Jim Varney

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Jim Varney
Jim Varney.jpg
Varney in the 1995 film The Expert.
BornJames Albert Varney, Jr.
(1949-06-15)June 15, 1949
Lexington, Kentucky, U.S.
DiedFebruary 10, 2000(2000-02-10) (aged 50)
White House, Tennessee, U.S.
Cause of death
Lung cancer
Resting place
Lexington Cemetery, Lexington, Kentucky
OccupationActor, comedian, writer
Years active1976–2000
Known forErnest P. Worrell
Slinky Dog
Spouse(s)Jacqueline Drew
(1977–1983; divorced)
Jane Varney
(1988–1991; divorced)
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Jim Varney
Jim Varney.jpg
Varney in the 1995 film The Expert.
BornJames Albert Varney, Jr.
(1949-06-15)June 15, 1949
Lexington, Kentucky, U.S.
DiedFebruary 10, 2000(2000-02-10) (aged 50)
White House, Tennessee, U.S.
Cause of death
Lung cancer
Resting place
Lexington Cemetery, Lexington, Kentucky
OccupationActor, comedian, writer
Years active1976–2000
Known forErnest P. Worrell
Slinky Dog
Spouse(s)Jacqueline Drew
(1977–1983; divorced)
Jane Varney
(1988–1991; divorced)

James Albert "Jim" Varney, Jr. (June 15, 1949 – February 10, 2000) was an American actor, voice actor, comedian, and writer best known for his role as Ernest P. Worrell, who was used in numerous television commercial campaigns and movies, giving Varney fame worldwide[1][2][3][4] and for playing Jed Clampett in the 1993 movie version of The Beverly Hillbillies.

Early life[edit]

Varney was born James Albert Varney, Jr. on June 15, 1949 in Lexington, Kentucky, where he grew up. He was the fourth child and only son of Nancy Louise (née Howard; January 14, 1913 – August 22, 1994) and James Albert Varney, Sr. (January 1, 1910 – January 11, 1985).[5][6]

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[7] (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, Kentucky where he (Ponzini) wouldn't make it down Main Street without the townsfolk giving him a crewcut.[8]


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 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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 and in the Metro Detroit area for Michigan Consolidated Gas Company. Another TV ad for Laclede Gas featured Ernest saying, "Heat pump, schmeat pump."[citation needed] 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.[9] Another favorite Ernest vehicle was promotions for various TV stations around the nation, including the news team and the weather departments.[citation needed]

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 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.[10]

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.[citation needed][11]

Ernest's popularity[edit]

The handprints of Jim Varney in front of The Great Movie Ride at Walt Disney World's Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park.

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.[12][13] 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 DVD box sets October 31, 2006. Image Entertainment re-released them on June 5, 2012 as part of the DVD set Ernest's Wacky Adventures: Volume 1.

Other roles[edit]

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 to 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).

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.

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)".[14]

Illness and death[edit]

During the filming of Treehouse Hostage in August 1998,[15] 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.[16] Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which was released a year after his death, was dedicated in his memory.


1982Spittin' ImageSheriff
1983Knowhutimean? Hey Vern, It's My Family AlbumErnest P. Worrell / Davy Worrell & Company / Ace Worrell / Lloyd Worrell / Billy Boogie Worrell / Rhetch Worrell / Pop Worrell
1986Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom BeamDr. 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
1987Ernest Goes to CampErnest P. Worrell
Hey Vern, Win $10,000...Or Just Count on Having Fun!Ernest P. Worrell
1988Ernest Saves ChristmasErnest P. Worrell / Aster Clement / The Governor's Student / Auntie Nelda / Mrs. Brock / Marty's Mother / The Snake Guy
1989Fast FoodWrangler Bob Bundy
1990Ernest Goes to JailErnest P. Worrell / Mr. Felix Nash / Auntie Nelda
1991Ernest Scared StupidErnest P. Worrell / Phineas Worrell / Auntie Nelda / Various Relatives
1992Ernest's Greatest Hits Volume 2Ernest P. Worrell
1993Wilder NapalmRex
The Beverly HillbilliesJed Clampett
Ernest Rides AgainErnest P. Worrell
1994Ernest Goes to SchoolErnest P. Worrell
1995Slam Dunk ErnestErnest P. Worrell
The ExpertSnake
School StoryKoby BoeseVoice only
Toy StorySlinky DogVoice only
Bubba Goes HuntingBubba
1996Snowboard AcademyRudy James
1997Blood, Friends and MoneyThe Old Mariner
100 ProofRae's Father
Ernest Goes to AfricaErnest P. Worrell / Hey You, the Hindu / Auntie Nelda / African Woman Dancer
Annabelle's WishMr. Gus HolderVoice only
1998Ernest in the ArmyPvt. Ernest P. Worrell / Capt. Ernest P. Worrell / Operation Sandtrap Arab
3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega MountainLothar Zogg
1999ExistoMarcel Horowitz
Treehouse HostageCarl Banks
School Story 2Koby BoeseVoice only
Toy Story 2Slinky DogVoice only
2001Daddy and ThemHazel Montgomery
Atlantis: The Lost EmpireJebidiah 'Cookie' FarnsworthVoice only, final film

Television work[edit]

1977Operation PetticoatDoom & Gloom Broom
Fernwood 2 NightVirgil SimmsEpisode: "Ethnic Myths"
Episode: "Getting the Most from Your Warranty"
Episode: "#1.46"
Episode: "Battery Powered Car"
1978America 2-NightVirgil SimmsEpisode: "Daredevil Virgil Simms"
Episode: "Falafel-on-a-Stick"
Episode: "The UBS Story"
Operation PetticoatSeaman 'Doom & Gloom' Broom32 episodes
AliceMilo SkinnerEpisode: "Better Never Than Later"
1979Alan King's Third Annual Final Warning!Various
1980Pink LadyVariousAll 6 episodes
1982–83"Pop! Goes the Country"Unknown episodes
1983The RoustersEvan EarpTV series pilot film
The RoustersEvan EarpAll 13 episodes
1988Hey Vern, It's Ernest!Ernest P. Worrell / Various
1988–89Happy New Year, AmericaErnest P. Worrell / CorrespondentLive New Year's Eve special
1989Ernest Goes to Splash MountainErnest P. Worrell
1990DisneylandErnest P. Worrell / Ernest's FatherEpisode: "Disneyland's 35th Anniversary Celebration"
Disneyland's 35th Anniversary CelebrationErnest P. Worrell
1994XXX's & OOO'sCameo
1996RoseannePrince CarlosEpisode: "Someday My Prince Will Come"
Episode: "Home Is Where the Afghan Is"
1997Duckman: Private Dick/Family ManWalt EvergreenVoice only
Episode: "You've Come a Wrong Way, Baby"
1998The SimpsonsCooderVoice only
Episode: "Bart Carny"

Video games[edit]

1996Toy Story Activity CenterSlinky DogVoice only
1999Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the RescueSlinky DogVoice only
2000Atlantis: The Lost EmpireCookieVoice only


  1. ^ "Ernest P. Gets Rich With Vern". Sun Sentinel. Retrieved 2010-10-06. 
  2. ^ "Jim Varney; Comedic Actor Played Rube Ernest P. Worrell in Commercials, Movies". Los Angeles Times. February 11, 2000. Retrieved 2010-10-06. 
  3. ^ "Jim Varney, 50, Who Turned 'Ernest' Character into a Career". New York Times. February 11, 2000. Retrieved 2010-10-06. 
  4. ^ "Jim Varney; Comedic Actor Played Rube Ernest P. Worrell in Commercials, Movies". Los Angeles Times. February 11, 2000. Retrieved 2010-10-06. 
  5. ^ "James Varney, Sr. Gravesite". Retrieved 2011-11-24. 
  6. ^ http://www.kentuckyroom.org/subject-headings/varney-jim
  7. ^ "1967 Lafayette High Yearbook". classmates.com. Retrieved 28 July 2014. 
  8. ^ "Jim Varney, 50, Who Turned 'Ernest' Character into a Career". New York Times. February 11, 2000. Retrieved 2010-10-06. 
  9. ^ Kalafut, Kathy (April 13, 1990). "Hey, Vern, I'm a Star!! – EW.com". Entertainment Weekly. 
  10. ^ Auntie Nelda on YouTube
  11. ^ "Guess Who's Coming to Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner—Hey, Vern! It's Your Old Pal Jim Varney!". People. Retrieved 2010-10-06. 
  12. ^ "The Character Curse: Actor, Role Seen As One". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved 2010-10-06. 
  13. ^ Dubois, Stephanie (July 8, 1989). "Jim Varney Hopes Cards And Letters Keep Pouring in to Save Poor Ernest". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2010-10-06. 
  14. ^ Lloyd, Justin. The Importance of Being Ernest: The Life of Actor Jim Varney. CreateSpace. ISBN 978-1492746317. 
  15. ^ "The Importance of Being Ernest". Nashville Scene. Retrieved 1999-11-15. 
  16. ^ "Actor Jim "Ernest" Varney dies at 50". Salon. Retrieved 2010-10-06. 

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