Frank Sutton was ''the perfect sergeant for Gomer''
A secret intellectual, the Sergeant Carter actor ''had a built-in sense of comedy and timing.''
"My name is Gunnery Sergeant Carter."
Those are the first words that actor Frank Sutton utters in the pilot episode "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.," which aired as an episode of The Andy Griffith Show.
"You will do well to remember that," Sutton continues, speaking to rows of intimidated recruits. "Because it's the only name that's going to matter to you from now on."
This moment didn't just kick off the hugely successful Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., it introduced the world to Frank Sutton, who had been acting for 15 years, hoping for this big break. With this spin-off of The Andy Griffith Show, his moment had finally arrived. Playing straight man to Gomer Pyle, Sutton became one of TV's favorite faces in the 1960s.
"Frank Sutton was the perfect sergeant for Gomer," said series creator Aaron Ruben in the book Mayberry Memories. "The long-suffering sergeant had to endure the love and devotion and dedication that Gomer relentlessly plied him with."
"Frank was one of the most professional actors I ever worked with," Ruben said. "He would not leave the conference table until he was sure and satisfied with his lines and his participation. He had a built-in sense of comedy and timing. He was the consummate actor and a joy to work with."
Up to that point, though, Sutton's talents had been overlooked for a long time. By the end of the 1950s, he'd spent many years flying back and forth between acting gigs in Hollywood and his family in New York, and time was beginning to take its toll on everyone in the Sutton family.
"It was rough on my marriage," Sutton told the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Intelligencer Journal in 1970. "Then the year came – 1959, I think it was – when I missed Christmas with the family because of a work assignment, and I promised my wife I'd stay away from Hollywood for at least the next three months."
Unfortunately for Sutton's wife, he landed a guest role on The Untouchables the very next day and the next thing Sutton knew, he was moving his whole family to Los Angeles so they could be with him as he hunted jobs. At the time, the Sutton family was living out of a hotel and still paying rent in New York. Sutton started dreaming of transitioning from TV to a different acting stage.
"I kept telling my agent, 'Get me a Broadway show!'" Sutton said.
He wanted out of L.A. and back to New York, but when no Broadway roles emerged, he had to make a call, and he decided to ditch the New York apartment and get a house in Hollywood.
Then wouldn't you know it, just two weeks after the house was bought and paid for, Sutton got offered a part on Broadway. He said he probably would’ve taken if he hadn't just bought the house in California. At the time, he was more interested in Broadway than TV.
He was kicking himself for missing his chance on Broadway, though, when a few days later, he got asked to do the Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. pilot.
Sutton said if the timing had been any different, he would've taken the Broadway role over the sitcom gig. But, because of how everything worked out, he ended up in Mayberry for this special episode of The Andy Griffith Show that launched his celebrity.
The Andy Griffith Show music composer Earle Hagen told the Television Academy that he never forgot the day they filmed the Gomer Pyle pilot, because they invited the crew to be the audience for it.
"The pilot was hysterical," Hagen said. "We went down to see the shooting."
Hagen said it took an hour to set up because Ruben insisted on using an authentic barber from the Marines, and he wanted everything perfect for when the haircut happened. It was worth waiting around for an hour to be in the room when Jim Nabors got his famous buzzcut. "It was really funny," Hagen said.
Sutton's castmates Ronnie Schell and Jim Nabors both remembered the sergeant fondly as being easy to work with on the set.
"Working on the Gomer Pyle show was sensational," Schell said in Mayberry Memories. "I got along very well with Jim. Working with such great talents as Frank Sutton, the late Ted Bessell, and Elizabeth MacRae was a real pleasure."
"My main memory of Frank is his incredible professionalism and his great talent as an actor," Nabors said.
Although Sutton played a hothead, he actually was known as an intellectual who humbly hid his braininess from others.
"As far back as I can remember I've felt starved for knowledge," Sutton told the Charlotte Observer in 1970, revealing that his personal library holds more than 3,000 books because he is such a voracious reader.