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salon.com > People Feb. 10, 2000
Actor Jim "Ernest" Varney dies at 50
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Jim Varney, the rubbernecked comic who portrayed his rube character "Ernest" from hundreds of television commercials to a series of hit movies, died Thursday at his home. He was 50.
Varney died of lung cancer, said his attorney Hoot Gibson.
Varney became a cult figure in the 1980s in a series of regional commercials, portraying Ernest P. Worrell, a now-it-all good ol' boy whose best-known phrase was "KnowhutImean?" and who addressed a character known as "Vern."
In the commercials, he got his fingers slammed in a house window, fell off a ladder and got electrically shocked fooling with a broken TV set. He plugged a variety of sponsors, including dairy products, car dealerships, pizza and radio stations.
"Ernest is a neighbor or relative that we've all had at one time," he once said. "He's abrasive, but he doesn't mean to be. He gets excited and ends up standing on your toes. I try to make him clownish and I don't want him too low key; and he's physically funny."
"It's been my biggest sounding board. I've grown to know him well."
Between 1987 and 1990, he was in four "Ernest" movies for Disney. Five more Ernest films were released independently, mainly for the video and television markets.
Varney also was the voice of Slinky Dog in "Toy Story" and Toy Story II."
His movie credits included "Ernest Goes to Camp"; "Ernest Rides Again"; "Ernest Saves Christmas"; "Ernest Goes to Jail"; "Ernest Scared Stupid"; "Ernest Goes to School"; "100 Proof," an independent film; "The Beverly Hillbillies" (as Jed Clampett); and "Treehouse Hostage."
His TV credits included "Hey Vern, It's Ernest," "Roseanne," "The Simpsons," "The Rousters," "Alice," "Operation Petticoat," "Fernwood 2-Night" and "Pop Goes the Country."
Ernest usually was dressed in a baseball cap, T-shirt, blue denim vest and blue jeans. He had a generous nose. He was hapless and harmless.
About his outfit, he told The Associated Press in 1984, "It's a lovely outfit that can be worn gracefully six days a week."
Born in Lexington, Ky., Varney began acting in local theater at 8. By the age of 16 he was playing Shakespeare in a professional theater, though he didn't tell his teachers. He sought his acting fortune in New York at 18 and slogged through off-Broadway, dinner theaters and comedy clubs.
"That's a rough department, stand-up comedy," he remarked.
"At one point I had an act where I could go 30 or 40 minutes, and I knew the material I was going to do, the timing, etc. You could play it one night and knock'em over. The next night you could play the same material -- nothing."
Varney got the cancer diagnosis in August 1998, and within months it had spread to his brain. The cancer appeared to be in remission in late 1999 though radiation had left him bald. Despite his illness, in 1999 he filmed the movie "Daddy and Them" starring Billy Bob Thornton.
© 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.
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