Jim Nabors loved Hawaii — and vice versa.
Nabors, the beloved TV star best known for his “Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.” series on CBS, had a heart as big as his booming baritone voice. He died Thursday, at age 87, at the Diamond Head home he bought in the islands he loved and where he ultimately chose to spend his final hours.
His fame is attached to a single word, “Gollee,” uttered with his iconic Southern accent, linked to his “Gomer Pyle” character, a spin-off from “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Lucky for Hawaii that Nabors vacationed here regularly at the height of his TV success in the 1960s (the show ran for five seasons, from 1964-69). He sold his home in Bel Air, Calif., in 1967 to resettle at his oceanfront home, not knowing he would become one of Waikiki’s stellar attractions.
In the 1980s, Nabors headlined a Polynesian production at the now-gone Hilton Hawaiian Village Dome. The spectacle drew throngs of fans and put him on the map. He showcased his operatic voice in a mix of Broadway tunes and island faves, kicking off an era of big-name entertainers in Waikiki.
For 10 years, from 1997 to 2006, he headlined “A Merry Christmas With Friends & Nabors” at the Hawaii Theatre, donating his time and talent. The shows benefited the historic theater (and, for part of the run, the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra). The production also enabled a stable of Hawaii troupers — the likes of Emma Veary, Karen Keawehawaii and the late Jimmy Borges — to annually perform in the downtown venue.
The holiday show tapped keiki choirs and halau as well as the Diamond Head Theatre Shooting Stars kids to strut their stuff. Nabors dressed like a nutcracker dancer in the middle of the kiddie chorus line, high-kicking to “The March of the Wooden Soldiers,” until arthritis challenged his mobility.
After Nabors had a liver transplant in 1994, he became a spokesman and supporter of the American Liver Foundation and a keen supporter of its local fundraising efforts.
And the Marine Corps here loved him, too, and his TV character. They made Gomer Pyle an honorary Marine in 2001, upping him to lance corporal from private. On Sept. 25, 2007, on the 43rd anniversary of the TV series, he was “promoted” to honorary corporal. Nabors himself was given the rank of honorary sergeant in 2013.
A glorious storyteller, Nabors always had a cheerful disposition, making him a likeable and accessible celebrity who was pretty much like the adorable country bumpkin he famously portrayed.
Considering his diverse career, spanning television, films and music recordings to stage shows, Nabors never had a TV documentary of his life until Phil Arnone produced and directed “Jim Nabors’ Impossible Dream,” two years ago on Hawaii News Now.
He loved to share real stories, like the time he was flying first class and noticed the bathroom door popped open, with a woman stuck on the toilet because of the air pressure flushing.
And then there was the time he was watching “Hollywood Squares,” when this question was posed: “Which singer has multiple gold records but never had a hit?” He didn’t know the answer until he learned it was Jim Nabors.
In total he amassed 28 albums, 150 episodes of “Gomer Pyle,” dozens of other film and TV appearances and hundreds of club and stage gigs over a very productive four to five decades. Gollee.