Jim Nabors dead; star best known as Gomer Pyle was 87

Jim Nabors, the star who played the clumsy deputy sheriff Gomer Pyle on “The Andy Griffith Show” and eventually starred in his own spinoff, has died. He was 87.

Nabors' husband, Stan Cadwallader, told the Associated Press his longtime partner had died peacefully at home in Hawaii by his side. 

Cadwallader says Nabors' health had been declining for the past year. His immune system also was suppressed after he underwent a liver transplant about 20 years ago.

Beverly Sills, Carol Burnett and Jim Nabors on April 26, 1986. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Beverly Sills, Carol Burnett and Jim Nabors on April 26, 1986. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)  (AP)

"Everybody knows he was a wonderful man. And that's all we can say about him. He's going to be dearly missed," Cadwallader said.

Nabors, a native of Alabama, became an instant success when he joined "The Andy Griffith Show" in the spring of 1963. The character of Gomer Pyle — the unworldly, lovable gas pumper who would exclaim "Gollllll-ly!" — proved so popular that in 1964 CBS starred him in "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C."

May 25, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and actor Jim Nabors chat before the 2014 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports - 7926435

Jim Nabors before the 2014 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway May 25, 2014  (USA Today Sports)

In the spinoff, which lasted five seasons, Gomer left his hometown of Mayberry to become a Marine recruit. His innocence confounded his sergeant, the irascible Frank Sutton.

Audiences saw another side of Nabors in appearances in TV variety programs — his booming baritone. The contrast between his homespun humor ("The tornado was so bad a hen laid the same egg twice") and his full-throated operatic arias was stunning.

For two seasons beginning in 1969, CBS presented "The Jim Nabors Hour," on which he joshed with guest stars, did sketches with Sutton and fellow "Gomer" veteran Ronnie Schell, and sang country and opera.

Offstage, Nabors retained some of the awed innocence of Gomer. At the height of his fame in 1969, he admitted, "For the first four years of the series, I didn't trust my success. Every weekend and on every vacation, I would take off to play nightclubs and concerts, figuring the whole thing would blow over some day.

"You know somethin'? I still find it difficult to believe this kind of acceptance. I still don't trust it."

After the end of his variety show, Nabors continued earning high salaries in Las Vegas showrooms and in concert theaters across the country. He recorded more than two dozen albums and sang with the Dallas and St. Louis symphony orchestras.

In 2013, he made headlines for marrying Cadwallader. The couple met in 1975 when Cadwallader was a Honolulu firefighter.

"It's pretty obvious that we had no rights as a couple, yet when you've been together 38 years, I think something's got to happen there, you've got to solidify something," Nabors told Hawaii News Now at the time. "And at my age, it's probably the best thing to do."

Nabors was known as an ardent supporter of the U.S. Marine Corps. He is one of only a handful of people to earn the official status of "Honorary Marine."

Auto racing fans know that for many years Nabors sang "Back Home Again in Indiana" prior to the Indianapolis 500, until retiring after his 2014 appearance.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.