James Albert "Jim" Varney (June 15, 1949 – February 10, 2000) portrayed Ernest P. Worrell, his family, and various characters in the franchise.
Early life Edit
Varney was born James Albert Varney, Jr., the fourth child and only son of Louise (née Howard; January 14, 1913 – August 22, 1994) and James Albert Varney, Sr. (January 1, 1910 – January 11, 1985), on June 15, 1949 in Lexington, Kentucky, where he grew up.
As a child, Varney displayed the ability to memorize long poems and significant portions of material from books, which he used to entertain family and friends. When Varney was a boy, his mother would put the black and white TV on cartoons for him to watch. His mother discovered that Varney quickly began to imitate the cartoon characters, so she started him in children's theater when he was 8 years old. Varney began his interest in theater as a teenager, winning state titles in drama competitions while a student at Lafayette High School (class of 1968) in Lexington. At age fifteen, he portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge in a local theater production, and by seventeen he was performing professionally innightclubs and coffee houses. Varney studied Shakespeare at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia and performed in an Opryland folk show its first year of operation in the 1970s. He listed a former teacher, Thelma Beeler, as being one of the main contributing factors in his becoming an actor. When he was 24, Varney was an actor at the Pioneer Playhouse in Danville, Kentucky. The theater was adjacent to an old West Village and prior to the show the audience would tour the village where apprentices would play townsfolk. Varney and the company usually played in the outdoor theater to audiences of only a few dozen people. Varney would regale the young apprentices by throwing knives into trees. He performed in "Blithe Spirit", "Boeing 707" and an original musical, "Fire on the Mountain." He once jokingly threatened a long-haired apprentice, John Lino Ponzini, that he would take him up to Hazard, Kentucky where he (Ponzini) wouldn't make it down Main Street without the townsfolk giving him a crewcut.
Television commercials Edit
The first commercial featuring Varney as the character Ernest, filmed in 1980, advertised an appearance by the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders at Beech Bend Park, an amusement parklocated near Bowling Green, Kentucky. The character was franchised for use in markets all over the country and was used often by dairies to advertise milk products. For example, the Midwestern dairy bar chain Braum's ran several advertisements using Ernest's catchphrase (as it was spelled in his registered trademark), "KnoWhutImean, Vern?" Purity Dairies, based in Nashville, Pine State Dairy in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Oakhurst Dairy in Maine ran commercials that were nearly identical, but with the dairy name changed.
For the same agency, Varney created a different character, Sergeant Glory, a humorless drill instructor who harangued cows of the client dairy into producing better milk. In another spot, Sgt. Glory's home was shown as he had a date, which was heavily decorated with the products of the sponsor and advertising specialty items that it was essentially devoid of any other decor. The Sgt. Glory character also appeared in an advertisement for a southern grocery chain, Pruitt's Food Town, in which he drilled the checkout clerks on proper behavior: "Bread on top. Repeat: Bread on top." He approaches one of them at the end of the commercial with a look of menace and says, "You're not smilin'." The checkout bagger gives a very nervous and forced smile.
He also starred as Ernest in a series of commercials that ran in the New Orleans area (and throughout the Gulf South) as a spokesman for natural gas utilities. In one, he is seen kneeling down in front of Vern's desk under a lamp hanging from the ceiling, stating, "Natural Gas, Vern; it's hot, fast, and cheap. Hot, fast, cheap; kinda like your first wife, Vern, you know, the pretty one!?" Vern then knocks the lamp into Ernest's head, knocking him down. Those same TV ads also were featured on TV channels in the St. Louis area for Laclede Gas during the mid-1980s and in the Metro Detroit area for Michigan Consolidated Gas Company. Another TV ad for Laclede Gas featured Ernest saying, "Heat pump, schmeat pump." Varney also appeared in several Braum's Ice Cream and Dairy Stores commercials throughout the 1980s. These aired on Oklahoma television.
Varney also was noted for doing commercials for car dealerships across the country, most notably Cerritos Auto Square in Cerritos, California, Tysons Toyota in Tysons Corner, Virginia, and Audubon Chrysler in Henderson, Kentucky. Another favorite Ernest vehicle was promotions for various TV stations around the nation, including the news team and the weather departments.
He portrayed Ernest in a series of commercials for Convenient Food Mart during the 1980s.
Varney also portrayed another character, "Auntie Nelda", in numerous commercials long before he resurrected the character for the movies Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam,Ernest Saves Christmas, Ernest Goes to Jail, Ernest Scared Stupid, Ernest Rides Again, and Ernest Goes to Africa. Dressed in drag and appearing to be a senior citizen, the commercials gave off the tone of a motherly lady encouraging one to do what was right (in this case, buy whatever product was being promoted). This character, along with the "Ernest" character, ran for a couple of years in Mississippi and Louisiana in commercials for Leadco Aluminum Siding, a company that would provide estimates for placing aluminum siding on a home. Leadco often bought two-hour slots in local markets. During the slot, a movie was televised, and Varney (as one of his characters) and a Leadco representative would be the only commercial breaks during the movie, promoting only Leadco.
During the 1990s, he reprised his role as Ernest for Blake's Lotaburger, a fast food chain in New Mexico. In these commercials, Ernest typically would be trying to get into Vern's house to see what food Vern was eating. After a lengthy description of whatever tasty morsel Vern had, Ernest would get locked out but would continue to shout from outside.
Ernest's popularity Edit
Varney's character Ernest proved so popular that it was spun off into a TV series, Hey Vern, It's Ernest! and a series of movies in the 1980s and 1990s. Ernest Goes to Camp brought Varney a nomination for "Worst New Star" at the 1987 Golden Raspberry Awards, but the movie was a huge hit, grossing $25 million at the box office.
In 1989, Varney won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series for Hey Vern, It's Ernest (1988). Varney, playing Ernest both times, was nominated for a Razzie Award one year (1988) and then won an Emmy Award the next year (1989).
Other Ernest movies include Ernest Goes to Camp, Ernest Goes to School, Slam Dunk Ernest, and Ernest in the Army. The Walt Disney World Resort's Epcot theme park featured Ernest. Epcot's Cranium Command attraction used the Ernest character in its pre-show as an example of a "lovable, but not the brightest person on the planet" type of person. And in addition to his Ernest Goes to... series, he starred as Ernest in several smaller movies for Carden & Cherry, such as Knowhutimean? Hey Vern, It's My Family Album; Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam; and the direct-to-video feature Your World as I See It, all of which showcased his great facility with assuming a wide variety of characters and accents. The Ernest Film Festival (a.k.a. Greatest Hits Volume 1) was released on VHS in 1986. Greatest Hits Volume 2 was released in 1992. Mill Creek Entertainment released these classic television commercials on October 31, 2006 as part of the "Ultimate Ernest" and "Essential Ernest Collection" DVD box sets. Image Entertainment re-released them on June 5, 2012 as part of the DVD set "Ernest's Wacky Adventures: Volume 1".
Personal life Edit
Varney was married twice, to Jacqueline Drew (1977–83) and Jane Varney (1988–91). Both marriages ended in divorce, though he remained friends with his ex-wife Jane until his death; she became Varney's spokesperson and accompanied him in the 1999 film "Toy Story 2", a sequel to the 1995 film.
On December 6, 2013, Jim Varney's nephew, Justin Lloyd, published a comprehensive biography about his uncle titled "The Importance of Being Ernest: The Life of Actor Jim Varney (Stuff that Vern doesn't even know)".
Illness and death Edit
During the filming of Treehouse Hostage in August 1998, Varney started developing a bad cough. At first, it was thought that he might have caught a cold because of the climate of the area where the movie was being filmed. However, as the cough became worse, Varney began noticing blood on his handkerchief and after filming was complete, he went to the doctor. A chain smoker, Varney had developed lung cancer. The disease slowly became worse, yet Varney continued to film movies. Upon being diagnosed, he reportedly threw his cigarettes away, and quit smoking. Also during this time, he filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in his Ernest persona.
Varney finally returned to Tennessee, where he went through chemotherapy in the hope he could beat the disease. He died on February 10, 2000 in his home in White House, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville, at age fifty. He was buried in Lexington Cemetery in Lexington, Kentucky. "Atlantis: The Lost Empire", which was released a year after his death, was dedicated in his memory. Varney's close friend and Fast Food co-star, Blake Clark took over as the voice of Slinky Dog, a character originated by Varney who is his second most popular next to Ernist.