Jim Varney

A staggering array of more than 4,000 television commercial appearances as motormouthed pitchman Ernest P. Worrell helped to boost actor Jim Varney from television comedian to starring roles in "The Beverly Hillbillies" (1993) and "Toy Story" (1995) before his untimely death in 2000. Born James Albert Varney, Jr. on June 15, 1949 in Lexington, Kentucky, his ability to memorize long poems and fiction passages, as well as a knack for imitating voices on cartoons, led to enrollment in children's theater. He soon established himself as a talented performer, winning local drama competitions and working the nightclub circuit in his teenaged years, which soon led to roles in summer stock theater and at the famed Opryland USA theme park. Performances at the Comedy Store helped Varney earn a route into television, first as a sketch player on "Johnny Cash and Friends" (CBS, 1976) and later, as various rural types on episodic series, including mechanic-turned-daredevil Virgil Simms on "Fernwood 2-Night" (syndicated, 1977) and hardluck sailor "Doom and Gloom" Broom on "Operation Petticoat" (ABC, 1977-1979). However, Varney's path to fame would come via an unlikely source: regional television commercials. Having played a tough drill instructor, Sgt. Glory, in a series of ads for the Southern Dairy Commission, Varney was tapped by advertising executives John Cherry III and Jerry Carden to play Ernest P. Worrell, a rubber-faced yokel who harangued an off-screen neighbor named Vern to try various products. After making his debut appearance in a commercial for an amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Cherry and Carden licensed Ernest for use in promotional campaigns throughout the South, including Laclede Gas, Braum's Ice Cream and countless auto dealerships. Ernest's influence soon expanded to California and the Mid-Atlantic states, which prompted Varney and Cherry to compile a collection of comedy video shorts for the direct-to-video release "Knowwhutimean? Hey Vern, It's My Family Album" (1983). To the surprise of many, it proved exceedingly popular, as did Ernest's first theatrical feature, "Ernest Goes to Camp" (1987). Ernest was soon a near-ubiquitous presence in American media, with eight features, all overseen by Cherry and four issued by Walt Disney Pictures, unspooling between 1988 and 1998, a short-lived television series, "Hey, Vern, It's Ernest!" (CBS, 1988), which earned Varney a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performing in a Children's Series, as well as a seemingly ceaseless string of television commercials. As with all pop culture fads, Ernest's popularity began to wilt in the early '90s: his features no longer earned theatrical release, but by that time, Varney had begun to escape his chatterbox screen persona. He gave a well-regarded turn as Jed Clampett in a big-screen adaptation of "The Beverly Hillbillies," and endeared himself to a new generation of young children as the voice of the faithful Slinky Dog in "Toy Story" and its 1999 sequel. In interviews, Varney hoped to step into serious roles - he had performed Shakespeare in summer stock - but harmless, kid-friendly features and television proved to be his most consistent showcase. He would never have the opportunity to display his classical talents: Varney was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1998, but continued to act while undergoing chemotherapy to combat the disease. He experienced a brief remission, and made what would be his final screen appearance in the Billy Bob Thornton comedy "Daddy and Them" (2001). He died before its release on February 10, 2000.