The Importance of Being Ernest: The Life of Actor Jim Varney (Stuff that Vern doesn't even know)
All across Kentucky, one would be hard pressed to find someone that the name Jim Varney does immediately bring a smile to their face.
James Albert Varney, Jr. was born in Lexington, Kentucky, to Nancy Louise (Howard) and James Albert Varney, Sr. He became interested in theater as a teenager, winning state titles in drama competitions while a student at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky.
As a child, he displayed the ability to memorize long poems and significant portions of the material from books, which he used to entertain family and friends. When Varney was a boy, his mother would turn on cartoons for him to watch. She discovered that he could quickly began to imitate the cartoon characters, so she started him in children's theater when he was eight years old. He 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 the age of 15, he portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge in a local theater production; 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 in its first year of operation. He listed a former teacher, Thelma Beeler, as being a mentor 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-themed village, and before 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. He regaled 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 "you wouldn't make it down Main Street without the townsfolk giving you a crewcut".
Varney had an established acting career before 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. In 1978, Varney played Milo Skinner on the TV show Alice.
Varney also toured as a stand-up comic. His specialty was character comedy: he would impersonate numerous characters with elaborate backstories, many of which would find their way into his later films and television commercials
Varney's best-known character is Ernest P. Worrell, who would address the camera as if speaking to a friend, using his trademarked catchphrase "KnoWhutImean, Vern?" In 1980, the first commercial featuring the character 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 often used by dairies to advertise milk products. For example, the dairy bar and hamburger chain Braum's ran several advertisements featuring Ernest; 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, 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 so 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, Pruett'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.
Even though Ernest's catchphrase "KnowhutImean?" became a national craze almost immediately, Jim worked in TV and film for more than a decade before his famous alter-ego hit the big screen in Ernest Goes to Camp. He starred in a slew of Ernest films including Ernest goes to Jail, Ernest Saves Christmas, and Ernest goes to School gaining worldwide fame.
Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) grossed $23.5 million at the U.S. box office, on a $3 million production budget, and stayed in the box-office top five for its first three weeks of release. Though Varney was nominated for the Razzie Award for Worst New Star, only one year later, he earned the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series for Hey Vern, It's Ernest!
Subsequent theatrically released Ernest films include Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), Ernest Goes to Jail (1990), Ernest Scared Stupid (1991), and Ernest Rides Again (1993). After the financial failure of Ernest Rides Again, all further films were released direct-to-video: Ernest Goes to School (1994) which had a brief theatrical run in Ohio, Slam Dunk Ernest (1995), Ernest Goes to Africa (1997), and Ernest in the Army (1998).
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 previous six years, The Love Boat.
Varney can be seen in Hank Williams Jr.'s video for "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight", in which 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 starred as Jed Clampett in the 1993 production of The Beverly Hillbillies and played Rex, a carnival worker/associate of Dennis Quaid in Wilder Napalm. The latter story is about two pyrokinetic brothers, played by Quaid and Arliss Howard, and as the accident-prone entertainer/watch guard ("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 played numerous other characters, including "Cookie" Farnsworth, from Atlantis: The Lost Empire, released the year after his death (Steven Barr replaced Varney for the sequel Atlantis: Milo's Return), the carny character Cooder 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.
Varney had a brief role as an incestuous, abusive father in an independent film, 100 Proof, for which he received good reviews from critics. He also played a rebel in the midnight movie Existo, as well as an old mariner in a low-budget horror film, Blood, Friends, and Money. During the filming of Treehouse Hostage, he played an escaped convict held hostage and tormented by some fifth graders in a treehouse.
One of Varney's final films was Billy Bob Thornton's Daddy and Them, in which he 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. 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.
Jim Varney passed away February 10, 2000 of lung cancer, he is buried in Lexington, KY.
In 2013 Varney's nephew, Justin Lloyd published "The Importance of Being Ernest: The Life of Actor Jim Varney (Stuff that Vern doesn't even know)". The book traces Jim’s journey from a child in Lexington, Kentucky, with dreams of being a stage and film actor to becoming an iconic entertainment figure in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Little Tramp.” The book is based on numerous interviews with family members and intimates of Jim who have never spoken publicly before about what drove the actor and how he overcame many personal and professional obstacles to attain success. But with that success came a price: Jim longed for stage and film roles beyond Ernest, and they were difficult to come by because of his symbiosis with the character. Yet Jim persevered, ultimately winning major movie roles such as Jed Clampett in “The Beverly Hillbillies” and (the voice of) Slinky Dog in the first two “Toy Story” films. The book also explores the genius of the small Nashville advertising agency that created Ernest and how it spread his popularity decades before “going viral” became associated with achieving global stardom.Even at the height of his career, Jim never forgot he was a descendant of Appalachian coal miners, and he remained true to his values, his friends and his family. Jim always strove for authenticity and humanity inside his hillbilly humor, endearing him to fans from every walk of life. “The Importance of Being Ernest: The Life of Actor Jim Varney” documents the life of an unforgettable figure in American comedy whose legacy endures today. “The Importance of Being Ernest: The Life of Actor Jim Varney” contains never-before-seen photos from the Varney family’s private collection.