooney (1964)

Mickey plays Mickey Grady who leaves the Coast Guard to manage a posh hotel, Newport Arms in California, with his wife Nora (Emmaline Henry) and two young boys. His real son plays one of his sons on the show. Sammee Tong plays the hotel’s manager. The former supervisor has left a lot of problems for Mickey. The show was cancelled in January airing only 17 episodes.

 

One of the Boys – Mickey Rooney (1982)

After vowing never to work on television again, Rooney tried it again 18 years later. Now he plays 66-year-old Oliver Nugent, rescued from a nursing home by his grandson Adam Shields (Dana Carvey). Adam is a college student who takes him in. Adam’s roommate, Jonathan Burns (Nathan Lane) is not so happy about the situation. Oliver looks for a job and lands one singing in a restaurant. Also appearing in the cast was Scatman Crothers who sang with Oliver and had also left the nursing home.  A young Meg Ryan played Adam’s girlfriend Jane. The show debuted at 18th place in the ratings but by within a month it had dropped to 68th. Even with this cast, the show was cancelled after an unlucky 13 episodes.

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Jimmy Stewart Show – Jimmy Stewart (1971)

Jimmy Stewart jumped to the small screen with great anticipation and excitement by viewers. He  played anthropology professor Jim Howard. Howard teaches at Josiah Kessel College, started by his grandfather.  His house is full with his wife, his son Peter, Peter’s wife Wendy, and his grandson Jake. He also has a young son Teddy, who happens to be the same age as his grandson. His friend Luther Quince often stops by to eat and give advice. Jim talks to the audience during the show and wishes them love, peace, and laughter at the end of each episode. Even beloved Jimmy Stewart was unable to save this show which was cancelled after one season.

 

The Doris Day Show – Doris Day (1968)

Doris Day was the most successful actor moving from film to television. However, I think the reason she managed to keep her show on the air for five seasons was because she changed the format so often that CBS did not realize it was the same show.  In 1968, Day is Doris Martin, a widow with two kids. She moves from the city to Mill Valley, CA to live on her father’s ranch.

The second season she commutes to San Francisco after accepting a job as an executive secretary to Michael Nicholson (MacLean Stevenson), the editor of Today’s Magazine. Rose Marie was Myrna Gibbons and Denver Pyle again played her father Buck Webb.

In 1970, Doris and the kids move to an apartment over an Italian restaurant run by Kaye Ballard and Bernie Kopell. Billy De Wolfe was her neighbor. Now Doris is writing feature stories for the magazine.

When the show returned the next fall, Doris was single and a reporter for a magazine. Her new boss was Cy Bennett (John Dehner) and she had a boyfriend Peter Lawford but later her boyfriend turned into Patrick O’Neal. There was no restaurant.

By 1973, the network caught up with all the changes and cancelled the show.

 

It was interesting that so many actors failed in television when they were such celebrated movie stars. The radio stars seemed to have better luck making the transition. Jack Benny and Burns and Allen had long-lasting and popular shows. It’s hard to imagine actors like Ryan Gosling, Amy Adams, Julia Roberts, or Ben Affleck bombing on a television series today.

I think for now I will continue to choose to watch Pillow Talk, Move Over Darling, Harvey, The Philadelphia Story, Some Like It Hot, Singing in the Rain, and Hope and Crosby’s Road movies and set aside the television DVDs these stars appeared in.