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James Albert "Jim" Varney, Jr. (June 15, 1949 – February 10, 2000) was an American actor, comedian, musician, writer and voice artist, best known for his role as Ernest P. Worrell, who was used in numerous television commercial campaigns and movies, giving Varney fame worldwide and for playing Jed Clampett in the 1993 movie version of The Beverly Hillbillies.
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 (from which he graduated with the class of 1968) in Lexington. At the age of 15, he portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge in a local theater production, and by 17 he was performing professionally in nightclubs 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, Kentuckywhere he (Ponzini) wouldn't make it down Main Street without the townsfolk giving him a crewcut.
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 park located 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, NC, 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, Sgt. 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.
Varney 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. Another TV ad for Laclede Gas featured Ernest saying, "Heat pump, schmeat pump."
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.
Varney 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 Goes to Camp, and Ernest Rides Again. 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 inMississippi 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, Varney 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.
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 Saves Christmas, Slam Dunk Ernest, Ernest Goes to Jail, Ernest Goes to Africa, Ernest Rides Again, Ernest Goes to School, Ernest Scared Stupid, 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 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. It also contains his television commercials. Greatest Hits Volume 2 was released in 1992. These skits were issued on DVD box sets October 31, 2006, byMill Creek Entertainment. They were re-released on June 5, 2012 in the DVD set of Ernest's Wacky Adventures by Image Entertainment.
Varney had an established acting career prior to his fame as Ernest. In 1976, Varney was a regular cast member of the television show Johnny Cash and Friends. He also played a recurring guest on the faux late-night talk show Fernwood 2 Night. From 1977-1979, Varney was cast as Seaman "Doom & Gloom" Broom in the television version of Operation Petticoat. Just prior to his stint as Ernest, he was a cast member on the notorious television flop Pink Lady and Jeff.
From 1983 to 1984, Varney played heartthrob Chad Everett's younger brother Evan Earp in the comedy-drama, high-action television series, The Rousters, created by Stephen J. Cannell, about the descendants of Wyatt Earp, a family of bounty hunters/carnival bouncers. As Evan Earp, Varney played a con man/mechanical-inventor "genius", constantly getting himself into comedic trouble, with those around him ready to lynch him. Although the series was promising, the show failed after its first season because it was poorly slotted (four episodes every few months) against the number-one prime-time television series for the past six years, The Love Boat.
Varney can be seen in Hank Williams, Jr.'s video for "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight", where he is briefly shown casually riding a bull being pulled on a rope by a young lady, and later in a swimming pool with two young ladies.
In 1985, Varney co-hosted HBO's New Year's Eve special, along with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. Varney also played Jed Clampett in the 1993 production of The Beverly Hillbillies, Rex, a carnival worker/associate of Dennis Quaid in Wilder Napalm, which is about two pyrokinetic brothers, played by Quaid and Arliss Howard, and as the accident-prone entertainer/watch guard (aka "safety guy/human torch") Rudy James in the movie Snowboard Academy. He later played a small role in the 1995 action film The Expert as a weapons dealer named Snake.
Varney also lent his voice to Slinky Dog in Disney's Toy Story 1 and 2 in the Toy Story series (Varney was replaced by Blake Clark in Toy Story 3 due to his death in 2000), and played numerous others, including "Cookie" Farnsworth, from Atlantis: The Lost Empire, released the year after his death (Steve Barr replaced Varney for the sequel Atlantis: Milo's Return), the carny character Cooter in the "Bart Carny" episode of The Simpsons, the character Walt Evergreen in the Duckman episode "You've Come a Wrong Way, Baby", Prince Carlos Charmaine (a royal suitor Jackie dates) for a few episodes of the final season of the 1990s television series Roseanne, and Lothar Zogg in the 1998 film 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain, also starring Hulk Hogan and Loni Anderson.
He had a brief role as an incestuous, abusive father in an independent production, 100 Proof, for which he received good reviews from critics. Varney also had a bit of a shocking role as one of the rebels in the midnight movie, Existo, a film dubbed as the next Rocky Horror Picture Show. Varney played an old Mariner in a low-budget horror film, Blood, Friends, and Money. During the filming of Treehouse Hostage, Varney played an escaped convict held hostage and tormented by some 5th graders in a treehouse.
One of his final movies was Billy Bob Thornton's Daddy and Them, where Varney played Uncle Hazel, who had been arrested for murder. Co-stars included Kelly Preston and Andy Griffith. Another final guest appearance was the Bibleman Genesis Series Bibleman Jr. Volume 1 & 2 as himself, where he has a friendly chat with a small group of young children about making silly faces and laughter, then entertainingly sings a simple song with them.
He starred in three videos, The Misadventures of Bubba, The Misadventures of Bubba II, and Bubba Goes Hunting, in which he played himself and taught young kids important safety rules about hunting and guns. He illustrated the rules with the help of his bumbling and accident-prone cousin Bubba (also played by Varney) and Bubba's imaginary hunting pal, Billy Bob. The videos were distributed as part of a membership pack from Buckmasters' Young Bucks Club.
According to an interview, one of Varney's final projects was writing a screenplay about the legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, stating that his grandfather hunted squirrel with the McCoys.
Varney said his dream role would have been to perform Hamlet. During novelist Peter David's efforts to bring his 1987 novel Knight Life to the big screen, movie producers intended to have Varney portray the role of King Arthur (the main character).
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.
Illness and death
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, Varney 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 the age of 50. 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.
|1983||Knowhutimean? Hey Vern, It's My Family Album||Ernest P. Worrell / Davy Worrell & Company / Ace Worrell / Lloyd Worrell / Billy Boogie Worrell / Rhetch Worrell / Pop Worrell|
|1986||Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam||Dr. Otto / Ernest P. Worrell / Rudd Hardtact / Laughin' Jack / Guy Dandy / Auntie Nelda|
|Ernest's Greatest Hits Volume 1 (The Ernest Film Festival)||Ernest P. Worrell|
|1987||Ernest Goes to Camp||Ernest P. Worrell|
|Hey Vern, Win $10,000...Or Just Count On Having Fun!||Ernest P. Worrell|
|1988||Ernest Saves Christmas||Ernest P. Worrell / Aster Clement / The Governor's Student / Auntie Nelda / Mrs. Brock / Marty's Mother / The Snake Guy|
|1989||Fast Food||Wrangler Bob Bundy|
|1990||Ernest Goes to Jail||Ernest P. Worrell / Mr. Felix Nash / Auntie Nelda|
|1991||Ernest Scared Stupid||Ernest P. Worrell|
|1991||Death of an Ernest||Ernest P. Worrell / Arthur Miller||Off-Broadway|
|1992||Ernest's Greatest Hits Volume 2||Ernest P. Worrell|
|The Beverly Hillbillies||Jed Clampett|
|Ernest Rides Again||Ernest P. Worrell|
|1994||Ernest Goes to School||Ernest P. Worrell / Aster Clement / Baby Ernest / Auntie Nelda / Bunny / Coy|
|1995||Slam Dunk Ernest||Ernest P. Worrell|
|School Story||Koby Boese||Voice only|
|Toy Story||Slinky Dog||Voice only|
|Bubba Goes Hunting||Bubba|
|1996||Snowboard Academy||Rudy James|
|1997||Blood, Friends and Money||The Old Mariner|
|100 Proof||Rae's Father|
|Ernest Goes to Africa||Ernest P. Worrell / Hey You, the Hindu / Auntie Nelda / African Woman Dancer|
|Annabelle's Wish||Mr. Gus Holder||Voice only|
|1998||Ernest in the Army||Pvt. Ernest P. Worrell / Capt. Ernest P. Worrell / Operation Sandtrap Arab|
|3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain||Lothar Zogg|
|Treehouse Hostage||Carl Banks|
|School Story 2||Koby Boese||Voice only|
|Toy Story 2||Slinky Dog||Voice only|
|2001||Daddy and Them||Hazel Montgomery|
|Atlantis: The Lost Empire||Jebidiah Allardyce 'Cookie' Farnsworth||Voice only, final film|
|1977||Operation Petticoat||Doom & Gloom Broom|
|Fernwood 2 Night||Virgil Simms||Episode: "Ethnic Myths"
Episode: "Getting the Most from Your Warranty" Episode: "#1.46" Episode: "Battery Powered Car"
|1978||America 2-Night||Virgil Simms||Episode: "Daredevil Virgil Simms"
Episode: "Falafel-on-a-Stick" Episode: "The UBS Story"
|Operation Petticoat||Seaman 'Doom & Gloom' Broom||32 episodes|
|Alice||Milo Skinner||Episode: "Better Never Than Later"|
|1979||Alan King's Third Annual Final Warning!||Various|
|1980||Pink Lady||Various||All 6 episodes|
|1982-83||"Pop! Goes the Country"||Unknown episodes|
|1983||The Rousters||Evan Earp||TV series pilot film|
|The Rousters||Evan Earp||All 13 episodes|
|1988||Hey Vern, It's Ernest!||Ernest P. Worrell / Various|
|1988-89||Happy New Year, America||Ernest P. Worrell / Correspondent||Live New Year's Eve special|
|1989||Ernest Goes to Splash Mountain||Ernest P. Worrell|
|1990||Disneyland||Ernest P. Worrell / Ernest's Father||Episode: "Disneyland's 35th Anniversary Celebration"|
|Disneyland's 35th Anniversary Celebration||Ernest P. Worrell|
|1994||XXX's & OOO's||Cameo|
|1996||Roseanne||Prince Carlos||Episode: "Someday My Prince Will Come"
Episode: "Home Is Where the Afghan Is"
|1997||Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man||Walt Evergreen||Voice only
Episode: "You've Come a Wrong Way, Baby"
|1998||The Simpsons||Cooder||Voice only
Episode: "Bart Carny"
|1996||Toy Story Activity Center||Slinky Dog||Voice only|
|1999||Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue||Slinky Dog||Voice only|
|2000||Atlantis: The Lost Empire||Cookie||Voice only|