By BEN R. WILLIAMS
Jim Varney died on Feb. 10, 2000.
For many of you, that name may not be familiar, but I expect his alias will ring a bell: Ernest P. Worrell.
If you don’t remember Ernest, he was the southern-fried rubber-faced know-it-all who endlessly hounded his unseen neighbor Vern. He first appeared in a truly remarkable number of regional commercials that were filmed in Nashville, which led to a TV show called “Hey Vern, It’s Ernest” and nine (nine!) Ernest movies.
I loved Ernest. I loved those low-budget commercials. I loved his Saturday morning TV show. I loved every one of his movies (and not just the heavy hitters like “Ernest Goes to Jail” and “Ernest Scared Stupid,” but the direct-to-video classics like “Slam Dunk Ernest” and “Ernest in the Army”). I even dressed up like Ernest for Halloween when I was about seven. To this day, there is not a year that goes by that I don’t watch at least one Ernest movie.
Jim Varney’s death, for me, was right up there with John Belushi or Chris Farley or John Candy. He was a gifted comedian who left the stage far too soon.
Jim Varney didn’t get that same universal outpouring of grief, however. By 2000, the Ernest character was mainly viewed as an annoying piece of 1980s pop culture ephemera that kept showing back up with diminishing returns. The day that Jim Varney died, I couldn’t find a single tribute to him on the internet.
I had a website, so I decided to create my own tribute.
It was pretty simple, just a picture of Jim Varney in his Ernest garb, the dates of his birth and death, and a few paragraphs about what Ernest meant to me. I was 15 at the time, so I’m sure these paragraphs were terrible, but they were heartfelt.
I really didn’t expect anything to come out of my little tribute, but I was in for a surprise.
About a week after I posted it, I received an e-mail from a lady we’ll call Margaret. Margaret told me that she was a lifelong friend of Jim Varney; they had known each other since they were children. She had found my website because in the wake of her friend’s death, she had searched the internet to see if there were any Jim Varney tribute websites, and at the time, I had the first and only such website on the internet (I continue to list this fact on my résumé).
Even at 15, I was skeptical. I wasn’t sure if this lady was putting me on. However, we struck up a sort of pen-pal friendship, e-mailing each other back and forth, and before long, I had no doubt she was telling the truth.
Margaret told me all about her friend Jim. She told me about what a kind person he was. She told me about his devout faith. She told me how happy he would have been to know he made such a positive impression on a youngster like me.
I recall that we also talked about his frustrated ambitions. Believe it or not, Jim Varney was a classically-trained actor – he studied Shakespeare at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon – and he always wanted the opportunity to play more serious characters. Ernest had made him a wealthy man and a household name, but it was difficult to emerge from Ernest’s shadow. Before his death, he had begun to branch out a bit – he had played Slinky Dog in the first two “Toy Story” movies and had a wonderful, meaty role in a Billy Bob Thornton movie called “Daddy and Them” that was released posthumously – but he never exactly got the opportunity to play Hamlet.
She also spilled some ink telling me about one of Varney’s collaborators, a man that she didn’t care for one whit, and she told me the reasons why. I was suddenly learning all kinds of behind-the-scenes dirt about Ernest P. Worrell.
At one point, she even asked me if I would contribute a chapter to a book she was working on about Jim Varney. I wrote the chapter and e-mailed it to her, but I have no idea if she ever self-published the book or not.
All of this was somewhat strange at the time, but it’s even stranger looking back on it today. My Ernest tribute website led to a months-long correspondence between a 15-year-old and a 50-something lady from Kentucky, both of us reminiscing, in different ways, about a lost friend.
I still think about Jim Varney fairly regularly, especially in light of the background information Margaret provided. I think about what it must have been like to create a unique, wildly successful character, only to later realize that same character has perhaps shut a few doors you would have preferred remain open. I think about the great “what if” that we experience with anyone taken before their time, the question of what they would have gone on to create had they been given just a few more years.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in every Ernest movie, Ernest works a menial job with a smile on his face, usually plotting some kind of big score before inevitably getting swept up into misadventure. Perhaps there was a lot more of the late Jim Varney in the character than any of us realized. Perhaps, beneath the slapstick and the goofy grin, Ernest P. Worrell was a more achingly human character than anyone ever gave him credit for being.