James Albert Varney Jr. (June 15, 1949 – February 10, 2000) was an American actor. He was best known for his character Ernest P. Worrell, originally created by Nashville advertising agency Carden and Cherry in the 1980s. The character was used in numerous television commercial campaigns and movies in the following years, giving him fame worldwide. He is best known for his slapstick style and his portrayal of "redneck" stereotypes in a friendly, approachable way.
Death of James Varney
James Varney died of lung cancer on February 10, 2000 at 4:45 a.m. in his White House, Tennessee home as the movie Ernest the Pirate neared completion and when Atlantis: The Lost Empire was still in production.He is interred at Lexington’s cemetery.
James Varney was 50 year old at the time of his death
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Jim Varney’s TV commercial bloopers
Varney was born in Lexington, Kentucky, where he grew up. He began his interest in theater as a teenager, winning state titles in drama competitions while a student at Lafayette High School (which he graduated from with the class of 1968) in Lexington. At the age of 15, he portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge in a local children’s theater production, and by 17, he was performing professionally in nightclubs and coffee houses. He listed a former teacher, Thelma Beeler, as being one of the main contributing factors in his becoming an actor.
Television commercial career
The first commercial as Ernest, filmed in 1980, was to advertise 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 often used by dairies to advertise milk products. For example, the Midwestern dairy bar chain Braum’s ran several advertisements using Ernest’s catch phrase, "KnoWhutImean, Vern?" (as it was spelled in his registered trademark). Purity Dairies, based in Nashville, 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’s dairy into producing better milk. In another spot, Glory’s home was shown as he had a date, and was so heavily decorated with the products of the sponsor and advertising specialty items for it 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’s drilling 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 knocked the lamp into Ernest’s head, knocking him down. Those same TV ads were also featured on TV channels in the St. Louis area for Laclede Gas, during the mid-1980s.
He was also noted for doing commercials for car dealerships across the country, most notably Cerritos Auto Square in Cerritos, California, Tyson’s 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 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 Goes to Jail and Ernest Goes to Camp. Dressed in drag and appearing to be a senior-citizen, the commercials gave off the tone of a motherly lady encouraging you to do what was right – in this case, buy whatever product was being promoted. This character, along with the "Ernest" character, ran a couple of years in Mississippi and Louisiana in commercials for Ledco Aluminum Siding, a company that would come out and give you an estimate for placing aluminum siding on your home. Ledco often bought 2 hour slots in local markets. During the 2 hour slot, a movie was televised and Varney, as one of his characters, and a Ledco representative, would be the only commercial breaks during the movie to promote Ledco.
During the 1990s, Jim reprised his role as Ernest for Blake’s Lotaburger, a fast food chain in New Mexico. During these commercials, Ernest would typically be trying to get in to 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 continue to shout from outside.
An interesting fact about the commercials is how universal they were. For example, the dairy spots would be the same situation and script, changing only the name of the dairy. The same situations would be used (varying the script for the product, but resulting in the same punchline) for countless other products. The end result was that a finite number of commercials could sell a wide variety of products. However, all the commercials were not based on those cookie-cutter premises, and original commercials were shot for specific products/sponsors.
Varney’s character Ernest P. Worrell 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 earned Varney a nomination for "Worst New Star" at the 1987 Golden Raspberry Awards (he "lost"). The movie was a huge hit; however, grossing $25 million at the box office.
Other Ernest movies included Ernest Saves Christmas, Slam Dunk Ernest, Ernest Goes to Jail, Ernest Goes to Africa, 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 preshow 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 Ernest P. Worrell’s 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.
Varney played a recurring guest on faux late-night-talk show Fernwood 2 Night
He also lent his voice to the character "Slinky Dog" in Disney’s Toy Story film series, and to the character "Cookie" Farnsworth, from Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which was released the year after his death.
Varney provided the guest voice for the carny character "Cooder" for "Bart Carny" episode of The Simpsons.
Varney played the character "Walt Evergreen" in the Duckman episode "You’ve Come a Wrong Way, Baby".
Varney played the prince that Roseanne’s sister Jackie started dating near the end of the 1990s television series Roseanne.
Varney played the villain Lothar Zogg in the 1998 film 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain.
Varney is in Hank Williams, Jr. ‘s video for "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight," where he is briefly shown casually riding a bull.
Varney also played the part of Jed Clampett in the 1993 production of The Beverly Hillbillies.
Varney also played the entertainer/watch guard Rudy James in the movie Snowboard Academy.
He also has a small part in an independent production 100 Proof. Just prior to his stint as Ernest P. Worrell, Varney was a cast member on the notorious television flop Pink Lady and Jeff.
Varney was a special guest, appearing as himself, in the Bibleman Genesis Series Bibleman Jr..
Varney 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.
Varney was married twice, to Jacqueline Drew (1977-1983), and Jane Varney (1988-1991). Both marriages ended in divorce, though he remained friends with Jane until his death.
He would visit hospitals, and entertain sick children in his "Ernest" persona.
Varney died of lung cancer on February 10, 2000 at 4:45 a.m. in his White House, Tennessee home as the movie Ernest the Pirate neared completion and when Atlantis: The Lost Empire was still in production. He is interred at Lexington’s cemetery.
- Daddy and Them (2001) Hazel Montgomery
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) Jedidiah Allardyce "Cookie" Farnsworth (voice)
- Toy Story 2 (1999) Slinky Dog (voice)
- Treehouse Hostage (1999) Carl Banks
- Existo (1999) Marcel HRowitz
- 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain (1998) Lothar Zogg
- Ernest in the Army (1998) Pvt. Ernest P. Worrell/Captain Ernest P. Worrell/Operation Sandtrap Arab
- Annabelle´s Wish (1997) Mr. Gus Holder (voice)(video)
- Ernest Goes to Africa (1997) Ernest P. Worrell/Hey You, the Hindu/Auntie Nelda/African woman dancer
- 100 Proof (1997) Rae’s Father
- Blood, Friends and Money (1997) The Older Mariner
- Snowboard Academy (1996) Rudy James
- Toy Story (1995) Slinky Dog (voice)
- The Expert (1995) Snake
- Slam Dunk Ernest (1995) Ernest P.Worrell (video)
- Your World as I See It (1994) Ernest P.Worrell/Aster Clement/Baby Ernest/Auntie Nelda/Bonnie/Coy
- Ernest Goes to School (1994) Ernest P. Worrell
- Ernest Rides Again (1993) Ernest P. Worrell
- The Beverly Hillbillies (1993) Jed Clampett
- Wilder Napalm (1993) Rex
- Ernest´s Greatest Hits Volume 2 (1992) Ernest P.Worrell (video)
- Ernest Scared Stupid (1991) Ernest P. Worrell
- Ernest Goes to Jail (1990) Ernest P. Worrell/Mr. Felix Nash/Auntie Nelda
- Fast Food (1989) Wrangler Bob
- Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) Ernest P. Worrell/Aster Clement/Auntie Nelda/The Snake Guy
- Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) Ernest P. Worrell
- Hey, Vern, Win $10,000 (1987) Ernest P. Worrell (voice)
- Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam (1986) Dr. Otto/Rudd Hardtact/Laughin’ Jack/Guy Dandy/Auntie Nelda/Ernest P. Worrell
- The Ernest Film Festival (1986) Ernest P. Worrell (video)
- Knowhutimean? Hey Vern, It’s My Family Album (1983) Ernest P. Worrell/Davy Worrell & Company/Ace Worrell/Lloyd Worrell/Billy Boogie Worrell/Rhetch
- Worrell/Pop Worrell (video)
- Spittin’ Image (1982) Sheriff
- The Simpsons episode – Bart Carny (1998) Cooder (voice)
- Roseanne (1996) Prince Carlos of Moldavia
- Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! (1988) Ernest, Dr. Otto, Auntie Nelda, Sergeant Glory, Baby Ernest
- The Rousters (1983) Evan Earp
- Operation Petticoat (1977-1979) Seaman Broom
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