Jim Varney, the rubbery faced clown and pitchman, dies at age 50
By R. Scott Bolton
You can't get anybody to admit they're a fan, yet Jim Varney - in the guise of Ernest P. Worrell (the "P" is for "Powertools) generated millions of dollars from television commercials, radio commercials, a television series and a handful of feature films based around the character he made famous. The Ernest fans were out there and the success of the character for over 20 years proves that point.
On Thursday, February 10, 2000, Jim Varney succumbed to lung cancer at age 50. He leaves behind him a legacy of admittedly ridiculous laughs that will continue to remind us how truly funny Jim Varney - and Ernest - really was.
Here's a confession: My brother and I are long time, die-hard Ernest P. Worrell fans. A lot of people said that Ernest was just for kids. Well, if that's the case, then Doug and I are kids at heart. The Ernest movies always gave us at least one belly laugh and that laugh always came courtesy of the hysterically funny Jim Varney.
Doug laughs until he cries when Ernest's pet turtle snaps at his nose in "Ernest Goes to Camp." And my sides nearly split as Ernest chewed on a leaking pen during jury duty in "Ernest Goes to Jail." Cheap laughs, maybe. But good laughs, nonetheless.
In 1993, when Varney was promoting the admittedly inferior "Ernest Rides Again," I had the chance to interview at him home in Nashville, TN. For the record - and as a tribute to Jim Varney, I re-print that interview here in its entirety.
Mr. Varney, you will be missed.
INTERVIEW WITH JIM VARNEY, 1993
Those who recognize the above phrase must be fans of Jim Varney and his alter ego, Ernest P. Worrell. And, though you may be told differently, there are plenty of us.
Varney has starred as Ernest P. Worrell since 1980, appearing in well over 2,000 television commercials, an Emmy-winning children's series, a television special and five movies, beginning with "Ernest Goes to Camp" in 1987.
What is it that makes a character so endearing as to enjoy popularity for more than 13 years? I went straight to the source, Jim Varney, for an answer.
Varney is just as you'd expect him to be based on the roles he's portrayed - friendly, humble and down to earth. We talked about Ernest while Varney ate a lunch of "hobo soup." How do you make this delicacy?
"You clean out the fridge and throw everything in a pot," Varney said in a phone interview from his home in Nashville. "The only problem is you can never repeat the recipe."
Varney said he and "Ernest" film director/writer John Cherry III have often discussed the character's appeal. "We figured out that it has to be that everybody has a guy like that in their family. It's like, 'I know a guy like that' or 'My brother-in-law's just like that' or 'I got a cousin like that.' Everyone knows somebody like that. I did. I had a brother-in-law like that. Honest to God, Ernest P. Worrell."
Unlike other actors who have been virtually tied to the same character for years, Varney loves Ernest. "He's well intentioned and I equate him with the Little Tramp, Chaplain's Little Tramp. He's got a good attitude. He's optimistic. He's got the best intentions in the world, and the world is absolutely against everything he tries. I think audiences identify with the underdog. They empathize with him."
Recent roles in films such as "The Beverly Hillbillies," in which Varney played the role of Jed Clampett, and "Wilder Napalm," in which Varney played a crusty carnival worker, prove that Varney is capable of much more than simply Ernest. Though Varney said he will never abandon the Ernest character, he would like to try something different. But Varney makes it clear nothing too different.
"I don't want to go, you know, black and white - like playing Hannibal Lecter or anything. But something just a little bit away, to show some diversity. I think Jed Clampett really fit that bill for me because it showed them I can do a semi-dramatic role."
And show them it did. Thought "The Beverly Hillbillies" was only a minor hit at best, the scripts have come pouring into Varney. However, his next film is already in the can.
"We did 'Ernest Rides Again' and 'Ernest Goes to School' back-to-back. They were doing pre-production on 'School' while we were shooting 'Rides Again.' There was like a week down and then we went right into production on 'School.'
And there's still more Ernest to come.
"If 'Rides Again' does well, we'll do a third and that will be 'Ernest Spaced Out' in which Ernest goes away in the space shuttle or 'Water Babies' which is sort of an 'E.T' thing," Varney said, "It's got a lot of heart. It's a cute script."
Though Varney enjoys all of the Ernest film, he does have a favorite. "Either 'Ernest Goes to Camp' or 'Ernest Saves Christmas' I think both of those were good stories and they had a lot of heart. The jail film was fun because I got to play the dual role.
"But I think 'Ernest Saves Christmas' probably had the most heart of any of them. It's a good little story. The little girl sees the error of her ways and, sort of like 'It's a Wonderful Life,' everything comes together at the end. It rents very well at Christmas."
Varney said that "Ernest Rides Again" is a different kind of "Ernest" film.
This is the first time we really see a Vern character. We know Ernest has certain friends here and there that we've never seen. We've never seen Vern. This is the first time we actually see Ernest with one of his friends. Dr. Abner Melon is the Vern of 'Ernest Rides Again.'
"He's the guy who hates to see Ernest coming. He's basically Vern. This is the first time you actually see the guy and how he's reacting to Ernest. In that sense, this is a different kind of Ernest film."
Varney describes "Ernest Rides Again" as "kind of a chase theme. Ernest fancies himself sort of an Indiana Jones character in this."
In fact, Ernest spends much of the film on the barrel of a huge cannon, inside of which are the missing crown jewels. Ernest discovers the cannon and, in typical Worrell fashion, manages to get the thing rolling. "He gets on it and it rolls off down the mountain," Varney says, "And it will not let him go. Through the city park, through a garage sale. It goes any place you wouldn't want a 23-foot cannon coming through."
Though Varney says he enjoyed the shoot, straddling the cannon was not exactly fun. "I rode this cannon basically for a month. It was cold up there. I figured, 'Oh, boy. Vancouver. That'll be nice for the summer.' It's arctic! It's really cold, you know. July is freezing in Vancouver."
Thankfully, Varney endured.
Ernest movies available through amazon.com (click on the title to buy the VHS):
Ernest Goes to Africa VHS
Ernest Goes to Africa DVD
Ernest Goes to Camp VHS
Ernest Goes to Camp DVD
Ernest Goes to Jail VHS
Ernest Goes to Jail DVD
Ernest Goes to School VHS
Ernest in the Army VHS
Ernest In the Army DVD
Ernest Rides Again VHS
Ernest Saves Christmas VHS
Ernest Saves Christmas DVD
Ernest Scared Stupid VHS
Ernest Scared Stupid DVD
Slam Dunk Ernest VHS