Jim Varney: The Real Life 'Ernest' Was Just as Lovable Off-Screen

Actor Jim Varney was easily one of the funniest guys in children's entertainment in the '80s and '90s. Best known for his iconic character, "Ernest P. Worrell," Varney was a southern boy that made it big, finding his niche in family comedies. 

James Varney Jr. had an affinity to entertain from an early age, regularly memorizing poems or book passages and performing them for friends and family while growing up in Lexington, Kentucky. He started competing in local theater competitions, and by 17, he was performing around town at local coffee shops. He studied Shakespeare and was even in a folk show at Opryland theme park in the '70s. He made his rounds but eventually settled into comedy as his true gift.

While he is best known for his role as Ernest P. Worrell in a string of films, he had a successful career before that. He had a regular role on Johnny Cash and Friends and toured as a stand up comic. Varney was also a recurring guest on the parody talk show, Fernwood 2 Night, produced by Alan Thicke. In 1985 he even co-hosted HBO's New Year's Eve special with Cash and Kris Kristofferson and starred in the CBS TV show Alice. 

The Ernest character first debuted in a series of commercials, gaining popularity from his catchphrase "KnoWhutImean, Vern?" He was used by dairy companies and even the hamburger and ice cream chain Braums.

During the '80s the character became so popular that it made it's way to the small screen with the TV show, Hey Vern, It's Ernest! The show only ran for one season on CBS in 1988, but earned Varney a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series.

Varney had a big heart and used his celebrity to brighten the spirits of some of his biggest little fans. According to a 1999 profile in the Nashville Scene, Varney frequently visited terminally ill children through the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

Read More: Andy Griffith and Don Knotts' Friendship Shines in Classic Clip from 1965 TV Special

Varney appeared in a slew of Ernest films, starting with Ernest Goes to Camp in 1987. The movie was a box office hit, grossing $25 million in the US. Over the next decade, Ernest just couldn't be stopped — other films include Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), Ernest Goes to Jail (1990), Ernest Scared Stupid (1991), Ernest Rides Again (1993), Ernest Goes to School (1994) Slam Dunk Ernest (1995), Ernest Goes to Africa (1997), and Ernest in the Army (1998). Ernest became such a pop culture icon that Walt Disney World Resort's Epcot park even featured the character on the Cranium Command attraction. 

Varney starred as Jed Clampett in the 1993 film rendition of The Beverly Hillbillies opposite Diedrich Bader, Erika Eleniak, and Cloris Leachman. This was one of many of Varney's connections to the south throughout his career. He also starred as Evan Earp, a descendant of Wyatt Earp in the television series The Rousters from 1983 to 1984. 

The actor took great pride in the opportunity to portray Jed Clampett.

"It's just a whole class of Americans that have been forgotten," Varney told the Nashville Scene. "People in trailer parks have a certain culture and people who live on middle American farms have a certain culture, but your true hillbilly is a wilderness farmer from the hills, Appalachian or Ozark."

He even made an appearance in Hank Williams Jr.'s music video for  "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight."

Maybe his second most iconic performance other than the Ernest movies was as the voice of Slinky Dog in Toy Story and Toy Story 2 on the big screen. His final film appearances include Billy Bob Thornton's Daddy and Them and The Misadventures of Bubba trilogy of educational films that teach children about gun safety. 

Varney was a longtime chain smoker and sadly passed away after losing a battle to lung cancer in 2000 at his home in Tennessee outside of Nashville. Though he was taken too soon, Verney will always be remembered as a beloved comic who knew how to make children laugh on the big and small screen.

This article was originally published in April of 2020.

Now Watch: Stroll Through the Real Mayberry from 'The Andy Griffith Show'