Remembering goofball comic Jim Varney

By Brian M. Raftery
Updated February 25, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Remembering Jim Varney

Most quipsters, on hearing the news, had the same one-liner: Ernest Goes to Heaven. And no doubt it’s tempting to be glib about the career of Jim Varney, who died from lung cancer Feb. 10 at 50. But the star of nine unabashedly lowbrow Ernest movies — including Ernest Goes to Camp and Ernest Goes to School — was an underrated comedian with a friendly knack for physical shtick and a rubbery face that rivaled Jim Carrey’s.

Born in Lexington, Ky., Varney had his first acting gig in a regional production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He worked in dinner theater and as a stand-up comic before landing the role of pitchman Ernest P. Worrell, a bumbling, accident-prone simpleton who delivered his catchphrase ”Know what I mean?” with a heavy Southern drawl. The yammering yokel character shilled everything from Sprite to a Kentucky amusement park in no fewer than 3,000 commercials. The first Ernest movie, Ernest Goes to Camp (1987), proved he could stretch the bit well over the 30-second mark. Though Varney’s antics were scoffed at by many, his fan club boasted 30,000 members. ”He always wanted the critics to like him, and of course, none of them liked the Ernest movies — only the fans understood those,” says former wife Jane Varney. ”He always kept a very light-hearted attitude about that.”

By the mid-’90s Varney was staking out new terrain, starring in 1993’s The Beverly Hillbillies and voicing Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story and its recent sequel. He was also proud of his upcoming dramatic turn in the Billy Bob Thornton-helmed film, Daddy and Them. ”Sometimes I think he was a little bit sad because people knew him only [as Ernest],” says Hillbillies director Penelope Spheeris. But ”he was a really fine, accomplished actor.” We know what you mean.