- James Albert "Jim" Varney, Jr.
June 15, 1949
- Date of Death
- February 10, 2000 (age 50)
- Actor, Comedian, Writer, Voice Actor, Musician
- Jacqueline Drew
- James Albert Varney, Sr., Louise Varney
James Albert "Jim" Varney, Jr. (June 15, 1949 – February 10, 2000) was an American actor, comedian, musician, writer and voice artist, best known for his role as Ernest P. Worrell, who was used in numerous television commercial campaigns and movies, giving Varney fame worldwide and for playing Jed Clampett in the 1993 movie version of The Beverly Hillbillies.
Varney was born James Albert Varney, Jr., the fourth child and only son of Louise (née Howard; January 14, 1913 – August 22, 1994) and James Albert Varney, Sr. (January 1, 1910 – January 11, 1985), on June 15, 1949 in Lexington, Kentucky, where he grew up.
As a child, Varney displayed the ability to memorize long poems and significant portions of material from books, which he used to entertain family and friends. When Varney was a boy, his mother would put the black and white TV on cartoons for him to watch. His mother discovered that Varney quickly began to imitate the cartoon characters, so she started him in children's theater when he was 8 years old. Varney began his interest in theater as a teenager, winning state titles in drama competitions while a student at Lafayette High School (from which he graduated with the class of 1968) in Lexington. At the age of 15, he portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge in a local theater production, and by 17 he was performing professionally in nightclubs and coffee houses. Varney studied Shakespeare at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia and performed in an Opryland folk show its first year of operation in the 1970s. He listed a former teacher, Thelma Beeler, as being one of the main contributing factors in his becoming an actor. When he was 24, Varney was an actor at the Pioneer Playhouse in Danville, Kentucky. The theater was adjacent to an old West Village and prior to the show the audience would tour the village where apprentices would play townsfolk. Varney and the company usually played in the outdoor theater to audiences of only a few dozen people. Varney would regale the young apprentices by throwing knives into trees. He performed in "Blithe Spirit", "Boeing 707" and an original musical, "Fire on the Mountain." He once jokingly threatened a long-haired apprentice, John Lino Ponzini, that he would take him up to Hazard, Kentucky where he (Ponzini) wouldn't make it down Main Street without the townsfolk giving him a crewcut.
The first commercial featuring Varney as the character Ernest, filmed in 1980, advertised an appearance by the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders at Beech Bend Park, an amusement park located near Bowling Green, Kentucky. The character was franchised for use in markets all over the country and was used often by dairies to advertise milk products.
Varney's character Ernest proved so popular that it was spun off into a TV series, Hey Vern, It's Ernest! and a series of movies in the 1980s and 1990s. Ernest Goes to Camp brought Varney a nomination for "Worst New Star" at the 1987 Golden Raspberry Awards, but the movie was a huge hit, grossing $25 million at the box office.
Varney was married twice, to Jacqueline Drew (1977–83) and Jane Varney (1988–91). Both marriages ended in divorce, though he remained friends with his ex-wife Jane until his death; she became Varney's spokesperson and accompanied him in the 1999 film Toy Story 2.
During the filming of Treehouse Hostage in August 1998, Varney started developing a bad cough. At first, it was thought that he might have caught a cold because of the climate of the area where the movie was being filmed. However, as the cough became worse, Varney began noticing blood on his handkerchief and after filming was complete, he went to the doctor. A chain smoker, Varney had developed lung cancer. The disease slowly became worse, yet Varney continued to film movies. Upon being diagnosed, he reportedly threw his cigarettes away, and quit smoking. Also during this time, Varney filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in his Ernest persona.
Varney finally returned to Tennessee, where he went through chemotherapy in the hope he could beat the disease. He died on February 10, 2000 in his home in White House, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville, at the age of 50. He was buried in Lexington Cemetery in Lexington, Kentucky. Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which was released a year after his death, was dedicated in his memory.
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