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.