Oh sure, Seattle’s had its share of cute weddings, but the cutest — one four decades in the making — is the 2013 union of Jim Nabors and Stan Cadwallader at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel downtown. One was a TV star, the other a firefighter, and they’d managed to keep their relationship out of the public eye for 38 years.
One reason they protected their privacy: A TV star of the 1960s and 1970s, Jim’s career was nearly destroyed by a same-sex wedding rumor just before he and Stan met, a rumor that also ended Jim’s relationship with closeted actor Rock Hudson. Over his 55-year career, Jim made a name for himself as a wholesome, folksy southerner; but behind the scenes, he harbored a secret love that would have scandalized the country if it was found out.
Jim was born at the start of the Great Depression in a tiny Alabama town called Sylacauga. His mother worked at a truck stop, his father bounced around from job to job until he finally wound up being appointed the town’s sole police officer. The family raised chickens for food and lived in a tiny house. Jim always stood out — his severe asthma prevented him from playing with the other kids, but he was so energetic and outgoing that he found other ways to be the center of attention: He learned to sing and dance, he played the clarinet, he performed in little local shows through his teenage years.
But there was something else that set him apart. Even from an early age, Jim knew that he was gay. It wasn’t something a person could talk about openly in 1930s Alabama. Queer people were often considered sick or criminal, and subjected to treatments like lobotomies, electroshock therapy, and weird hormone experiements. That wasn’t necessarily the case, though, in major cities. In the 1930s, there was a brief window of time called “The Pansy Craze” where drag bars, performers, and culture flourished. If Jim wanted to live relatively comfortably and pursue his passion for performing, it would likely be in a big city.
He moved to New York after graduating and did his best to break into showbiz — but Broadway had no idea what to do with someone so southern, and his auditions were routinely disastrous. (On one occasion he was escorted out before even being allowed to audition.) Dejected, he took a job as a secretary at the United Nations, but even there he stood out; his thick southern accent made many people think he was speaking what was, to them, an unidentifiable foreign language.
Unable to make ends meet, Jim moved back to the south, where he took an editing job at a little TV station in Tennessee for $65 a week. His asthma flared up again, though, and in desperation he headed out west where the air, he’d heard, was clearer. Today, the air in Los Angeles is among the most poisonous in the world, but back then it was exactly what Jim needed. He landed in LA in the late 1950s and found that for the first time in his life, he could breathe.
That reinvigorated his interest in performing, and he started working a nightclub circuit around the LA suburbs. It was in a nightclub in Santa Monica that he was spotted by Andy Griffith, star of one of the most popular shows on television at the time.
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The Andy Griffith Show chronicled life in a small southern town from the perspective of a local sheriff — a life almost identical to the one in which Jim had grown up. Andy felt that Jim would be perfect for the role of Gomer Pyle, a goofy gas station attendant, and they brought him on for a one-episode appearance. Jim was an instant hit, and quickly became a recurring character — and that’s when the show’s producers discovered his secret talent. When he wasn’t clowning around with an exaggerated southern drawl, Jim had a powerful operatic singing voice. They incorporated that into the show and gave him an expanded role.
While audiences loved Gomer, crew members on the show weren’t always so kind. Ron Howard, who as a child played the role of Opie, wrote many years later about witnessing homophobic name-calling on the set. Now that he was in LA, Jim didn’t do much to hide his homosexuality, but the added attention of stardom made his openness potentially dangerous. Actors who were discovered to be gay tended never to work again.
For the time being, the public remained blissfully unaware that one of the biggest stars on television was gay, even as Jim was given a spinoff series for his Gomer Pyle character and then later some work on a variety show. But in the spring of 1971, a rumor started to circulate about him and his friend, film star Rock Hudson.
Rock’s homosexuality was an open secret in Hollywood, but he’d managed to keep it largely out of the public eye, in part by briefly marrying his agent’s secretary. It’s hard to know why the rumor mill suddenly surged — according to Rock, a private joke between some gay friends was picked up by gossip media — but in 1971, whispers about Rock and Jim were being repeated on the radio and in print. I’ve never found any credible evidence that they were more than friends, but rumor-mongers claimed that they were not only lovers but secretly married.
In response, Rock and Jim denied everything. This was just two years post-Stonewall, and a rumor like this would likely have ended both of their careers. In many states, homosexuality would remain criminalized for many decades; and it was still, at the time, considered a mental illness by medical professionals. The two actors, previously close friends, had to stop spending time together so the rumors wouldn’t get any worse.
So it’s no wonder that a few years later, when Jim met and fell in love with a Hawaii firefighter named Stan Cadwallader, he went to great pains to keep their relationship secret. In the 1970s, privacy was a means of protection — not just of a career, but, as we saw with the end of Jim and Rock’s friendship, of protecting one’s ability to safely associate with other queer people.
Jim stepped away from the public eye somewhat after meeting Stan; the two lived quietly on a farm in Hawaii, with Jim occasionally reappearing mostly for TV specials, variety shows, and every now and then to sing. After the stress of the apocryphal marriage rumor, Jim took time to enjoy his life and love, far from the prying eyes he endured in his early career.
Then the couple found themselves back in the news in 2013, when Jim revealed that they had traveled to Seattle to marry just after Washington legalized marriage equality.
“It’s just so obvious that we have no rights as a couple,” he said at the time. “I just said well, at my age it’s probably the best thing to do.”
Jim passed away peacefully in his sleep in 2017 at the age of 87, having outlived the days when rumors of a marriage nearly ended his career, and finally proclaiming a love story — a real one — to the world, without any fear.