Television

Twisted Television #1: Gomer Pyle, USMC – “Gomer Goes Home”

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This morning, I thought I’d kick off a new semi-regular feature here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear—one that was inspired by a truly off-the-wall episode of Gomer Pyle, USMC I caught this morning (hey, I have insomnia—don’t judge me) on Me-TV.  Unless you’ve just been released from a cryogenic slumber for half a century, you’re no doubt aware that Pyle was the 1964-69 CBS-TV sitcom in which a popular supporting player from The Andy Griffith Show, gas pump jockey Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), was spun off into his own starring series in which he joined the U.S. Marines and proceeded to annoy and frustrate the hell out of his superior, drill instructor Sergeant Vince Carter (Frank Sutton) during his five-year hitch.  The comedy was a huge hit for CBS, never leaving the Top Ten in the entire time it was on the air (it even finished its last season ranked at #2).  

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Frank Sutton and Jim Nabors from Gomer Pyle, USMC

Now, in my young couch potato days Gomer Pyle was one of those shows that just always seemed to be on—that is to say, you could walk over to the set and after switching it on there’d be goofy Gomer screwing up some simple task Carter had stupidly entrusted him to do.  So, while I’ve tucked a lot of the show’s episodes under my belt I’ve not seen all of them—and this one this morning was no exception.  In “Gomer Goes Home” (01/05/68), Pyle gets a week’s leave and has decided to spend it in his hometown of Mayberry, North Carolina…but naturally, he has to make certain he’s exasperated Sergeant Carter to the nth degree before heading home to the Tar Heel State: 
 
GOMER: I just can’t wait to see the look of surprise on Andy’s face when I walk in—I purposely didn’t write to him… 
CARTER: Oh?  Well, have a good time… 
GOMER: I just can’t wait to see all those folks back in Mayberry…Andy…and Opie…and Aunt Bee…and Cousin Goober… 
CARTER: Yeah, well, goodbye, Pyle…I’m sure you’re anxious to get started…
 
GOMER: You remember Andy, Opie, Aunt Bee and Cousin Goober, don’tcha?  You know, Andy’s the sheriff of Mayberry… 
CARTER (his temperature rising): I know…I know…be sure to give them my best… 
GOMER: Andy, Opie or Aunt Bee or Cousin Goober? Or all of them? 
CARTER: All of themall of them…go, Pyle! 
GOMER: I’ll be writin’ you picture postcards…or if I have time, maybe even a letter… 
CARTER (shoving him towards the door): Goodbye, Pyle… 
GOMER (doubling back): Which do you prefer, Sergeant?  One long, easy letter or lots of picture postcards? 
CARTER: Anything!  Go, Pyle! 
GOMER: ‘Cause I’ll do either one… 
CARTER (giving him a final shove out the door): Pyle, get out of here!!!
 
 
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After a plane trip and bus ride, Gomer ends up in the familiar climes of Mayberry…and to reinforce this, we can hear the strains of “The Mayberry March” on the soundtrack.  Our hero is excited to be back in the town that considers him a favorite son, and to be walking among friends and family…he greets and pets a familiar dog, and then opens the front door to the sheriff’s office with his trademark “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” 
 
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But the surprise is on Gomer…because Sheriff Andy is apparently out on his rounds, having left a “Back in 10 Minutes” sign on his desk.  “Well, after forty-two months, one week and two days ten minutes don’t matter much,” he declares.  He looks around the familiar surroundings, walking past the cells and over to the shelves where he finds this framed photograph: 
 
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A subtle reminder that The Andy Griffith Show used to be funny when it was in black-and-white.  And to drive this point home, Gomer has a flashback to the fourth season finale of TAGS, the episode that essentially served as the pilot to his own series (it’s footage of him singing the Marines Hymn: “From the halls of Montezumer…”) 
 
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James Seay

Gomer’s flashback reverie is interrupted with the arrival of this individual (James Seay), who introduces himself as Captain Rogers from Raleigh…and who informs “Gom” that he’s filling in for Andy because the Taylor clan are away on a camping trip.  “Golllllleee…” moans a disappointed Gomer.  What’s worse is that they may not be back for a week which, as we learned at the beginning of the show, is all the time Gomer has to spend in Mayberry before he has to get back to serving his country. 

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Burt Mustin and Nabors

As Gomer heads over to check in at the fabulous Hotel Mayberry, he runs into the only familiar face the writers of this episode could apparently scrounge up—character great Burt Mustin.  TAGS fans know that Mustin was a semi-regular on the series, playing an old codger named Jud Fletcher…but for some odd reason he goes by “Ferguson” here and he and Gomer have also been lifelong buds.  (This is not an entirely new phenomenon; we witnessed it several times in certain episodes of Mayberry R.F.D.)  Ferguson tells Gomer that the reason why Floyd’s barber shop ceases to exist (and has been replaced by the “fix-it” establishment run by “the anti-Floyd,” Emmett Clark) is because Floyd sold the place to Emmett and is now living with his daughter in Mt. Pilot (“Separated from her husband,” Ferguson gossips).  He then fills Gomer in on the fact that Mayberry is caught in the throes of industrialization—things are moving too fast in that burg, since a coin-operated laundry just opened up in town…and a car wash is not far behind.  (Progress…there’s no stopping it!)  Now, why Gomer doesn’t go inside and say “Hey” to Emmett goes unexplained…because if we’ve learned anything from R.F.D., it’s that Emmett has a lot of free time on his hands (I was sort of surprised that he wasn’t sitting on the outside bench with Ferguson.) 

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Mary Young

I also have to confess—I felt sort of sorry for Gomer at this stage because it’s like he’s in some nightmarish version of It’s a Wonderful Life; he sees familiar sights but no one he knows is around for him to meet and greet.  (Heck, even Howard Sprague seems to be out of town.)  Things get worse when he runs into an old biddy named “Mrs. Petrie” (Mary Young) as he exits from the hotel.  She’s completely unaware that he’s been in the Marine Corps!  (According to the always reliable IMDb, this woman has never even been to Mayberry…though I did recognize her from an episode of F Troop I watched not too long back.) 
 
“I wandered again to my home in the mountains/Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free/I looked for my friends, but could never find them/I found they were all rank strangers to me.”  I couldn’t help but think of that old Stanley Brothers song as Gomer continues to wander through Mayberry looking for a familiar face…and when he finally makes his way to his cousin’s service station, there’s a glimmer of hope when he sees a familiar pair of uniformed legs sticking out from underneath a car… 
 
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Dennis Fimple as a faux Goober

Surprise, surprise, surprise!  That’s not Goober.  It’s a Goober-in-training named Virgil (Dennis Fimple), who’s looking after the garage because Mr. Pyle is—wait for it—on that same damn camping trip with Andy, Opie and Aunt Bee.  You have to hand it to Gomer, though—a lesser man would start screaming and running naked through the streets of Mayberry until Captain Rogers From Raleigh slapped a strait jacket on him.  (At this point, I was curious as if it were possible that Sergeant Carter was responsible for all this, having called Andy and Company to let them know Gomer was headed their way so that they could carry out an evacuation plan.)  Virgil, being the mini-Goober he is, is impressed as all-get-out when he learns Gomer’s identity.  “Gomer Pyle?  From the Marines?”  No, Gomer Pyle from the Council of Foreign Relations.  (Schmuck.)  

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Arthur Batanides and Lewis Charles

Well, the rest of this episode doesn’t particularly break any new narrative ground…Virgil’s called away to help a Mayberry woman start her car and rather than just close the service station Gomer talks Virg into letting him keep an eye on things (after all, he used to be a mechanic hisself).  “I’ll just sit here on the bench and count out-of-state license plates, just like the good ol’ days,” he assures the young grease monkey.  He fixes the car of a couple of seedily sinister-looking bad guys (Lewis Charles, Arthur Batanides) but before he can finish the repairs, they rob the gas station at gunpoint.  Gomer manages to locate their whereabouts by following the oil they’re leaking and captures them for the visiting Captain Rogers, who had earlier dismissed Gomer as a rube. 
 
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After graciously receiving kudos from Rogers for the crooks’ capture, Gomer decides to get back on the bus and head for home, seeing as how the people he came to see won’t be back anytime soon.  And then that’s when this happens… 
 
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Yes, it’s exactly who you think it is: Andy (Andy Griffith), Opie (Ron Howard), Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) and Goober (George Lindsey).  Gomer bangs on the bus window, trying to get their attention—he even tries to open it, with little success.  The bus speeds along its merry way, trapping Gomer in his own private hell.  What elevates this to WTF status is that it’s clearly the actors from the Griffith show…and if they were able to get them to agree to do this cameo, why didn’t they just write them some quick speaking parts?  (This outing was co-written by Myles Wilder, Billy’s nephew, who also penned a good many scripts for McHale’s Navy and The Dukes of Hazzard.) 

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When Pyle (Nabors) meets Pyle (George LIndsey) in “A Visit from Cousin Goober”

All four of these performers made previous appearances on Gomer Pyle: Griffith and Howard in “Opie Joins the Marines” (03/18/66), Lindsey in “A Visit from Cousin Goober” (11/26/66) and Bavier in “A Visit from Aunt Bee” (09/08/67)—which, in fact, kicked off the season that also features “Gomer Goes Home.”   But to the show’s credit, none of the actors receive billing as the closing titles roll—I wonder how difficult it was for CBS to resist the temptation to promote the “special guest stars” in this knowing full well that there were going to be some fans out there cheesed off with the final result. 
 
After five seasons, Nabors decided to call it quits on Gomer Pyle, USMC despite its continuing popularity and in the fall of 1969, he got a self-titled comedy-variety hour that ran for two seasons before the network cancelled, in the memorable phrasing of Pat Buttram, “everything with a tree.”  I have all five seasons of Gomer on DVD but to be honest, I was never a huge fan of the series (I know it’s a sitcom and not a documentary but if Gomer really was in the Marines they would have shipped his country ass off to Vietnam)—I think I continue to revisit it because Frank Sutton was the best thing on the show (longtime Griffith collaborator Richard O. Linke says that part of the reason for the network’s cancellation of The Jim Nabors Hour is that they wanted Nabors to give Sutton his walking papers and Nabors refused).  Even though there’s no question that Gomer Pyle was king of the doofuses, what happens to him in “Gomer Goes Home” is nightmarishly cruel…and without a doubt, seriously twisted television.

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