Jim Varney, the comedic actor who achieved a loyal following by playing country rube Ernest P. Worrell in commercials, television shows and movies, died Thursday of lung cancer at his home in White House, Tenn. He was 50.
Dressed in his trademark baseball cap, T-shirt, blue denim vest and jeans, the rubber-faced, nasal-twanged Varney offered an appearance of haplessness and harmlessness. “It’s a lovely outfit that can be worn gracefully six days a week,” he once said of his choice of attire.
Born in Lexington, Ky., Varney first earned money as a professional actor playing the part of Puck in a regional production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He was just 16. Two years later, he moved to New York, where he worked as a stand-up comedian and dinner theater performer in productions like “Death of a Salesman” and “Guys and Dolls.”
His comedic ability served him well, first in the 1970s in a series of commercials for Southern Dairy and then in 1980 when the Carden & Cherry advertising agency created the character Ernest for a number of commercials it was doing.
As Ernest, Varney portrayed a know-it-all who relentlessly interrupts his neighbor Vern, who is never seen, with fast-talking, well-intentioned advice. The commercials featured the physical comedy that the rubber-faced Varney was so good at. He would fall off a ladder or have his fingers slammed in a house window. A few years ago, Varney estimated that he had made about 3,000 commercials featuring Ernest. “Ernest is a neighbor or relative that we’ve all had at one time,” Varney said. “He’s abrasive, but he doesn’t mean to be. He gets excited and ends up standing on your toes. I try to make him clownish and I don’t want him to be too low-key, and he’s physically funny.”
Varney moved to television series work in the late 1970s, appearing on “Operation Petticoat” and “The New Operation Petticoat.” Other television credits included “Hey Vern, It’s Ernest,” “Roseanne,” “The Simpsons,” “The Rousters,” “Alice,” “Fernwood 2-Night” and “Pop Goes the Country.”
Varney took the Ernest role to films in 1987 with “Ernest Goes to Camp” for Disney. He did three more “Ernest” movies for Disney. Five more “Ernest” films were released independently, mainly for the video and television market. Varney’s highest profile film role, however, was as Jed Clampett, the newly rich mountaineer in the 1993 remake of the television series “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
In the ‘90s, Varney worked for Disney again, this time providing the voice for Slinky Dog in the popular animated films “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2.”
Varney was diagnosed with cancer in September 1998. Most of his right lung was removed and he underwent difficult radiation treatments. He announced his battle with cancer last year when the disease seemed to be in remission. Despite his illness, in 1999 he filmed the movie “Daddy and Them,” starring Billy Bob Thornton.
“Everybody likes Ernest unless they’re too cool,” Varney said years ago.
“The people who like sports cars and sunglasses are not our audience. They like that action-adventure, tough-guy stuff,” he said. “From 14 down and 25 up, we have a huge audience. Older people aren’t afraid to laugh at him, and kids aren’t self-conscious yet.”