As the brash and bruising tough guy with wide, flaring nostrils, compact features and boorish, bullying personality, you could have placed bets that anyone who had the guts to go nose-to-nose against crew cut-wearing badger Frank Sutton had better be one tough order. Nope. Far from it. Sutton’s most feared, ulcer-inducing on-camera nemesis would be none other than one of TV’s gentlest souls ever–Mayberry’s own lovable gas station attendant Gomer Pyle.
As the antagonistic, in-your-face Sgt. Vince Carter, whose outer bluster occasionally revealed a softer inner core, the 41-year-old Sutton finally found himself front and center co-starring in one of sitcomdom’s most successful spin-offs–Gomer Pyle: USMC (1964), the offspring of The Andy Griffith Show (1960). Fans really took to Sutton’s volatile character whose hilarious slow burn meshed perfectly with Jim Nabors’ awkward guile. The gimmick of watching Carter’s devious but ultimately failed plans to transfer Pyle out of his unit each week worked for five seasons. Off-stage Nabors and Sutton shared a mutual respect for each other. After the show’s demise, in fact, Sutton went on to become a part of Jim’s roster of regulars on The Jim Nabors Hour (1968), a variety show that had a very short run.
Frank Spencer Sutton was born in Clarksville, Tennessee. Although some sources list the year of his birth as 1922, his grave marker indicates 1923. An only child, both his parents had jobs working for the local newspaper. When he was eight, the family moved to Nashville, his father dying some time later of an intestinal ailment. Belonging to the drama club and appearing in high school plays sparked his early interest in acting, and he majored in Dramatic Arts at Columbia University, graduating cum laude. Gaining experience on the local stages, he eventually found a job as a radio announcer. Following WWII military service, he returned to acting and in the 1950s segued into TV, appearing on a couple of the more popular children’s adventure series — Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949) and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (1950). Based in New York, Sutton also found work on the soaps The Edge of Night (1956) and The Secret Storm (1954).
Sutton’s imposing mug and hothead countenance proved quite suitable for playing both good guys and bad guys and he became a steady, reliable fixture in rugged surroundings. With work on such series as “Gunsmoke”, “Maverick”, “The Fugitive”, “Combat!”, and “The Untouchables” he could be counted on to play everything from a crass, outspoken blue-collar buddy to a menacing henchman. Film appearances were sporadic, with only a few secondary roles offered. His best chances were in Four Boys and a Gun (1957), Town Without Pity (1961) (a very good performance as one of a trio of American GIs accused of raping a young German girl) and The Satan Bug (1965).
In the early 1970s, after the success of the “Gomer Pyle” series, Sutton was seen in TV guest spots while performing in small-scale stock plays all over the US. His stage work would include comedic roles in “The Odd Couple,” “Anything Goes” and “No Hard Feelings.” In fact, he died suddenly of a heart attack on June 28, 1974, while in rehearsals for a show at a Louisiana dinner theater. The 50-year-old actor was survived by his wife of 25 years, daytime soap writer Toby Igler, and children Joseph and Amanda. He was buried in his home town.
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