View Full Version : Ricky Retro: Semper silly: Fighting to keep us laughing

12-04-06, 07:42 AM
Ricky Retro: Semper silly: Fighting to keep us laughing
Monday, December 04, 2006

IN 1964, the U.S. Marines acquired arguably their biggest jarhead ever.

Semper Pyle.

"Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." had its genesis in an episode of the same name on "The Andy Griffith Show," broadcast May 18, 1964, when Gomer Pyle, with help from Andy Taylor, became a Marine.

That fall, "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.," debuted as a spin-off sitcom on CBS, marking Jim Nabors' swift ascent from relative unknown to series star. (The series' first season comes to DVD next week courtesy of CBS and Paramount.)

An Alabama native, Nabors had entered show business in earnest with a nightclub act in which he juxtaposed hillbilly shtick with a disarmingly deep and resonant singing voice. One who caught his act was Andy Griffith, who offered Nabors the role of sweet-natured simpleton and gas-station attendant Gomer Pyle, beginning in 1963, even if Nabors had little acting experience.

Less than two years later, Nabors had his own spin-off. He was paired with Frank Sutton as Sgt. Vince Carter, a tough veteran with a neck of leather and loudspeakers for lungs who was perpetually kept at boiling point by the naive, bumbling Gomer.

From a standing start, "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." jumped to No. 3 in the ratings by the end of its first season. Gomer's trademark interjections -- "shazam," "surprise, surprise, surprise," "gawwlly" -- became buzz-speak.

It takes a village idiot indeed. TV at the time was full of lovable nincompoops -- Gomer, Gilligan, Maxwell Smart, Jethro Bodine -- embraced by America, perhaps to distract itself from the turmoil of the period. The evening news might bring disturbing news of Vietnam and homefront strife, but primetime TV held its tongue.

In his book "Glued to the Set," Steven D. Stark comments "(T)elevision entertainment tended to 'Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.' and 'Hogan's Heroes' -- shows hardly known for directly referencing reality, much less issues of the era such as the civil-rights movement and the Vietnam War."

During its five years on the air, "Gomer Pyle" never fell below No. 10 in the year-end ratings, twice finishing as the top-rated sitcom.

And what did the Marine Corps think of all this? Consider that in 2001, the Corps officially and belatedly promoted Gomer to the rank of lance corporal, more than three decades after the show had left the air with Pyle stuck at private first class.

The ceremony was held in Hawaii, where Nabors lives. Receiving the honor, Nabors gushed in true Gomer-speak, "It was a total surprise to me."

Frank Sutton played one of four soldiers accused of rape in what 1961 film?

Air farce

If Gomer Pyle and Will Stockdale had been in the same platoon, Sgt. Vince Carter would have gone over to the enemy. Gomer and Will had much in common -- naive, eager-to-please Southerners who nonetheless drove their military superiors to distraction.

But Gomer and Will were not only not in the same platoon, they weren't in the same branch of the military or on the same network. Marine Gomer was on CBS, while Airman Will Stockdale was the main character of ABC's "No Time for Sergeants," which premiered two weeks before the debut of "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C."

"No Time for Sergeants" had been a hit 1958 film comedy with Andy Griffith as Stockdale, a role he'd also played on Broadway and on a 1955 episode of "The U.S. Steel Hour."

"No Time for Sergeants" was Griffith's second film, after his stunning 1957 debut in the Elia Kazan-directed "A Face in the Crowd," in which he'd played a despicable TV star named Lonesome Rhodes. Griffith followed up "No Time for Sergeants," which also included Don Knotts reprising a small Broadway role, with yet another military comedy that same year, "Onionhead." Two years later came "The Andy Griffith Show," and Griffith became a TV star, along with Knotts.

In 1964, ABC decided to turn "No Time for Sergeants" into a sitcom starring Sammy Jackson. The show was drummed out after one season, in no small part because of the popularity of its CBS rival on Monday nights -- "The Andy Griffith Show."

True or false: Andy Griffith has never won an Emmy.

Fly like a beagle

At the end of 1966, human cartoon Gomer Pyle was the main character of the No. 2 show in America. Why, then, shouldn't a cartoon dog go to No. 2 that same year?

The dog was Snoopy, the Walter Mitty-like beagle whose delusions of grandeur were so much a part of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" comic strip and animated TV specials. The Royal Guardsmen, a young pop sextet out of Ocala, Fla., took it a step further with "Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron."

The band, named for a brand of Vox amplifier, was spotted at a gig by Phil Gernhard, who became their manager, got them signed to Laurie Records and co-wrote, with Dick Holler, "Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron," a novelty tune in which Snoopy dog-fights the W.W.I German flying ace of the title.

When the song hit No. 2 in late '66, the Royal Guardsmen followed with "The Return of the Red Baron," which hit No. 15; "Snoopy's Christmas" and "Snoopy for President." Ironically, the Guardsmen might be known for more than Snoopy novelty songs if they had been able to score with Dick Holler's "Abraham, Martin and John" as they wanted to, before Dion got to it.

A recently regrouped Guardsmen have cut the more topical "Snoopy Vs. Osama."

"Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" was knocked from No. 2 after four weeks by what Aaron Neville ballad?

Last week's answers:

1. Singer Dusty Springfield had a hit with "The Look of Love," the love theme from "Casino Royale."

2. While still married to Joan Collins, actor-songwriter Anthony Newley co-penned the theme to "Goldfinger."

3. The family film "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" was based on a book by Ian Fleming.

Last week's winner:

Bill Timoney, Belmar

Answer ALL THREE questions correctly and you'll qualify to win a cool Ricky Retro T-shirt. Send answers by mail (Ricky Retro, The Star-Ledger, 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, N.J. 07102-1200), e-mail (RickyRetro@starledger.com) or fax (973-392-5845) by Thursday of each week. Winners will be determined by a random drawing of correct entries. One entry per person. No phone calls, please.


12-04-06, 08:16 AM