NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – A fourth grade teacher appears on-screen, spiking the camera. Behind her stands a boy in a very specific clothing combination writing sentences on the chalkboard. “He never knew when to quit,” she deadpans, as the boy behind her begins running his nails down the board. She smacks him upside the head.
A running gag throughout Ernest Scared Stupid (1991) sees the titular character never knowing when to give up. Though used for comedic effect in the film, the same words described the man behind Ernest P. Worrell – Jim Varney.
The Lexington, Kentucky native loved acting from an early age. Through his own ambition, Varney took that love of performing and kept pushing for more. His determination turned a character created for commercials into a movie star. His drive made a khaki hat and denim vest an iconic combination. And his heart and personality made him a beloved figure for a whole generation of fans.
“There’s such a depth to his performance,” said David Pagano.
Pagano, along with Varney’s nephew, Justin Lloyd, is part of a team working on The Importance of Being Ernest, a documentary on the life of Jim Varney.
“It’s weird to think, for as goofy as a character as Ernest is, those movies have depth, and they have replay value,” Pagano, the documentary’s director said. “There is – a humanity, and a warmth, and a sincerity to the way that Jim plays Ernest. And I think that’s sort of why there is kind of like a timeless aspect to [the movies].”
In the early 1970s, Varney was performing at the Pioneer Playhouse in Danville, Kentucky. He would travel to Tennessee on tours for productions, like an original musical called Fire on the Mountain. At one point, Varney was working for the recently opened Opryland in Nashville when his then-girlfriend had an audition for the Carden & Cherry Advertising Agency.
“He was just basically accompanying her to the audition,” said Varney’s nephew, Justin Lloyd. “[Carden & Cherry] thought he had an interesting look and they asked him to try out for the Sergeant Glory role, and he got the part.”
Years before Ernest, Varney got a taste for playing pitchman as the Sgt. Glory character for Purity Dairies in Nashville.
The origin of Ernest P. Worrell:
While there are a few different stories about how the name and character came to be, Lloyd said the origin of Ernest can be traced back to a man that worked with John Cherry’s father – a real “know-it-all” type. As for the name, Cherry liked Worrell because when you said it, Pagano described, it sounded like you had marbles in your mouth, “giving this sort of awkward character, an awkward-sounding name.
What does the P stand for?
Thanks to a segment in an Ernest Fan Club newsletter, the P. in the official Ernest canon stands for…Power Tools. To add another layer to that, Pagano believes it is written as two words which TECHNICALLY makes his name Ernest P. T. Worrell. “Trying to find consistency in the Ernest universe is sometimes a fool’s errand,” Pagano joked.
A career begins in ‘Ernest’
Varney’s relationship with Carden & Cherry would prove to be a fruitful one. In 1980, the agency was asked to develop a series of ads for Beech Bend Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The problem at the time, Lloyd recalled, was the park needed major renovations.
“John Cherry, and [Thom Ferrell] drove up to the park, and they could see ‘we can’t shoot the park…we’re gonna have to have a spokesman just talk about the park.’ – I think the thinking was, they’d shoot at John Cherry’s home, or somewhere.”
At the same time, Varney had just returned to Kentucky. “Because [Carden & Cherry] had worked with Jim previously, and Jim had just come back from California to work,” recalled Lloyd. “He was the only person they even considered.”
Varney would find himself at the center of a new series of spots. Unlike the tough-as-nails, humorless drill instructor Sgt. Glory, Varney had a chance to explore a new character. “I don’t even know if they had named the character at that time or anything. It was just the spokesman to talk up the park,” said Lloyd.
Though the character didn’t have all the traits that Ernest would one day be known for, no denim vest, no khaki hat – just a cap with Beech Bend on it – the spokesman was the genesis for the future Ernest P. Worrell. Varney shot a handful of commercials, not knowing that he just stumbled upon the character that would define his career.
About a year after shooting the spots, Purity Dairies began meeting with Carden & Cherry to develop a new series of ads. The agency played some of Varney’s Beech Bend ads for the Nashville brand since they worked with him on the Glory campaign. “They thought [the character] could appeal to the kids and so forth,” said Lloyd. “That’s really where Ernest started.”
As the Purity ads took off, Varney went from a local pitchman to a franchise, appearing in spots for nearly a dozen different dairy companies in the span of a year. The Ernest character then started appearing in commercials for food marts and more.
“What’s crazy to me,” recalled Lloyd, “the leap from dairy to food mart is a pretty natural one. But then when you start going into, especially the news stations…that was the real leap, but it worked.”
Over the course of nearly two decades, Ernest would appear in more than 2,000 commercials across the country. Pagano broke down a list of some the team has come across working on Varney’s documentary. Ernest P. Worrell appeared in commercials for car dealerships, financial firms, diamond stores, television stations (like KDFW in Dallas, Texas), gas companies, West Virginia’s lottery, Montana Power, Sprite, Purina Dog Food, Keystone beer, and the Atlanta Braves to name a few.
“Know what I mean, Vern?”
Ernest would often speak with someone off-camera he referred to as ‘Vern’. “It started off with Varney saying, Vernon like in some of the very first ads and then it just got shortened to Vern,” said Lloyd. “Then I thought it kinda spoke to the character how somebody you don’t know is calling you a nickname. He was calling him Vern like they were buddies, I don’t know if that was the intent like I’m gonna call you a nickname like buddies, like don’t call me a nickname, like don’t call me Vern, my name is Vernon, Right?” joked Lloyd.
Pagano said it all adds to the, “forced familiarity that Ernest, as a nosy neighbor, puts across.”
Ernest Goes to the Movies
By 1985, the Ernest character had expanded his footprint nationally with four years of commercial appearances. That year, Varney attended the Indianapolis 500 after a company he had shot ads for asked him to represent them at the Indy 500 Festival Parade. Ernest was a hit with the crowd, even garnering more applause than the Grand Marshal of that year’s event – Mickey Mouse. The excitement over Ernest caught the attention of Disney’s Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg who were both in attendance.
“[Eisner and Katzenberg] didn’t know of Ernest, they didn’t know who he was – ‘maybe we need to check this guy out,’ and they were soon meeting up with John Cherry,” said Lloyd.
Varney signed a deal with Disney to bring Ernest to the big screen in four feature films between 1987 – 1991. The first film in the series, Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) saw Worrell save Kamp Kikakee from an evil mining company. Shot mainly at Montgomery State Park in Burns, Tennessee, the film gave Varney a chance to showcase his comedic talents and flesh out the motives and personality of the Ernest character. The film was a hit, grossing more than six times the estimated budget of $3.5 million by the end of its release.
Varney’s next film, Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) would go on to be the highest-grossing Ernest movie, making just over $28 million.
Varney would return to Tennessee to shoot the next two Ernest films. Ernest Goes to Jail (1990) – shot around Nashville and in the Tennessee State Prison – gave Varney a chance to portray a character outside of Ernest, the film’s villain, Mr. Nash. The evil doppelganger even became a popular topic of conversation 14 years after the film’s release, thanks to the podcast – How Did This Get Made.
Varney’s final film on the Disney deal, Ernest Scared Stupid, came out the following year. His four films with the company would go on to gross over $90 million. Not a bad run for a character that got his start a decade prior, selling dairy products.
Life outside of Ernest
In 1993, Varney appeared as Jed Clampett in the big-screen adaptation of The Beverley Hillbillies. But his casting, Lloyd said didn’t come easy, “Penelope Spheeris, the director, had to fight for him to get that role. A lot of Hollywood just saw him as Ernest.”
After a handful of projects, including a string of Ernest films: Ernest Rides Again (1993), Ernest Goes to School (1994), and Slam Dunk Ernest (1995), Varney returned to Disney to voice Slinky Dog in Pixar’s Toy Story (1995).
“I think he felt that the Ernest character would sort of gradually fade away and he would start to take on sort of some more serious roles because it was already starting with Daddy and Them towards the end of his life,” said Pagano.
Varney continued to find new roles to tackle outside of Ernest. But in 1998 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. “He was optimistic that he would beat this,” said Lloyd. “He really didn’t want anybody to really know how sick he was.”
Varney had been smoking since he was a teen. Lloyd recalled seeing his uncle start coughing after fits of laughter, “I remember, even as a kid, thinking that doesn’t seem right. That he’s young and he’s coughing.”
“He never knew when to quit…”
For most of his life, that line could be associated with how Varney built his career. Unfortunately, it described his downfall as well. “I felt like he was kind of burning the candle at both ends,” said Lloyd.
A few months before he passed, Lloyd and his sister went to visit Varney. They spent hours talking. “I think he kind of knew he was dying. He was – almost telling me his life story in some regard.”
One of Varney’s final performances was reprising Slinky Dog in Toy Story 2. He attended the premiere in November 1999. Lloyd said it gave him a chance to have a last hurrah in Hollywood, “he’s sitting down at the premiere with his manager and leans over to him, and he says – you know, it’s been a great adventure.”
Lloyd and his mother traveled to meet Varney at his home in White House, Tennessee the following February. They were with him the night he passed away on February 10, 2000. It was a sad moment for the family, but Lloyd found some joy knowing his uncle was able to do what he loved before he died. “I was happy that he was able to do things like the Toy Story premiere, just months before he passed. He was kind of having this Hollywood ending to his life.”
The Legacy of Ernest
June 15, 2021, would have been Varney’s 72nd birthday. Though the comedian passed away two decades ago, his legacy lives on in the hearts of fans.
“I can’t tell you how many people have reached out to us and said, something to the effect of, Ernest was basically like a surrogate father or father figure to me,” said Pagano. “This character was like, a sort of paternal kind of presence.”
While Ernest was a humorous character, Pagano said Varney brought so much more to him.
“No one is exactly like Ernest. He’s got all these – disparate elements and some of them feel like they shouldn’t work together, but they do somehow. It’s very fascinating.”
Varney brought a charm to the character that was all his own. He was a man who loved Shakespeare and studied Vaudeville. A man who never met a stranger. There was benevolence to Ernest. A twang of southern charm, but never at the expense of the region Varney called home. He was equal parts folksy and farcical – like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, by way of Mark Twain.
“Jim played Ernest so well that people believed Ernest was a real person,” said Pagano.
Varney would go visit children’s hospitals on his days off dressed as the character. But even if he wasn’t off, he would find always find an excuse to visit kids. If the actor disappeared from set or an event he was supposed to be at, it was safe to assume you’d find him at a nearby hospital cheering up children dressed like Ernest.
The Importance of Being Ernest:
The team behind the Ernest documentary has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the feature-length documentary that will explore the life of Jim Varney and the evolution of Ernest P. Worrell. To learn more about how you can help, click here.
Pagano described Ernest as a character that, “occupied that space between child and grown-up.”
The character connected with younger viewers. He embodied the underdog. Kids could relate to his journey and the struggles Ernest faced. Varney’s warmth and charm created a character that you could laugh with just as much as you could laugh at for his goofy antics.
Varney himself was just as dynamic, lighting up every room he walked in. “He was just such an original kind of person,” Lloyd recalled.
Varney’s story mirrors that of an Ernest movie. The underdog who succeeded, winning everyone over in the process. The commercial spokesperson for regional companies who would go on to win a Daytime Emmy Award, star in a nine-film franchise, and warm the hearts of fans a generation over.
So how did he do it? How did Jim Varney create such an endearing legacy? How did he turn the lovable loser, decked out in a khaki hat and denim vest into a comedic icon? In the words of Ernest P. Worrell’s fourth grade teacher, “he never knew when to quit.”
Thanks to David Pagano for contributing to this piece. Pagano is an award-winning filmmaker, animator, author, and the founder of Paganomation, a New York-based production studio. In addition to his film and animation work, David spent 5+ years as producer and co-host of Ernest Goes to Podcast, a comprehensive exploration of the Ernest P. Worrell character.
Thanks to Justin Lloyd for contributing to the piece. He is Jim Varney’s nephew and the author of “The Importance of Being Ernest: The Life of Actor Jim Varney”. In writing this biography, Justin took on the dual role of “Varney family genealogist” and “Ernest historian”, developing an encyclopedic knowledge of his Uncle Jim and the characters he played.
To learn more about their documentary project and how you can help, click here.