- “There Goes Old Gomer”Rural Comedy, Public Persona, and the Wavering Line Between Fiction and Reality
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Walking through Chicago’s O’Hare airport, Jim Nabors, star of the enormously popular 1960s sitcom Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C, encountered a look that summed up his life. “A mother and a little boy were walking along, and I could tell the minute the recognition hit the little boy,” Nabors told the LA Times. “As he walked by holding his mother’s hand, he said in a real loud voice, ‘Look, Mother. There goes an old Gomer Pyle!’”1
It’s common that actors are known not by their real names, but by the characters they play. This was particularly true during the 1950s and 1960s, when stars of rural sitcoms purposely blurred the line between their characters and real selves. Producers, and occasionally actors, believed that one of the key reasons people enjoyed rural sitcoms was because they seemed realistic. As a result, performers on programs such as The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Beverly Hillbillies often adopted aspects of their roles— usually naïve southern hicks—as part of their public personas, careful not to act like movie stars and destroy the illusion.
An examination of contemporary periodicals from the era indicates that journalists were partially responsible for promoting false realities, as they frequently drew comparisons between actors and the characters they portrayed— especially southern actors playing southern parts. Usually appearing in national publications, such articles led the public to believe that rural sitcom actors were just ordinary people who exaggerated their quirks for the camera. This aided in perpetuating derogatory stereotypes about the white South, since many readers and audience members had no other frame of reference.
Since the creation of movies and radio, producers have hired actors in the South and beyond to play certain parts, creating and maintaining a public image for them based on that typecasting. For instance, studios helped one of Hollywood’s first movie stars, Mary Pickford, protect her image as “America’s Sweetheart” well into her forties, in spite of a nasty divorce, a hasty subsequent re-marriage, and her role as an entrepreneur who aided in the creation of a powerful film production company. Similarly, studios portrayed John Wayne as a patriotic figure beyond his role in several heroic war movies in the 1940s, even though he actively avoided military service during World War II. In the age of television, actors often made public appearances dressed in costume or maintained aspects of their stage persona while in the public eye. After all, the studios and networks had a stake in making sure their stars connected with the public on a personal level. The stronger the emotional attachment a viewer developed for an actor, the more likely the viewer would spend money at the theater to see the actor’s movies. Television producers had no reason to believe the same rule did not apply to their audiences.2
The trend of connecting rural comedy actors with their stage personas increased in the late 1950s. Until that point, there were few situation comedies on television, and those that existed portrayed mostly white, middle class, suburban families. [End Page 45]
When rural comedy came along, the characters remained white— there were virtually no black faces on network television until the mid-1960s— but were different in voice, language, dress, and custom, requiring many viewers to suspend the reality they knew. For example, it took more to make viewers think that Granny Clampett was building a fire in the stove or chasing a kangaroo through the yard on The Beverly Hillbillies than it took to make them believe that Dennis Mitchell had annoyed his neighbor on Dennis the Menace, or that Laura Petrie was vacuuming the rug on...