Frank Sutton, who played the gruff sergeant foil to Jim Nabors’ country bumpkin Gomer Pyle, was a talented actor on screen, tube and stage. He lived and died, quite literally, for his profession as an actor, but there was a side that few outside celebrity circles knew—Frank Sutton the cultured Ivy League grad and serious student of theatre history.
by Burt Kearns and Jeff Abraham
Funny how in the turbulent, anti-authority, Vietnam War-torn 1960s, many of our favorite and long-lasting television comedy characters were military men. Army Corporal Randolph Agarn (F Troop), Navy Ensign Charles Parker (McHale’s Navy), Army Colonel Robert Hogan (Hogan’s Heroes), Air Force Captain Tony Nelson (I Dream of Jeannie), and Marine Private Gomer Pyle were only some of the uniformed defenders whose antics keep us laughing to this day.
Gunnery Sergeant Vince Carter from the series Gomer Pyle – USMC may have been the greatest and funniest of them all. Portrayed by Frank Sutton over five seasons on CBS beginning in September 1964, the character evolved from the cigar-chomping, gasket-blowing, slow-burning and mugging antagonist to the father figure and best buddy of Pyle, the naive, bumbling country boy with the incongruously booming baritone singing voice.
Sutton’s Sgt. Carter was a parody of, or at least a take-off on, Jack Webb’s Gunnery Sgt. Jim Moore in the 1957 film The D.I., and surely influenced R. Lee Ermey’s over-the-top Parris Island Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket thirty years after Webb’s movie.
In real life, Frank Sutton was never a Marine (not that he hadn’t tried). From an early age, he was a thespian. Born in in 1923 in Clarksville, Tennessee (destination of that train in the Monkees’ classic antiwar single), he was acting onstage in student and community theater productions while still in high school. “The first time I walked out on the stage, I had a warm feeling,” he said. “I wanted to be an actor.”
After graduation, he worked as a radio announcer and did indeed attempt to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. The man who’d become a living recruiting poster for that branch of the Armed Forces was rejected because he was colorblind. He was good enough, however, for the United States Army. Sutton served in the Pacific during World War II, participated in fourteen assault landings, and was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. After the war, he attended Columbia University in New York City. That’s where he met his future wife, Toby Igler.
“The first time I saw him he was reading a monologue from Hamlet,” she once recalled. “I never expected to be so impressed by a young actor.”
Frank Sutton was, and remained through his life, in his words, “starved for knowledge.” “I never thought Frank would get through school,” a former classmate told a Hollywood columnist. “He was always reading books that had absolutely nothing to do with the courses he was taking. The only time I ever saw him studying anything that seemed pertinent was when he was preparing for a part in a play.”
Even before he graduated cum laude in 1952, Sutton got a taste of success with a role in television’s first sci-fi series, Captain Video and his Video Rangers. Stardom beckoned in 1955, when he was cast in the film Marty (starring Ernest Borgnine, future television Navy lieutenant commander Quinton McHale). The film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. More movie roles followed. Sutton would appear in plays as diverse as The Andersonville Trial and The Barretts of Wimpole Street. He worked in many television dramas, including “The Dummy”, a classic episode of The Twilight Zone.
In 1964, he took on the Sgt. Carter role in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. It led to the spin-off, Gomer Pyle – USMC.
During the run of the show, Sutton cashed in on the popularity of his character with public appearances, including starring roles in circuses, in character as Sgt. Carter. A 1969 newspaper article about his appearance with the Zembo Temple-Hamid-Morton Circus in Pennsylvania, promised: “He will arrive at center stage in a jeep ‘in command’ of a group of Harrisburg Area Marine Reserves. After some precision drills, the gravel-voiced TV sergeant will close his act with a monologue to musical accompaniment.”
Sutton footed the bill when he performed one-man shows for Marines stationed in Vietnam (according to the Clarksville website, “he performed… fifty-six shows in just eight days in cities like Da Nang, Chu Lai, and Phu Bai”).
After the Gomer Pyle series ended in 1969, Sgt. Carter and Pvt. Pyle stayed together when Sutton (along with Pyle regular Ronnie Schell) joined The Jim Nabors Variety Hour. One television writer at the time described Sutton as the show’s “singing, dancing, buffooning costar,” while pointing out that “there is another side of Frank Sutton that few people know about…. That hidden side: Frank Sutton, the intellectual.” The show lasted two seasons, until it was canceled in CBS Television’s “rural purge” (which also claimed The Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry R.F.D., and Green Acres).
So where would an intellectual with 3,000 volumes in his personal library, an Ivy League drama degree and an unquenchable appetite for knowledge turn? For Frank Sutton, aside from Love, American Style and a couple of television movies, it was the stage.
In this case, the stages were inside dinner theatres. The concept of live entertainment served up with a restaurant-quality meal and hopefully, a full bar, was developed in the 1950s, but really hit its stride and became part of pop culture in the 1970s, as many current television personalities, along with aging former movie and theatre stars, made good money bringing popular plays and musicals to cities and towns far from Broadway.
Sutton played dinner theatres all over the country. He portrayed the wronged husband George in No Hard Feelings and major slob Oscar Madison (to Patrick Baldauff’s Felix Unger) in The Odd Couple. In May 1974, he arrived in Shreveport, Louisiana to begin rehearsals for Luv, Murray Schisgal’s 1964 absurdist comedy about a guy who tries to foist off his wife on a down-and-out college buddy so he can run away with his mistress. Mike Nichols directed the original Broadway version. Alan Arkin, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson were in the original cast. Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk and Elaine May starred in the 1967 movie.
In this production of Luv at the Beverly Barn Dinner Playhouse, Sutton was starring with regional theatre actress Elizabeth Ives. Sutton’s wife Toby Igler, now a soap opera writer, and their ten-year-old daughter Amanda were with him in Shreveport. His twenty-year-old son, Joseph, was a student at Dartmouth.
On Friday night, June 28, 1974, Luv was heading into its third weekend at the Beverly Barn, busboys were clearing plates from the tables, and the audience was ready for a show. Frank Sutton was in his dressing room. Moments before taking the stage, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 50 years old.
Elizabeth Ives made the announcement to the audience. “It was to have been my privilege to appear with Frank Sutton tonight, but I am sorry to have to tell you that last evening was his last performance. He has taken ill and died,” she said most eloquently. “He was an actor and a professional, and he said — and I know it sounds corny, but he said ‘if any actor has to die, that a theatre is the place for him to die’.
“He was a lovely man and would all of you take just a moment of silence for Frank. There will be no show tonight.”
The audience, already stunned, went silent, before filing out of the theater.
Elizabeth Ives said later that Sutton had made the remark about dying in the theatre twice during rehearsals.
“I’m really shocked,” Jim Nabors said from Honolulu, where he was able to live as a gay man, far from the prying press. “He was a very great man as far as I’m concerned. A great talent and a great human being. He was a fine person and a very dedicated actor and a terrific family man. We worked together every day, fourteen hours a day, for eight years.”
Luv, which had been scheduled to run through July 13, was canceled. It was replaced by a one-week run of the play Beginner’s Luck, starring another television comedy military man, Bob Crane. (Coincidentally, Crane was appearing in Beginner’s Luck at the Windmill Dinner Theater in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 1978, when he was found bludgeoned to death in his apartment.)
After memorial services in Los Angeles, in accordance with his wishes his body was transported on at least a metaphorical version of the last train to Clarksville, and buried in its Greenwood Cemetery.
In 2009, comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff founded The Frank Sutton Appreciation Society. Nesteroff wrote on the WFMU blog: “Sutton produced a richly hilarious body of work that deserves to be remembered…. Without Sutton’s blustery and explosive reactions to Pyle’s relentless stupidity, (Gomer Pyle – USMC) would have been lifeless and dull. But Sutton was nothing if not versatile within the limited confines of the Sgt. Carter role.”
A bronze statue of Sutton as Sgt. Carter, was unveiled in downtown Clarksville in May 2017.
The Dogs – performing the song “Frank Sutton”
Had Frank Sutton managed make it from his dressing room to the dinner theatre stage before expiring, he would have earned a place in Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns’ new book, The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage, published on September 3, 2019 from Chicago Review Press’ A Cappella Books, and available for preorder at DiedOnstage.com.