Jim Varney was a man of many talents when it came to comedy. He could write, do impressions and get physical, all in the name of laughter. While he held many roles over the years, he achieved worldwide fame with the role of Ernest P. Worrel.
As the dim witted, but well meaning Ernest, Varney was able to carve out a career that made him a pop culture mainstay and touched millions with laughter and joy. Sadly, Varney passed in 2000 at the age of 50 after a battle with lung cancer. Even then he was committed to making people smile and it’s that kind of spirit that made me want to pay a little tribute here on his birthday.
I grew up with the classic Ernest movies (and even some of the later, less classic ones). Varney’s talents always shined through and made me smile, as silly as it might be looking back. They were dumb movies and silly situations, but the character was always a winner in some way or another. And it’s hard to believe that a creation of the advertising industry could go on to have such an effect on such a large number of people.
So in honor of Jim Varney, let’s look at a few interesting facts that you might not have heard and a few you hopefully already have.
1) Ernest P. Worrell: Corporate Shill – The Ernest character is well known as having started in the world of advertising. The brainchild of Carden and Cherry Advertising Agency, Varney would portray Ernest in his trademark getup for all sorts of local companies and national products. This includes Coca-Cola, Mello Yello, Taco John’s, and any number of other products you can peruse over on YouTube.
CJAD: How did that Ernest character come about in the first place? I know it was predominately from commercials, right?
JIM: Well, necessity is the mother of invention. The actor’s strike was happening back in 1979. I went back to Nashville basically out of work. And John Cherry, who is a local adman there, approached me about doing this character for some local commercials. They were very successful. We won a lot of local advertising awards and we started picking up clients and picking up clients all over the country. Before we knew it, we were everywhere. And this is the fifteenth year of Ernest commercials. (via)
The ads help establish Varney’s character, along with his mannersims and catchphrases, and exhibited a crazy work ethic for the actor, sometimes filming up to 25 versions of an ad in a single day.
2) Movie Successes – The popularity of the commercials led to Ernest being immortalized in film and on television through several comedy specials, hosting gigs, and a television series called Hey Vern, It’s Ernest aimed at children.
The original Ernest films were made in conjunction with Disney and garnered over $100 million at the box office, though never achieving much critical acclaim. This includes Ernest Goes To Camp, Ernest Goes To Jail, and Ernest Scared Stupid. Five more films would follow, mostly made independently for the television and direct-to-video markets.
A rumored final Ernest film was set to go into production at the time of Varney’s death, known as Ernest The Pirate. Numerous reports to the contrary note that this was not to be an actual Ernest movie, even though Varney was set to be involved with the production.
3) Award Winning Actor – Despite the lack of critical acclaim for his film work, Jim Varney did find some praise for his children’s television show. Varney earned a Daytime Emmy in 1989, coincidentally a year after earning a Razzie nomination for Worst New Star for Ernest Goes To Camp.
4) Famous Friends – Varney was reportedly good friends with Robin Williams, both being early alumni at LA’s Comedy Store together in the mid-70s. This would lead to Varney taking part in the Comic Relief benefits alongside Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg.
5) Do As I Say, Not As I Do – Varney lost his life to lung cancer due to being a heavy smoker for most of his life. The cruel bit of irony here is that Varney, as Ernest, filmed a series of PSAs against smoking during his early days. If he could’ve taken his own advice, he might still be here today.
6) Genius – Despite the nature of the Ernest character, Jim Varney was reportedly a very smart individual with a “near genius IQ.” I don’t know if that is true, but Varney was a classically trained actor with a background in Shakespeare. Certainly not very Ernest-like if you’d ask me.
But perceptions are everything and Varney would sometimes faces trouble, like during the casting process for The Beverly Hillbillies:
CJAD: The thing I’m getting at is that with a classically trained actor as yourself, people know you as Ernest. People know you as some of the kind of goofy characters you play. Do you find sometimes when you go to casting directors, especially in New York and L.A., they hear the good old boy southern accent and they go, “oh, there’s only one thing this guy can do.” Has that been a problem?
JIM: Well, it almost became a problem on BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, because Jed Clampett was basically a straight man and most of the comedy takes place around him. He’s sort of the patriarch. And Penelope Spheeris had to go to the studio and say, “well, you know I want Jiim Varney to play this” and they all went, “well, is the audience going to associate with the Ernest character?” So I had to go out and test. The first time in my life I had to do screen test. I did a very straight scene in the screen test and Fox was satisfied. It can be, to play one character too long, especially a comedy character. (via)
7) Make A Wish – Ernest P. Worrell became one of the biggest requests for groups such as the Make-A-Wish foundation and Varney never disappointed when asked. Even when he was ill, Varney would don the outfit or pick up the phone to cheer up a sick child. From The Nashville Scene:
Even if Ernest is a nationally recognized figure—thanks to nine movies and more than 4,000 commercials—to these kids, he is a playmate. He’s a beloved fixture, a pal they can watch on videotape whenever they need comfort or companionship. But he’s also proven to be a true, flesh-and-blood friend many times over: When given the chance to have a lifelong dream fulfilled by such groups as the Make-A-Wish Foundation, several hundred terminally ill children have asked to meet Ernest. And he’s never let them down.
Perhaps the most memorable was the 8-year-old girl who wanted to have breakfast with Ernest, even though she could only be fed through an IV. Donning his Ernest getup of a gray flannel T-shirt, a denim vest, khaki hat, and blue jeans, Varney met the girl for breakfast at Disney World. “I got her a set of post earrings with her birthstone because she had just gotten her ears pierced,” he recalls. “She asked her mother if it would be all right if she could wear them in her casket so she could wear them to heaven.
“I just made a surprise call from Ernest to a kid last week, and he sounded just fine. About two days later, we found out he didn’t make it. But there’s a thing about kids: They accept things a lot of the time better than adults. It was a big thrill [for them] that Ernest was on the phone. You think, wow, I hope if I’ve got two days left that I can get excited over a phone call.”
8) Before Ernest – Varney didn’t just become Ernest overnight, instead he had a pretty substantial career on television before he ever donned the goofy cap and denim vest. He was a recurring guest on Fernwood 2 Night from 1977-79 alongside hosts Martin Mull and Fred Willard in a faux talk-show type setting. He also had a roll in Operation Petticoat (seen in the image above) and the show Pink Lady And Jeff, both which never really managed to catch on with audiences.
9) Outside Of Ernest – Away from Ernest, Jim Varney managed to shine and show off his real chops. There were films like The Beverly Hillbillies and Snowboard Academy, but he also turned some higher profile roles such as one in Billy Bob Thornton’s Daddy And Them and working on a screenplay for a film about the Hatfields and The McCoys. He also famously played Slinky Dog in the first two Toy Story films, but you didn’t really need me to tell you that now did you?
Away from acting, Varney showed an interest in some musical ventures and stand up comedy:
CJAD: That’s amazing! As I mentioned, you did some off Broadway, you’ve done some television, you’ve done some films. Do you have a preference as to what medium in the entertainment field you like?
JIM: Not really, I like doing stage. I like doing stand-up every now and then. I like to sing. I write music. Country songs. You have to if you’re in Nashville. It’s part of the lease. You sign a lease that says, “I will write country songs and pay my rent on time.” Just showbiz. I’ve always loved it. (via)
10) Life After Death? – Even after death it seems that the Ernest character is trying to live on in one way or another. There was the rumored Son of Ernest movie that was supposed to be in production a few years back (a terrible idea, but oh well). But the funny part is how full circle the Ernest franchise went. Moving from commercials, to a full TV show, to film, to TV movies, and now, thanks to CGI, back to commercials.
You can watch the commercial over here ( I didn’t want to embed because it seems that the sound is all mucked up), but you can see that Ernest lives on in CGI. It might not be the best of ideas, but it shows you just how much impact the character had. They don’t just keep rehashing characters that don’t matter time and time again. Quality might dim over time, but the impact is there.
I thought to close this out I’d share my favorite Ernest sketch. It comes from the straight-to-video special Knowhutimean? Hey Vern, It’s My Family Album and it’s one of the funnier things I’ve enjoyed in life.