Exclusive: Frank Sutton (Gomer Pyle USMC)

Exclusive: Frank Sutton (Gomer Pyle USMC)

(The following is an interview I did with Frank Sutton, co-star of Gomer Pyle–USMC. It was intended to be part of THE FUNNIEST COMEDY ICONS OF THE 20TH CENTURY, Vol. . But somewhere along the way it became lost. Here it is, serving as a sample chapter.)

Relax! It’s Only Me . . . Your Nagging Gunnery Sergeant

JIM NABORS had been troubled, as one friend put it, by a “niggling uncertainty,” so he had flown off to New York for a week to think things over.

It was no secret Nabors had grown weary of Gomer Pyle–USMC, but it did come as something of a surprise, even to confidants, when he returned to Hollywood with the decision to give up what had been, for four seasons running, an unswerving network smash.

What Nabors was hoping for, in place of his half-hour sitcom, was an hour-long variety series. A few felt it was a risky maneuver (“nobody, but nobody, gives up a hit like that,” decried one CBS official) but those familiar with his talents know that song-and-dance is even better suited to Nabors than hillbilly-military comedy.

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Frank Sutton as Gunnery Sergeant Carter.

The greatest cloud of uncertainly hung over the head of Frank Sutton, Nabors’ co-star who had portrayed the thundering dunderhead, Gunnery Sergeant Vince Carter. Always exasperated by Pyle’s unexpected remarks, always ready to explode with anger. While Sutton was an actor with considerable experience on Broadway and in films and TV, he had never before dared the pitfalls of a variety show, nor was he exactly adept, according to one observer, “in either of the arts of hoofing and singing.”

Meanwhile, a hunk of seemingly irresistible bait had been dangled before Sutton’s eyes with the news of Gomer Pyle’s “passing.” CBS had offered him his own series, to be retitled Sergeant Carter–USMC. It would employ a black recruit who, unlike Gomer, would always be one step ahead of the NCO. It should have been the apex to Sutton’s career . . .

But . . . Sutton, like Nabors, had grown tired of his portrayal. To a friend he remarked: “In four years I’ve learned all there is to learn about Carter. I’m ready for a new challenge. But that means making a right turn in the middle of my career. And I don’t know about that . . . ”

So Sutton had a choice: to take the starring role, or take the variety show–the latter an uncertainty at best. And he chose the variety show.

The Jim Nabors Hour started in September, 1969. It is now November when I accompany Frank Sutton into Frascati’s, a Beverly Hills restaurant. “I made the right turn,” Sutton tells me emphatically, settling into a booth in the dining room. “The light was green and I went. And I haven’t regretted it yet.”

Sutton, his hair still cut in the military fashion of Carter, lights cigarette after cigarette as he colorfully recounts a trip he has just made to Lake Tahoe, and he rambles for a brief while with likeable braggadocio in his story-telling. One can easily see traits of Sergeant Carter with those of actor Frank Sutton.

Thus far The Jim Nabors Hour has featured Sutton in a comedy capacity–in sketches about two brothers-in-law and other skits of a broad nature. Sutton has remained, in his relationship with Nabors, a burly loudmouth, always blindly revealing his weaknesses in the manner of Carter. It’s basic training all over again–minus fatigues, combat boots and barracks.

For Sutton it’s a whole new way of life. While perhaps the new format has not given him as great a latitude as he expected, it has certainly given him fresh outlook and enthusiasm.

He heaps superlative on superlative, often reminds me “It’s Jim Nabors’show co-starring Frank Sutton,” and describes, without prompting, how much he has enjoyed singing and dancing lessons.

Carter lights another cigarette and tells me, “Every sketch offers something new in terms of character and humor. While before I was playing a locked-in character, at least now we play around. Ad lib a little. Funny though . . . I miss Carter in a way. What I mean is, I liked the guy. Still do. He was the kind who’d carry a basket of oranges all the way from California to Kansas just for his mother–even though she could have gone out to the local supermarket and bought them herself. I can understand that and so could our viewers–I think identification is what made Carter so popular.”

Sutton goes on to explain that Carter was patterned after a real sergeant he met at Camp Pendleton–the kind of drill instructor who had his recruits shower by the numbers.

There is a strong masculinity to Sutton–it’s in his gruff, gravelly speech, in the way he tips his martini glass, in the manner he lights a cigarette, which is often. One after the other, even before it’s half gone. He also talks a long while about his days with the 81st Infantry unit during World War II, which participated in 14 island invasions. He saw action on the island of Anguar in the Palaus, and later he helped to liberate Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines. He’s the kind of ex-dogface who calls Iwo Jima “The Big One.”

Still liberally smoking cigarettes, Sutton discusses television. “It’s a wonderful medium–greater than motion pictures. In TV, people accept you, they really feel they know you personally. You’re in their homes. A woman will stop me on the street and grab me by my cheeks. Like I was a long-lost son. People never do that to movie stars. A movie star is something aloof and above average. And another thing . . . you can do things only adequately and your fans are still proud of you. Put a lampshade on your head and that’s funny–because you’re Sergeant Carter.”

Then he shakes his head and orders another martini. While he waits for the new glass, he lights another cigarette. After a moment he continues: “But I have to keep reminding myself–all that’s in the past now. I’m not Sergeant Carter. Now I’m variety show stock. I’m like a football player limbering up his muscles and learning a whole new set of terms and maneuvers. It’s a new ball game. They won’t be able to categorize me now . . . but I sure miss Carter.”

Sutton leans back and sips at his new martini, lighting up yet another cigarette. And he begins to remember his days at Camp Pendleton again. “There was this master sergeant, see, and one afternoon he came up to me and . . . “

AFTERWORDS: Despite all of Frank Sutton’s positive remarks about doing comedy with Jim Nabors, the CBS network didn’t feel he fit into the format and Nabors was asked to cut him out of the show. Jim refused to fire Sutton, and The Jim Nabors Hour was cancelled. In essence, Nabors was fired along with Sutton. Carter did perform in four episodes of the series Love, American Style, but time was running out. Given all those cigarettes he smoked, and given the “gallons of coffee” he drank on the set of his TV shows (according to Ronnie Schell), Frank Sutton died of a heart attack in June 1974. He was all of 50 years of age.

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