Joke: If Rock Hudson married Gomer Pyle, he would be known as “Rock Pyle.”
That was the gag behind the party invitations that went out. In the early 1970s, a middle-aged gay couple who threw the year’s biggest party in Huntington Beach, California – usually exceeding 500 guests – thought their invitation was a riot. In the past, their joke invites suggested their party was in honor of, say, Queen Elizabeth. But this year, the party invite resembled a mock wedding invitation. The happy couple? Super-hunk movie star Rock Hudson and goofy Gomer Pyle actor Jim Nabors.
The juxtaposition between the brawny Hudson and dorky Nabors – who were friends – made it even more hilarious. Many in Hollywood knew Hudson was gay, but Jim Nabors was deeply closeted – although their mutual friend Carol Burnett knew about both. In fact, Nabors had a post-Gomer Pyle variety show, The Jim Nabors Hour, where Rock had guest starred. That was what gave the party-throwers the idea in the first place.
But then something strange happened. The news of the “wedding” was spread by those who didn’t realize it was a joke. Some industry gays and gossip columnists got ahold of the invitation and from there it spread across the country by word of mouth. As the rumor spread nationally, even Mad magazine chimed in with a satire that had more to do with the reporting of false rumors.
In the October issue from 1972, in a piece entitled “When Watching Television, You Can be Sure of Seeing,” a TV reporter named Rona Boring (i.e., Rona Barrett) claims there is no truth to the rumor that Rock Heman and Jim Nelly were secretly married. (Years later, illustrator Drew Friedman, famous for his bizarre fantasy cartoons in Spy magazine, would pay homage to the rumor in a piece called “A Hollywood Love Supreme,” which re-imagined the Hudson-Nabors romance as a tragedy.)
Hudson became so annoyed about the rumor, he wanted to sue. But who? Even today, it’s hard to pin down exactly who reported it in print and on the air. But everyone was talking about it. Hudson’s manager told him to leave it alone, that the rumor would die down. Hudson was starring on McMillan & Wife on NBC, which was a big hit. The rumor seemed to have no impact on his career, although many people thereafter considered him to be gay. Even old friends from his hometown stated the first time they heard Hudson might be gay was when they heard the rumor.
Nabors was not so lucky. He was devastated about the hoax. He just could not understand why anyone would believe it, let alone spread it. A safe, good-natured entertainer who rose to stardom on The Andy Griffith Show and its spinoff Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Nabors also possessed an angelic singing voice, and an asexual persona. According to his friend, actress Dorothy Malone, Nabors called the rumor a vicious lie, and that it was going to cost him his job at CBS. He even suggested they get married so people would let the rumor go.
Whether the rumor had anything to do with it, CBS ended up canceling The Jim Nabors Hour in 1971 and he never had his own TV show again. Another casualty was that it cost him his friendship with Rock Hudson. (At one time they were so close, they would even vacation together.) But they never spoke again. Rock said there was no way they could even be seen together. (Ironically, Nabors would marry a man, his partner of 38 years, Stan Cadwallader, in 2013.)
As one of the earliest gay rumors that went viral (before that term was used), the Hudson-Nabors hoax would not be the last. Another gay wedding was also said to have taken place, in Hawaii – between music mogul David Geffen and actor Keanu Reeves.
Now both deceased (Hudson from AIDS in 1985 and Nabors in November of last year), and with same-sex marriage legal, the two actors’ memories are forever linked by a humorous party invitation. Yet it was probably Harvard Lampoon that offered the last and best joke on the subject. In the 1980s, their parody of Newsweek magazine included a piece that Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors had divorced.