Ernest's transition from TV to film -- How a regional advertising character became a big screen star

Goofy grin and trademark cap in place, Ernest P. (for power tools) Worrell, working as the night janitor at a bank, turns on the floor polisher. Then the floor polisher turns on Ernest, whipping across the floor, bulldozing furniture, careering up and down the walls and across the ceiling, dragging the hapless hick along. That’s just the opening stupid-funny antic in Ernest Goes to Jail, the latest big-screen episode starring America’s favorite TV-commercial klutz, Ernest (Jim Varney), the know-it-all neighbor from hell.

Things get worse this time around for nerdy Ernest. He becomes magnetized (don’t ask) and attracts all the flatware in a fancy French restaurant. Then he winds up in the slammer when some bad guys force him to switch roles with a look-alike prison inmate, who assumes Ernest’s job as janitor as well as his romance with a bank clerk. Will Ernest avoid the electric chair and escape in time to prevent a bank robbery? Will he save his sweetheart from the clutches of his evil twin?

More important, will the film gross more than its predecessors, Ernest Goes to Camp ($24 million) and Ernest Saves Christmas ($28 million)? And most important, how did a character who has starred in over 3,000 regional TV ads ever become such a success in the movies, anyway?

It’s hard to believe that the same lovable but inept geek who sells everything from pickups to pork sausages, while perpetually bending the ear of his unseen neighbor (”Hey, Vern” is Ernest’s trademark), has transplanted himself, in identical costume and slapstick, slap-happy role, to films. Plenty of actors do commercials, but the incredibly successful crossover from Varney’s commercial persona to the same movie character seems to have no human precedent; it’s akin to the transition made by children’s products such as He-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the big screen.

Ernest’s star quality is staggering. OK, so you don’t know anyone who has ever admitted to seeing an Ernest movie. But some people must love the guy, right? Who are they? ”Every time we do a study on who Ernest appeals to, it’s the under-13 and over-35 age groups,” says his creator, Nashville ad executive John Cherry, who has directed the Ernest oeuvre. ”If you’re under 13, it’s OK, and when you’re over 35, you know it doesn’t count anymore — you don’t have to be cool.” David Hoberman, president of Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, which distributes the Ernest movies, puts it more simply: ”I think people have always loved to see guys get themselves into some kind of trouble. . . .He does it in funny ways.”

The unlikely film star was born in 1980, when Cherry, executive vice president of the Carden & Cherry Advertising Agency, was representing an amusement park so run-down it couldn’t be shown in TV ads. So the agency decided to use a satisfied park visitor who could talk it up, and found actor and stand-up comedian Jim Varney to fit the bill.

But the company wasn’t yet convinced. ”To show you how smart we were, we put (the ads with Ernest) on the shelf,” Cherry says. They tried him out on some other regional accounts they handled, although Varney remembers that in early client meetings Cherry ”was going, ‘Well, are you sure you don’t want to try the pretty girl holding the box?”’ After Ernest finally appeared in a few spots, viewer response was more decisive. ”Oh, when we first started, they hated him, just hated him!” Cherry roars. But in almost every market, the silly character concept caught on after a couple of weeks, no matter what product the grinning Ernest was hawking.

Three early clients who became enamored of the goofy guy next door were Nashville’s Purity Dairies (which used him for eight years), Braum’s ice cream and dairy stores in Texas and Oklahoma, and Tysons Toyota in Tysons Corner, Va., which stayed with Ernest until 1986. This past fall, Cliff Cummings, who originally signed Ernest to Tysons, picked him up for the new Toyota franchise he now runs in Fairfax. ”People would call the dealership to find out what time the spots were going to run. Forget the TV show, they wanted to know when the commercials were on.” With Ernest as Toyota spokesman, ”Our truck sales have immediately shown a 50 percent increase,” Cummings says, ”and our car sales keep going up. Everybody’s having these down months, and we’re doing super. And parttof it has got to be the advertising.”

Carden & Cherry assumed Ernest’s appeal would be restricted to the South, but today he appears in virtually every TV market — the agency once made a record 26 commercials in one day. Most of the 30-second spots are shot on a shoestring, using a wide-angle lens to exaggerate Varney’s malleable features. Ernest has pitched everything from car dealerships to gas companies, fast-food chains to dairies, furniture stores to soft drinks — the Atlanta Braves and Ralston Purina’s Chex brand cereal are two of its newest accounts. In a few months Carden & Cherry will introduce a series of commercials featuring Ernest’s brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles, all to be played by Varney. ”All of ’em have moved in with Ernest next door to Vern!” Cherry chortles.

Many of the characters first appeared on CBS’ 1988 Saturday morning show, Hey, Vern, It’s Ernest! While the program lasted only one season due to low ratings, it won praise in places as unlikely as Spin magazine, and Varney won an Emmy as Outstanding Performer in a Children’s Series. Cherry believes the show, which resembled a poor man’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time: ”I feel like we had more of an adult property. I think we should be on Sunday night across from The Simpsons.”

In addition to the series, there has been a TV special; a book, It’s the Ernest P. Worrell Book of Knawledge, which sold more than 30,000 copies; a talking doll; a line of greeting cards; and a now-defunct fan club. Back in 1986 Ernest was even invited to the White House. ”Oh, that was fun,” Varney remembers. ”Larry Speakes was White House press chief. The press corps had sort of given him a hard road to go that year, so he decided to play a belated April Fools’ joke on them. Toward the middle of April he introduced me as the new chief of the economy. Well! They were anticipating somebody real serious walking out there. If it had been April 1st, they would have known, but it was about April 10th.” Varney fielded a few questions as Ernest. ”It was when Qaddafi was giving everyone a hard time. ‘What do you think about Qaddafi?’ I said, ‘It was great, I had two cups!”’

The big screen beckoned and the toothy public nuisance’s film debut was in a 1985 sci-fi spoof, Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam, which Cherry directed. Cherry and Varney had raised the money, shot the movie, and distributed it independently. ”Jim and I just wanted to do it and we had our heads handed to us,” Cherry says. They spent a little time figuring out the right formula before trying again, however, and the two Ernest films that followed — Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) and Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) — were hits. Made and financed by Emshell Producers Group (a subsidiary of Carden & Cherry) and directed by Cherry, the low-budget movies (Camp cost a reported $3.5 million, Christmas $6 million) were picked up for distribution by Disney, which knows a thing or two about making money in the film business. Ernest pictures don’t get the acclaim that a lot of low-budget independent movies do. But they make a lot more money.

For Ernest Goes to Jail, special effects and a split screen that allows Varney to play two characters — Ernest and look-alike con man Felix Nash — have pushed the budget toward $9 million. Cherry and Touchstone will soon find out whether the higher budgets pay off at the box office. They think they’re on the right track with this recurring character. That’s why more movies are in development. Tentative titles include Ernest Scared Stupid (Ernest inherits a house haunted by his ancestors), Ernest Spaced Out, Ernest and the Voodoo Curse, and Ernest and the Water Baby (think, Ernest meets E.T.).

Is there no end in sight? Will Ernest be with us forever? Looks that way, Vern. Cherry says he’s going to keep on making Ernest pictures ”as long as Jim can stand up!”