There are character actors, who have become known to play a type, because they have done it many so times before, and it eventually becomes their job. But there is also another breed of character actor, one who lives and breathes their role in the real world. These individuals are so good at consistently playing this part that the general public often is tricked into believing this off-beat character is the Real McCoy. This week’s honoree fits this description like a glove. He is none other than Mr. Jim Varney, or as you may know him best, Ernest P. Worrell.
Jim Varney first cultivated the Ernest character in 1980, but not as the film star he would eventually become. Varney’s Ernest, in all his redneck glory, was used as a commercial spokesman to sell everything from local amusement parks to national products like Sprint and Mello Yellow. These oddball ads would always feature the same yet brilliant setup. Our man Ernest would approach a door presumably to a house out in the country while speaking to a disembodied person named Vern. The great thing about these ads was that the Vern character never spoke; Ernest would simply be speaking directly into the camera. He would mention the product in a heavily but was able to do so with his own brand of self-deprecating humor.
These unusual ads brought Varney into the mainstream because he was a lovable character that anyone would want to buy a soda from. Unlike the Geico Cavemen, the Ernest character made a clean transition into a successful television and film career in the mid 1980s. The show “Hey Vern, It’s Ernest” brought Varney into the homes of millions of children every Saturday morning. And with that came merchandising! Many of you will remember the Ernest doll with everyone’s favorite pull string to hear all of the character’s famous catch phrases, which has become somewhat of a collector’s item today.
Varney’s first feature film role debuted in 1987 with the family, and now cult hit “Ernest Goes to Camp.” The film would begin a tradition of placing the lovable buffoon in various situations where he was bound to get into all types of trouble, all while retaining his childlike innocence. The late 1980s and early 90s were quite good for Varney and Ernest as sequels continued for the franchise, with films like “Ernest Saves Christmas,” “Ernest Goes to Jail,” and “Ernest Scared Stupid,” all making money at the box office.
But like all humans one cannot live on bread alone. Varney needed to branch out from behind Ernest’s trademark blue vest and hat to try out some other roles. In 1993, Varney would step onto the screen to portray (aged) pop culture legend, Jed Clampett, in the film remake of the popular fifties television show, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The movie was a modest success at the box office, but sadly it was not the vehicle to move Varney away from his popular other identity. One of his biggest successes was doing voiceover work as the animated Slinky Dog in the blockbuster hits Toy Story 1 and 2. But even after these other projects, Varney went back to making more Ernest films into the late nineties, all of which went straight to video.
Sadly, unknown to many of Varney’s fans, he was a long-time cigarette smoker. Varney developed lung cancer and died on February 10, 2000. His death was not in vein, as he left behind one of the most memorable pitchman and media personalities of the late twentieth century. Next week, we will discuss our first female character actor, Mrs. Edie McClurg. And trust me there is a lot more to know about her than just her role in Ferris Bueller.
- Alan Smithee