Remembering Jim Varney 20 Years After His Death
The late, great Jim Varney passed away 20 years ago today, and the legendary actor is still deeply missed. Those of us ’80s and ’90s kids will always particularly remember him fondly as lovable dimwit Ernest P. Worrell from the long-running Ernest movie franchise. Especially big fans of Varney will also remember him for his many other memorable performances as well. Wherever you know Varney from best, to know him was to love him, and there’s never been anyone else quite like him since.
A Kentucky native, Varney was born in 1949. After performing in stage productions as a teenager and a young man, Varney began working in television in the 1970’s. He also performed as a stand-up comedian, often creating new characters which he would portray as a part of his routine. Personally creating the “Ernest” character, Varney first began portraying his career-making role in 1980 for a local commercial for Kentucky’s Beech Bend Park. As Ernest caught on with viewers, the character would go on to be used for many new television ads for various other companies throughout the decade, making Varney one of the most recognizable pop culture figures of the ’80s.
As a result of his popularity, Varney brought the character to the big screen when Ernest made his film debut in John R. Cherry III’s 1987 movie Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam. Varney also played the titular Dr. Otto in the film along with several other characters, but it was clear people wanted to see more Ernest. This brought about Ernest’s first solo film the following year, Ernest Goes to Camp, with Cherry directing. The film was a hit, and a beloved movie series was born.
In subsequent years, Jim Varney would return to star as Ernest in Ernest Saves Christmas, Ernest Goes to Jail, Ernest Scared Stupid, Ernest Rides Again, Ernest Goes to School, Slam Dunk Ernest, Ernest Goes to Africa, and Ernest in the Army. We all might have our own personal favorites in the series, but we can all agree that Varney always shined as the character in every performance he gave in the denim vest and tan cap. Let’s all hope Hollywood never even thinks about rebooting the franchise, as it’s written in stone that there can never be another Ernest P. Worrell.
In addition to his role as Ernest, Varney has entertained elsewhere in movies and television. He was fantastic as Jed Clampett in the 1993 movie adaptation of The Beverly Hillbillies. Varney also had memorable roles as more devious characters in movies like The Expert, 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain, and Treehouse Hostage. His final film appearance came a year after his death in the 2001 movie Daddy and Them, which co-starred Laura Dern and Billy Bob Thornton.
Of course, we have to mention Varney’s exceptional work as a voice actor as well. He is certainly very well-known for voicing Slinky Dog in the original Toy Story and Toy Story 2 before Blake Clark took over the role. Some of his other voice credits include Duckman, Hercules, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Personally, my favorite will always be his hilarious role on The Simpsons where he starred in the Season 9 episode “Bart Carny” as the carny conman Cooder. “We were beaten by the best, boy!”
Lung cancer took Jim Varney away from us far too soon when he passed away on Feb. 10, 2000, at the age of 50. With so much exceptional talent and far more left to contribute as an entertainer, it’s hard not to think about what could have been. He might be gone, but two decades past his death, Varney’s memory continues to shine as brightly as it ever has, and he is still very much loved, remembered, and missed. Without a doubt, this is certainly one legacy that will never, ever die. KnoWhutImean, Vern?