Jim Varney

Jim Varney

Varney in the film The Expert (1995)
Born James Albert Varney, Jr.
(1949-06-15)June 15, 1949
Lexington, Kentucky, United States
Died February 10, 2000(2000-02-10) (aged 50)
White House, Tennessee, United States
Cause of death Lung cancer
Resting place Lexington Cemetery
Lexington, Kentucky, United States
Occupation Actor, comedian, writer
Years active 1976–2000
Known for Ernest P. Worrell in the Ernest film series
Slinky Dog from the Toy Story series
Spouse(s) Jacqueline Drew (m. 1977; div. 1983)
Jane Varney (m. 1988; div. 1991)
Parent(s) James Albert Varney, Sr.
Nancy Louise Varney

James Albert "Jim" Varney, Jr. (June 15, 1949 – February 10, 2000) was an American actor, comedian and writer, best known for his role as Ernest P. Worrell, who was used in numerous television commercial advertising campaigns and movies, earning him fame worldwide[1][2][3] and a Daytime Emmy Award. He gained further notability for playing Jed Clampett in the movie version of The Beverly Hillbillies (1993) and providing the voice of Slinky Dog in Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999).

Early life

James Albert Varney, Jr. was born in Lexington, Kentucky. He was the fourth child and only son of James Albert Varney, Sr. and Nancy Louise Varney (née Howard).[4][5]

As a child, Varney displayed the ability to memorize long poems and significant portions of material from books, which he used to entertain family and friends. When Varney was a boy, his mother would put the black and white television on cartoons for him to watch. His mother discovered that Varney quickly began to imitate the cartoon characters, so she started him in children's theater when he was 8 years old. Varney began his interest in theater as a teenager, winning state titles in drama competitions while a student at Lafayette High School[6] (class of 1968) in Lexington. At the age of 15, he portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge in a local theater production, and 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 its first year of operation in the 1970s. He listed a former teacher, Thelma Beeler, as being one of the main contributing factors 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 prior to 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. Varney would regale 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 he (Ponzini) wouldn't make it down Main Street without the townsfolk giving him a crewcut.[3]


Television commercials

In 1980, the first commercial featuring Varney as "Ernest" 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 used often by dairies to advertise milk products. For example, the Midwestern dairy bar chain Braum's ran several advertisements using Ernest's catchphrase (as it was spelled in his registered trademark), "KnoWhutImean, Vern?" Purity Dairies, based in Nashville, Pine State Dairy in Raleigh, NC, 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 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, Pruitt'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.

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 knocks the lamp into Ernest's head, knocking him down. Those same television advertisements also were featured on channels in the St. Louis area for Laclede Gas Company during the mid-1980s and in the Metro Detroit area for Michigan Consolidated Gas Company. Another TV ad for Laclede Gas featured Ernest saying, "Heat pump, schmeat pump." Varney also appeared in several Braum's Ice Cream and Dairy Stores commercials throughout the 1980s. These aired on Oklahoma television.

Varney also was noted for doing commercials for car dealerships across the country, most notably Cerritos Auto Square in Cerritos, California, Tysons Toyota in Tysons Corner, Virginia, and Audubon Chrysler in Henderson, Kentucky.[7] Another favorite Ernest vehicle was promotions for various TV stations around the nation, including the news team and the weather departments.

Varney portrayed Ernest in a series of commercials for Convenient Food Mart during the 1980s. In 1982, Varney co-hosted the syndicated Pop! Goes the Country with singer Tom T. Hall. The show had just had a major overhaul and ended shortly after Varney hosted..

Varney also portrayed another character, "Auntie Nelda", in numerous commercials long before he resurrected the character for the movies. Dressed in drag and appearing to be a senior citizen, the commercials gave off the tone of a motherly lady encouraging one to do what was right (in this case, buy whatever product was being promoted). This character, along with the "Ernest" character, ran for a couple of years in Mississippi and Louisiana in commercials for Leadco Aluminum Siding, a company that would provide estimates for placing aluminum siding on a home. Leadco often bought two-hour slots in local markets. During the slot, a movie was televised, and Varney (as one of his characters) and a Leadco representative would be the only commercial breaks during the movie, promoting only Leadco.[8]

During the 1990s, Varney reprised his role as Ernest for Blake's Lotaburger, a fast food chain in New Mexico. In these commercials, Ernest typically would be trying to get into 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 would continue to shout from outside.[9]

Ernest's popularity

The handprints of Jim Varney in front of The Great Movie Ride at Walt Disney World's Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park.

Varney's character Ernest proved so popular that it was spun off into a TV series, Hey Vern, It's Ernest! (1988) and a series of movies in the 1980s and 1990s.[10][11] Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) was a huge hit, grossing $23.5 million at the U.S. box office, on a $3 million production budget, and staying in the Box Office Top 5 for its first three weeks of release. Though the film saw Varney nominated for the now-defunct Razzie Award for Worst New Star, only one year later Varney earned the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series for Hey Vern, It's Ernest!

The canon of theatrically-released Ernest films also includes 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), Slam Dunk Ernest (1995), Ernest Goes to Africa (1997) and Ernest in the Army (1998). The Walt Disney World Resort's Epcot theme park featured Ernest. Epcot's Cranium Command attraction used the Ernest character in its pre-show 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 Knowhutimean? Hey Vern, It's My Family Album; Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam; and the direct-to-video feature Your World as I See It, all of which showcased his great facility with assuming a wide variety of characters and accents. The Ernest Film Festival (a.k.a. Greatest Hits Volume 1) was released on VHS in 1986. Greatest Hits Volume 2 was released in 1992. Mill Creek Entertainment released these classic television commercials on DVD box sets October 31, 2006. Image Entertainment re-released them on June 5, 2012 as part of the DVD set Ernest's Wacky Adventures: Volume 1.

Other roles

Varney had an established acting career prior to 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.

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 past six years, The Love Boat.

Varney can be seen in Hank Williams, Jr.'s video for "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight", where 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 played Jed Clampett in the 1993 production of The Beverly Hillbillies, Rex, a carnival worker/associate of Dennis Quaid in Wilder Napalm, which is about two pyrokinetic brothers, played by Quaid and Arliss Howard, and as the accident-prone entertainer/watch guard (aka "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 also lent his voice to Slinky Dog in Disney/Pixar's Toy Story and Toy Story 2 in the Toy Story series (Varney was replaced by Blake Clark in Toy Story 3 due to his death in 2000), and played numerous others, including "Cookie" Farnsworth, from Atlantis: The Lost Empire, released the year after his death (Steve Barr replaced Varney for the sequel Atlantis: Milo's Return), the carny character Cooter 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 production, 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 5th graders in a treehouse.

One of Varney's final films was Billy Bob Thornton's Daddy and Them, where 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, where he has a friendly chat with a small group of young children about making silly faces and laughter, then entertainingly sings a simple song with them.

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.

According to an interview, one of Varney's final projects was writing a screenplay about the legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, stating that his grandfather hunted squirrel with the McCoys.

Varney said his dream role would have been to perform Hamlet. During novelist Peter David's efforts to bring his 1987 novel Knight Life to the big screen, movie producers intended to have Varney portray the main character, King Arthur.

Personal life

Varney was married twice, first to Jacqueline Drew (1977–1983) and then to Jane Varney (1988–1991). Both marriages ended in divorce, though he remained friends with his ex-wife Jane until his death; she became Varney's spokesperson and accompanied him in Pixar's 1999 film Toy Story 2.

On December 6, 2013, Jim Varney's nephew, Justin Lloyd, published a comprehensive biography about his uncle titled The Importance of Being Ernest: The Life of Actor Jim Varney (Stuff that Vern doesn't even know).[12]

Illness and death

During the filming of Treehouse Hostage in August 1998,[13] Varney started developing a bad cough. At first, it was thought that he might have caught a cold because of the climate of the area where the movie was being filmed. However, as the cough became worse, Varney began noticing blood on his handkerchief and, after filming was complete, he went to a doctor. A chain smoker, Varney had developed lung cancer. The disease slowly became worse, yet Varney continued to film movies. Upon being diagnosed, he reportedly threw his cigarettes away and quit smoking. Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement as Ernest in the 1980s, though it is often mistakenly assumed to have been filmed after his diagnosis.[14]

Varney finally returned to Tennessee, where he went through chemotherapy in the hope he could beat the disease. However, it failed and he consequently died on February 10, 2000 in his home in White House, Tennessee, a city north of Nashville, at the age of 50. He was buried in Lexington Cemetery in Lexington, Kentucky.[15] Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which was released a year after his death, was his final role. The movie was dedicated in his memory.

Blake Clark took over Varney's role of Slinky Dog in Toy Story 3, released ten years after his death.



Year Title Role Notes
1982 Spittin' Image Sheriff
1983 Knowhutimean? Hey Vern, It's My Family Album Ernest P. Worrell / Davy Worrell & Company / Ace Worrell / Lloyd Worrell / Billy Boogie Worrell / Rhetch Worrell / Pop Worrell
1986 Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam Dr. Otto / Ernest P. Worrell / Rudd Hardtact / Laughin' Jack / Guy Dandy / Auntie Nelda
Ernest's Greatest Hits Volume 1 (The Ernest Film Festival) Ernest P. Worrell
1987 Ernest Goes to Camp
Hey Vern, Win $10,000...Or Just Count on Having Fun!
1988 Ernest Saves Christmas Ernest P. Worrell / Aster Clement / The Governor's Student / Auntie Nelda / Mrs. Brock / Marty's Mother / The Snake Guy
1989 Fast Food Wrangler Bob Bundy
1990 Ernest Goes to Jail Ernest P. Worrell / Felix Nash / Auntie Nelda
1991 Ernest Scared Stupid Ernest P. Worrell / Phineas Worrell / Auntie Nelda / Various Relatives
1992 Ernest's Greatest Hits Volume 2 Ernest P. Worrell
1993 Wilder Napalm Rex
The Beverly Hillbillies Jed Clampett
Ernest Rides Again Ernest P. Worrell
1994 Ernest Goes to School
1995 Slam Dunk Ernest
The Expert Snake
Toy Story Slinky Dog Voice only
Bubba Goes Hunting Bubba
1996 Snowboard Academy Rudy James
1997 Blood, Friends and Money The Old Mariner
100 Proof Rae's Father
Ernest Goes to Africa Ernest P. Worrell / Hey You, the Hindu / Auntie Nelda / African Woman Dancer
Annabelle's Wish Mr. Gus Holder Voice only
1998 Ernest in the Army Pvt./Capt. Ernest P. Worrell / Operation Sandtrap Arab
3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain Lothar Zogg
1999 Existo Marcel Horowitz
Treehouse Hostage Carl Banks
Toy Story 2 Slinky Dog Voice only
2001 Daddy and Them Hazel Montgomery
Atlantis: The Lost Empire Jebidiah 'Cookie' Farnsworth Voice only, final film


Year Title Role Notes
1977 Operation Petticoat Doom & Gloom Broom
Fernwood 2 Night Virgil Simms Episode: "Ethnic Myths"
Episode: "Getting the Most from Your Warranty"
Episode: "#1.46"
Episode: "Battery Powered Car"
1978 America 2-Night Virgil Simms Episode: "Daredevil Virgil Simms"
Episode: "Falafel-on-a-Stick"
Episode: "The UBS Story"
Operation Petticoat Seaman 'Doom & Gloom' Broom 32 episodes
Alice Milo Skinner Episode: "Better Never Than Later"
1979 Alan King's Third Annual Final Warning! Various
1980 Pink Lady Various All 6 episodes
1982–83 Pop! Goes the Country Unknown episodes
1983 The Rousters Evan Earp TV series pilot film
The Rousters Evan Earp All 13 episodes
1988 Hey Vern, It's Ernest! Ernest P. Worrell / Various
1988–89 Happy New Year, America Ernest P. Worrell / Correspondent Live New Year's Eve special
1989 Ernest Goes to Splash Mountain Ernest P. Worrell
1990 Disneyland Ernest P. Worrell / Ernest's Father Episode: "Disneyland's 35th Anniversary Celebration"
Disneyland's 35th Anniversary Celebration Ernest P. Worrell
1994 XXX's & OOO's Cameo
1996 Roseanne Prince Carlos Episode: "Someday My Prince Will Come"
Episode: "Home Is Where the Afghan Is"
1997 Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man Walt Evergreen Voice only
Episode: "You've Come a Wrong Way, Baby"
1998 Hercules: The Animated Series King Ephialtes Voice only
Episode "Hercules and the Dance Muse"
1998 The Simpsons Cooder Voice only
Episode: "Bart Carny"

Video games

Year Title Role Notes
1996 Toy Story: Activity Center Slinky Dog Voice only
1996 Animated Storybook: Toy Story
1999 Toy Story 2: Activity Center
1999 Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue
2000 Atlantis: The Lost Empire Cookie


  1. "Ernest P. Gets Rich With Vern". Sun Sentinel. Retrieved October 6, 2010.
  2. "Jim Varney; Comedic Actor Played Rube Ernest P. Worrell in Commercials, Movies". Los Angeles Times. February 11, 2000. Retrieved October 6, 2010.
  3. 1 2 "Jim Varney, 50, Who Turned 'Ernest' Character into a Career". New York Times. February 11, 2000. Retrieved October 6, 2010.
  4. "James Varney, Sr. Gravesite". Retrieved November 24, 2011.
  5. "Jim Varney Biography; Film Actor, Television Actor, Comedian (1949–2000)". biography.com. Retrieved April 12, 2016.
  6. "1967 Lafayette High Yearbook". classmates.com. Retrieved July 28, 2014.
  7. Kalafut, Kathy (April 13, 1990). "Hey, Vern, I'm a Star!! – EW.com". Entertainment Weekly.
  8. Auntie Nelda on YouTube
  9. "Guess Who's Coming to Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner—Hey, Vern! It's Your Old Pal Jim Varney!". People. Retrieved October 6, 2010.
  10. "The Character Curse: Actor, Role Seen As One". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved October 6, 2010.
  11. Dubois, Stephanie (July 8, 1989). "Jim Varney Hopes Cards And Letters Keep Pouring in to Save Poor Ernest". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved October 6, 2010.
  12. Lloyd, Justin. The Importance of Being Ernest: The Life of Actor Jim Varney. CreateSpace. ISBN 978-1-4927-4631-7.
  13. Keel, Beverly (November 15, 1999). "The Importance of Being Ernest". Nashville Scene. Retrieved June 2, 2015.
  14. "The Earnest Film Festival". Nashville Scene.
  15. "Actor Jim "Ernest" Varney dies at 50". Salon. Retrieved October 6, 2010.
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