In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest fear Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley explained the titular character, the dim-witted yet well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As shown by Kentucky aboriginal Jim Varney, Ernest was in the center of a 10-film franchise the would view him wrongly incarcerated (Ernest Goes come Jail), enlisting in the army (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an hurt Santa (Ernest conserves Christmas), and also returning come formal education in bespeak to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes come School).

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Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and also Pauly Shore, Varney take it a far much more unusual route to movie stardom. With declaring executive john Cherry III, Varney source the Ernest character in a collection of regional television commercials. Through one estimate, Ernest showed up in end 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to offered cars. They flourished so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member pan club prior to his very first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was also released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so lot so that the actor would dread walking on dates for fear Ernest pan would technique him; he periodically wore disguises come discourage recognition. Despite he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the chance to broaden his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. That was therefore that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes define his notoriety together a “mixed blessing,” one the would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney invested his youth gift reprimanded by teacher who thought his attention in theater shouldn’t replace attention payment to mathematics or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school simply two mainly shy that graduation (he changed in the loss for his diploma) come head for new York v $65 in cash and also a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway dram Varney appeared in were no lucrative, and he started to bounce earlier and forth in between Kentucky and also California, steering a truck once times were lean and appearing in TV shows favor Petticoat Junction when his happy improved. Throughout one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, the met Cherry, who actors him together an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a auto dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney to be asked earlier to film a new spot for Cherry, this one because that a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it top top camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, frequently imbecilic neighborhood who is continually harassing his neighborhood Vern. (“Know what ns mean, Vern?” came to be Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot to be a hit, and also soon Varney and also Cherry were being asked to movie spots because that Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other regional businesses. In the spots, Ernest would typically look right into the camera—the audience mutual Vern’s suggest of view—and endorse whatever organization had enlisted his services, usually avoiding only once Vern devised a means to obtain him the end of sight.

Although the Purity advertisement initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest the scared part children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot there is no a long-term corporate home. He and also Cherry would certainly film as much as 26 point out in a day, every targeted because that a specific an ar of the country. In some areas, civilization would call television station asking as soon as the next Ernest spot was because of air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership observed a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began showing up in ads.

Logging hundreds of spots in numerous markets, Varney once said the if they had actually all to be national, he and also Cherry would have actually been wealthy beyond belief. However local spots had local budgets, and also the occasions whereby Ernest to be recruited for a significant campaign were periodically prohibited through exclusivity contracts: He and also Cherry had to revolve down Chevrolet because of agreements v local, competing vehicle dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre house in Kentucky, express satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing come a four-picture resolve Disney’s Touchstone pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and also 1998, the movies were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on your own, settling right into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It"s choose Oz, and also the magician ain"t home," Varney called the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a ar where everything starts but nothing originates. It"s this big bunch the egos slamming right into each other.”

Varney was periodically reticent to recognize he had ambitions past Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to do Hamlet would certainly be perceived as the cliched story the a clown longing to it is in serious. He showed up in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and also as the voice the Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. However Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

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The movies continued through 1998, in ~ which allude Varney noticed a nagging cough. That turned the end to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public organization announcement in the 1980s. In his exclusive life, he was a chain smoker. He surrendered to cancer in 2000 in ~ the period of 50, halting a collection of planned Ernest projects that consisted of Ernest Goes to Space and also Ernest and also the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gained an chance to perform in a wider variety that roles, however he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for impressive Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: it’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and also a curse,” the told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it"s as tough to escape native it as it is to obtain into it.""