The Sad Truth About Why Ernest P. Worrell Suddenly Vanished From Your Screen

For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, Ernest P. Worrell was one of the funniest characters around. The hapless maintenance man took center stage in a number of family-friendly films during the decade, but first shot to fame in a series of memorable TV commercials. Sadly, at the turn of the century, the character vanished from our screens.

Created by Carden and Cherry, an advertising agency based in Nashville,Tennessee, Ernest P. Worrell made his debut in a commercial for a Kentucky amusement park in 1980. The character proved so successful that he was franchised out to various other companies and markets across the globe. Taco John’s, Chex and Coca-Cola are just three of the national brands that took full advantage of his popularity.

Of course, Varney soon proved he could also cut it on the big screen in 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp. The character then starred in a further eight films over the next decade, including Ernest Saves Christmas and Ernest Goes to Jail. But he still remained a regular fixture in the commercial breaks.

Indeed, as well as promoting various products, Ernest also appeared on screen to warn about various dangers in a number of public service announcements. Sadly, Varney proved to be speaking from personal experience about one particular issue. Here’s a look at the entertainer’s life story and how it took an ironic but sad turn.

Hailing from the Kentucky city of Lexington, Jim Varney developed his natural comic talents from a young age. He would often impersonate the cartoon characters he grew up watching in front of friends and family. And when he was just eight years of age, his mother encouraged him to join a local children’s theater.


By the time Varney was in his late teens, he was performing at various nightclubs in a professional capacity. And after studying Shakespeare at a Virginia theater, he became a regular at his home state’s Pioneer Playhouse. As well as showcasing his talents in productions such as Blithe Spirit and Fire on the Mountain, the future star would also entertain his younger colleagues with his knife-throwing abilities.

Varney first caught national attention in 1976 when he joined the cast of Johnny Cash and Friends. Shortly after, he also became a regular on Fernwood 2 Night, a late-night chat show, and in 1977 began a two-year stint as Seaman ‘Doom and Gloom’ Broom in Operation Petticoat. By the end of the decade he’d also added Pink Lady and Jeff and Alice to his resume.


Despite becoming a star of the screen, Varney continued to work the stand-up circuit. He became renowned for his various comic creations, which often came equipped with a rich and detailed history.But it was a character conceived inside an advertising office that would take the performer’s career to another level.

Indeed, in 1980 Varney was chosen to play Ernest P. Worrell, a character created by ad agency Carden and Cherry. Armed with the catchphrase, “KnoWhutImean, Vern,” the maintenance man made his debut promoting a Kentucky amusement attraction named Beech Bend Park.


It proved such a hit with viewers – and advertisers – that Ernest soon took on a life of his own.

In fact, at one point, it seemed like every company in America wanted a piece of Ernest. The character served as a gas utilities spokesman, showed up in promos for Braum’s Ice Cream and Dairy Stores and helped advertise car dealerships based everywhere from California to Virginia. And pretty soon, he started crossing over into mainstream entertainment, too.

Alongside vocalist Tom T. Hall, Varney was appointed the co-host of Pop! Goes the Country in 1982. And five years later, he was given his own big screen vehicle, Ernest Goes to Camp. The family-friendly comedy grossed an impressive $23.5 million domestically and was, unsurprisingly, followed by a series of other Ernest adventures.


There was Ernest Saves Christmas, Ernest Goes to Jail and Ernest Scared Stupid, all of which proved to be hits. But following disappointing box office receipts for 1993’s Ernest Rides Again, the character was relegated to direct to video status. Slam Dunk Ernest, Ernest Goes to School and Ernest Goes to Africa still had their fans, though, likewise his final movie, 1998’s Ernest in the Army.

But the Ernest movie universe could actually have been a whole lot bigger. In 2011, writer/producer Coke Sams revealed that there had once been plans to make a “Lost in Space epic” titled “Ernest Spaced Out.” A script was apparently also penned for an Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein-esque caper named “Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.”


If any further proof were needed that Ernest was a national treasure, he also appeared in a pre-show clip for Cranium Command at Walt Disney’s Epcot theme park. The character popped up in several other movies, too, including Knowhutimean? and Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam. And in 1988 he was given his own TV show, Hey Vern, It’s Ernest.

Perhaps giving Eddie Murphy some ideas, Varney also played a whole host of other characters in the Ernest films. These included Erna Worrell, the character’s second wife, famous for her deep dish pie, and Astor Clement, his college professor uncle renowned for blowing his own trumpet. Varney also reprised the role of Auntie Nelda, the motherly senior citizen he’d first played in a number of Leadco Aluminum Siding commercials.


In a 1993 interview with fan R. Scott Bolton, Varney discussed why he believed America had embraced Ernest. He said,

“We figured out that it has to be that everybody has a guy like that in their family. It’s like, ‘I know a guy like that,’ or ‘My brother-in-law’s just like that,’ or ‘I got a cousin like that.’ Everyone knows somebody like that. I did. I had a brother-in-law like that. Honest to God, Ernest P. Worrell.”

Varney also told Bolton which Ernest movie was his favorite. He said, “Either Ernest Goes to Camp or Ernest Saves Christmas. I think both of those were good stories and they had a lot of heart. The jail film was fun because I got to play the dual role. But I think Ernest Saves Christmas probably had the most heart of any of them. It’s a good little story.”


Of course, there was far more to Varney’s talents than playing a luckless janitor. During his lengthy stint playing Ernest P. Worrell, the actor also appeared alongside former teen idol Chad Everett in action dramedy The Rousters. In 1985 he joined Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash as the hosts of the New Year’s Eve special on HBO.

In 1993, Varney stepped into the shoes of another hugely popular character, albeit one that had originated three decades previously. Indeed, the star played patriarch Jed Clampett in the big screen revival of The Beverly Hillbillies. He then went on to appear as a carnival worker in the Dennis Quaid-starring Winter Napalm, a clumsy watch guard in Snowboard Academy and arms dealer in The Expert.


Varney introduced his talents to a whole new generation in 1995 when he voiced Slinky Dog in the hugely successful Toy Story, as well as its 2000 sequel. The star also lent his unmistakable tones to various other animated characters. There was Cookie Farnsworth in Atlantis: The Lost Empire and the one-off parts of Cooter in The Simpsons and Walt Evergreen in Duckman.

In the late 1990s, Varney also guested as Jackie’s date Prince Carlos Charmaine in Roseanne and shared the screen with Hulk Hogan in 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain. He played against type as an alcoholic, abusive father in indie movie 100 Proof and a rebellious artist in Existo. But he soon returned to more familiar family-friendly fare. In 1999 the actor played a jailbreaker captured by a group of fifth graders in Treehouse Hostage.


At the turn of the century, Varney added to his filmography with Daddy and Them. The star was cast as murder suspect Uncle Hazel in the dramedy starring and directed by Billy Bob Thornton. But then things went quiet. Sadly, this would prove to be his last on-screen credit, as in February 2000, the actor passed away aged 50.

Varney wasn’t in a relationship at the time of his death, although he was still on good terms with his second wife, Jane Varney. The pair had walked down the aisle together in 1988, but split three years later. The star first tied the knot with Jacqueline Drew in 1977, but the couple divorced after six years.


The first signs that something wasn’t quite right with Varney’s health occurred during the shooting of Treehouse Hostage. The actor had struggled with a severe cough throughout filming but initially put it down to the location’s cold climate. However, after visiting a doctor when it refused to shift, he was given the devastating diagnosis of lung cancer.

Of course, Varney had been a chain smoker for most of his life. But he gave up cigarettes on hearing his diagnosis and refused to let it affect his workload. Sadly, the chemotherapy sessions failed to improve the actor’s condition and, just 18 months after being diagnosed, the illness took his life.


Ironically, Varney had once starred in an anti-smoking advert as his most famous character. Featured in a home video compilation of his commercials released in 1986, Ernest can be seen reminding viewers about the deadly effects of tobacco. The janitor warns, “Don’t smoke or the groundhogs will be bringing your mail.”

In fact, Varney had wanted to make a second public service announcement about the dangers of smoking after being diagnosed with lung cancer. In the wake of the star’s death, Bill ‘Hoot’ Gibson, his attorney, told Nashville Scene,


“He really wanted to get the word out to children. So he said in just about every interview, ‘Just don’t smoke. It will kill you and it’s a painful death.’”

Indeed, Varney may have smoked two packets of cigarettes a day since he was a teenager. But he was determined to ensure that his young fans didn’t follow in his footsteps. As a result, the actor refused to be pictured puffing away while playing the much-loved Ernest, for fear it would glamorize the habit.

Gibson told Nashville Scene that it’s a tragedy that Varney was taken at such a relatively young age. He said,


“I wish he could have lived a lot longer because he was hitting a point in his career and in his life, in which, at the age of 50, he started to take stock in his life. He wasn’t a rock ’n’ roller anymore.”

“[Varney] was a mature adult who was doing more mature themes in his work,” the actor’s attorney continued. Gibson also revealed that his client refused to wallow in self-pity after being diagnosed with The Big C. “He was very honest about life. He didn’t blame the cancer on anything but himself.”

It was a sentiment firmly echoed by Lynn Johnston, a friend of Varney’s as well as a former colleague. Speaking about his final days during an interview Nashville Scene in February 2000, she revealed, “I asked him in the hospital once last year if he was afraid to die and he said, ‘No.’”


“That gave me the most comfort. Knowing that [Varney] has gone to a better place and he wasn’t scared to go and doesn’t have to hurt anymore,” Johnston’s heartwarming tribute continued. “I know that in his new home, wherever that may be, that he is already the class clown.”

In an interview with the same publication, Varney’s second ex-wife, Janie, also spoke of the actor’s bravery during his final days. She said,


“Not once did I ever hear him complain, ‘Why me?’ He never got angry at the disease. He enjoyed it when people came to see him and the littlest things made him happy.”

But Jane was also keen to point out that there was more to the actor than making people laugh. She said, “A lot of people think he was just funny all the time and didn’t realize how sincere he was. The tragedy is that they all knew Ernest and assumed Jim was always goofy like that. That was a part of him, but he was so intelligent. He was a walking encyclopedia.”

Gil Templeton, a writer who Varney worked with for approximately ten years, also agreed that his range often went underappreciated. He told Nashville Scene, “I have never known such a genuine, warm, intelligent human being who was as flexible as he was. This guy could do a Hamlet soliloquy as quick as he could be the dumbest redneck in the same breath.”


And in one of Varney’s final ever interviews, he displayed the humility and honesty that his nearest and dearest had all talked about. In a chat with Nashville Scene in November 1999, just a few months before his death, the actor remained admirably upbeat about his situation. Referring to his condition, he said,

“It’s been such a revelation for me to go through this.”

“You’d think you would sort of lose a lot of inspiration in yourself, but it’s really fortified me,” Varney continued. “It’s made me a much more spiritual person… You don’t really appreciate life until you look death in the eyes, until you see where you are one step from that point. It makes you appreciate life a lot more, every moment.”


Varney was also keen to point out that he didn’t have any major regrets. He added,

“[Facing death] doesn’t change you so much as it makes you look inside yourself and not take so much for granted.

It makes you look over everything and ask, ‘If I had done it this way what would have happened?’”

Answering that very question, Varney continued, “As I look back, I think I probably wouldn’t have changed much. I may have lived in some different places or had some different friends or taken a few paths I might not have taken. But generally I’d be right about where I am.”


Thankfully, Varney certainly hasn’t been forgotten since his untimely death. In 2019, lifelong fans Ivon and Eyan Wuchina released a documentary short celebrating the actor and his beloved character. Ernest Day also shares its name with the annual celebration that takes place in Tennessee’s Montgomery Bell State Park. As Eyan told the Memphis Flyer,

“[Ernest] was a likeable guy. Anything he did, no matter how he messed it up, it was always out of the goodness of his heart.”