Childhood & Early Life
Jim was born on June 15, 1949, in Lexington, Kentucky, US, to James Albert Varney Sr. and Nancy Louise Varney (née Howard). He was their fourth child and their only son.
As a child, he had the ability to memorize lengthy material. After watching her son imitate cartoon characters, Nancy led him to join children’s theater at the tender age of 8.
Gradually, he developed an interest in theater, and while studying at ‘Lafayette High School,’ he won state titles in various drama competitions.
By the time he turned 17, he began acting professionally, performing in coffee houses and nightclubs. He performed in a folk show that was presented at ‘Opryland USA,’ an amusement park in suburban Nashville, Tennessee.
At age 24, he began acting at the ‘Pioneer Playhouse’ in Danville, Kentucky. His early stage appearances included his performances in the plays ‘Boeing 707,’ ‘Fire on the Mountain,’ and ‘Blithe Spirit.’
Continue Reading Below
One of his initial TV pursuits was an appearance in an episode of the daytime variety talk show ‘Dinah!’ in 1976. He played the recurring character of ‘Virgil Simms’ in the comedy show ‘Fernwood 2 Night’ in 1977 and in its follow-up series, ‘America 2-Night,’ in 1978. He also featured as ‘Seaman “Doom & Gloom” Broom’ in the series ‘Operation Petticoat’ in 1978.
His first commercial as ‘Ernest P. Worrell’ was an advertisement that featured the ‘Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’ at ‘Beech Bend Park’ in 1980. The character was created by ‘Carden & Cherry,’ an advertising agency based in Nashville, and was used in several local TV commercials, apart from being used in markets across the US.
Many dairies, including the Nashville-based ‘Purity Dairies,’ the Maine-based ‘Oakhurst Dairy,’ the Raleigh- based ‘Pine State Dairy,’ and the Tuttle- based dairy bar and hamburger chain ‘Braum's’ used the character in their commercials. His famous catchphrase “Knowhutimean, Vern?" featured in several such advertisements.
Over the years, he appeared as ‘Ernest’ in several other commercials. These included the advertisements for ‘Convenient Food Mart’ and the ‘Laclede Gas Company’ in the 1980s. He also featured in advertisements for the ‘Michigan Consolidated Gas Company’ and ‘Braum's Ice Cream and Dairy Stores’ in the 1980s. The 1990s saw him featuring in commercials for ‘Blake's Lotaburger’ among others. Various national brands, such as ‘The Coca-Cola Company,’ ‘Taco John's,’ and ‘Chex,’ featured ‘Ernest’ in their advertisements.
Most of the ‘Ernest’ commercials were released by ‘Hollywood Pictures’ and ‘Touchstone Pictures Home Video’ on VHS tapes. On October 31, 2006, ‘Mill Creek Entertainment’ released these commercials on DVD. They were re-released on June 5, 2012, as part of the DVD set ‘Ernest's Wacky Adventures: Volume 1’ by ‘Image Entertainment.’ ‘Ernest’ was also featured at ‘Epcot,’ a theme park at the ‘Walt Disney World Resort.’
Varney also appeared as the humorless drill instructor ‘Sgt. Glory,’ another creation of ‘Carden & Cherry,' in many commercials. He appeared as ‘Auntie Nelda’ in many films.
Meanwhile, the character of ‘Ernest’ became popular enough for it to be featured in a TV series and several films. The first film featuring ‘Ernest’ was the 1986 science-fiction comedy ‘Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam.’
The second film featuring ‘Ernest,’ titled ‘Ernest Goes to Camp,’ was released on May 22, 1987. It became a sensational hit, grossing US$ 23.5 million at the box office, against a budget of US$ 3 million.
The children’s TV series ‘Hey Vern, It's Ernest!’ was originally aired on ‘CBS’ for 13 episodes, from September 17, 1988, to December 24, 1988. The show was rerun in the 1990s on ‘The Family Channel.’ Other artists who featured in the series were Gailard Sartain, Bill Byrge, and Debi Derryberry. The series earned Varney a ‘Daytime Emmy Award’ in the category of ‘Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series’ in 1989.
Continue Reading Below
An array of ‘Ernest’ films followed. These included the hits ‘Ernest Saves Christmas’ (1988), ‘Ernest Goes to Jail’ (1990), and ‘Ernest Scared Stupid’ (1991).
The next film in the ‘Ernest’ series, ‘Ernest Rides Again,’ which released on November 12, 1993, was a commercial failure. It was the last film of the series to be released theatrically. The ‘Ernest’ films released after this were all ‘direct-to-video’ releases. These included ‘Ernest Goes to School’ (1994), ‘Slam Dunk Ernest’ (1995), ‘Ernest Goes to Africa’ (1997), and ‘Ernest in the Army’ (1998).
One of his notable works apart from the ‘Ernest’ films was his voice-over as ‘Slinky Dog,’ a toy dachshund, in the ‘Disney/Pixar' computer-animated film ‘Toy Story.’ The film released in November 1995 and became a blockbuster hit. He went on to reprise the role in its first sequel, titled ‘Toy Story 2,’ which released in November 1999 and also became a super hit.
A few notable TV performances of Varney were for the TV series ‘Pink Lady’ (1980) and ‘The Rousters’ (1983). Some of Varney’s noteworthy films were ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ (1993), ‘Wilder Napalm’ (1993), ‘100 Proof’ (1997), and ‘3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain’ (1998).
His final role was his voice-over as ‘Jebidiah “Cookie” Farnsworth’ in the hit animated science-fantasy film ‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire.’ The film, which was released posthumously in June 2001, was dedicated to his memory.
Jim married Jacqueline Drew on June 15, 1977, but the couple divorced in 1983. He then married Jane Varney in 1988, and they remained married till their divorce in 1991. They remained friends after their divorce. He had no children.
He started having a bad cough during the filming of ‘Treehouse Hostage’ in August 1998 and was eventually diagnosed with lung cancer. A chain-smoker, he quit smoking after his diagnosis and underwent chemotherapy. However, he continued with his acting endeavors. Unfortunately, he succumbed to the disease on February 10, 2000, at his residence in White House, Tennessee, and was buried in ‘Lexington Cemetery’ in Lexington, Kentucky.
A detailed biography of the actor, titled ‘The Importance of Being Ernest: The Life of Actor Jim Varney (Stuff that Vern doesn't even know)’ was published by his nephew, Justin Lloyd, on December 6, 2013.