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Jim Varney
Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Jim Varney

Biography
(1949–2000)
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Comedic actor Jim Varney played his signature character Ernest P. Worrell in hundreds of commercials and five Disney films including 'Ernest Goes to Camp.'

Who Was Jim Varney?

Jim Varney got his big break in 1976 when he was cast in a variety TV show and went on to appear in several TV shows. In the early 1980s, he played his signature character Ernest P. Worrell in hundreds of commercials. From the late 1980s to the late 1990s he starred in five films about Ernest. 

Early Life and Career

Varney was born on June 15, 1949, in Lexington, Kentucky. He began acting in local theater at the age of 8; his first professional acting role was as Puck in a regional production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1965. In 1967, he moved to New York City, where he worked as a stand-up comedian and acted in dinner theater and Off-Broadway productions.

Varney got a big break in 1976 when he was cast as a regular in the variety television series Johnny Cash and Friends. He went on to appear in a number of short-lived TV shows, including Operation Petticoat (1977), Fernwood 2-Night (1977), The New Operation Petti (1978) and Pink Lady (1980).

Playing Ernest P. Worrell

Varney first introduced his signature character of Ernest P. Worrell in a regional television commercial in 1972. In the 1980s, Varney parlayed Ernest's accident-prone, denim-clad rube shtick into hundreds of commercials – for products ranging from ice cream and cars to fast food, soft drinks and furniture. Varney's first big-screen appearance came in 1986 when the rubber-faced comic played Ernest and a number of other characters in Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam, which he co-wrote.

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In 1987, Disney released Ernest Goes to Camp, co-written and directed by John Cherry, an advertising executive who came up with the original idea for the Ernest character. The film, made for a paltry $3.5 million, took in $24 million at the box office. Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), made for $6 million, earned $28 million. Building on the successful performance of the first two Ernest movies, Varney made three more with Disney; five others were released independently, largely for television markets. The series eventually included Ernest Goes to Jail (1990), Ernest Rides Again (1993), Ernest Goes to School (1994) and Ernest in the Army (1998).

The popularity of the Ernest character spawned a whole line of merchandise over the years, including tie-in products such as a line of greeting cards and a talking doll. In 1988, Varney hosted a Saturday morning children's show, Hey Vern, It's Ernest, for which he won an Emmy Award for Best Performer in a Children's Series. He also made guest appearances on such popular TV shows as Roseanne and the animated series The Simpsons.

Post-Ernest Roles

Varney's first film in a lead role other than Ernest was the 1993 big-screen version of the comedy TV series Beverly Hillbillies, in which he played Jed Clampett. He also lent his distinctive voice to the character of Slinky Dog in the blockbuster animated features Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999). He also starred as Lothar Zogg, opposite Hulk Hogan, in 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain (1998).

Death

In 1998, Varney was diagnosed with lung cancer. He subsequently underwent surgery to remove most of his right lung, followed by radiation treatments. Varney publicly disclosed his battle with cancer in 1999, but continued to work, filming his last project, Daddy and Them (2001), starring and directed by Billy Bob Thornton. He died on February 10, 2000, in Nashville, Tennessee, at the age of 50.

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