When we think of someone becoming an instant sensation, we think of the Internet.
But long before AOL offered floppy disks and dial-up through an online platform (which, even as slow as it was, made calling Suddenlink today for tech support feel like you were riding on a bullet train), there were a handful of stars who didn’t need the World Wide Web.
Through sheer talent, there were a few individuals who punched through our consciousness and captured our attention. Talent so good, we couldn’t get enough of them.
One of those was a Kentucky fella named Jim Varney. He was best known as the character he played in TV commercials and movies – Ernest P. Worrell.
I grew up in Arkansas. During the 1980s, you could buy one of those satellite dishes that was so big it looked like you had snuck into Area 51, loaded it into your Ford pickup and brought it home.
The beauty of these satellite dishes was there was a window of a few short years when you could pick up network feeds from NBC, ABC, CBS, even HBO – for free. You could also pick up some of the channels that used satellites to send their signal out so that cable companies could pick it up for rebroadcast.
It was my dad who, while watching one of these out-of-market channels, discovered Jim Varney’s character of Ernest pitching ice cream and other milk-based products for a company we’d never heard of.
Dad captured some of these on the VCR and played them back for me. We were both rolling in the floor laughing.
By this point in my life, I was working in broadcasting. But rule number one in TV is you never break the fourth wall (look directly at the camera). But, Jim Varney did. And he did it better than anyone else I’ve seen before or since.
The camera was supposed to be his buddy, Vern. The idea of each ad was for Ernest to pass along a new product or to switch from one soft drink to another. Sometimes, he was selling Toyotas. Other times he was pitching local newscasts in different markets.
Each ad typically ended with Ernest winding up with his fingers being smashed in a window, or a car he was showing off being left in neutral and him chasing it out of the shot.
The character of Ernest P. Worrell first appeared in 1980 through an ad agency, which later franchised Ernest to multiple markets where Varney did thousands of similar ads.
One YouTube documentary I watched indicated that when Varney made a personal appearance at Disneyland, the President of Disney happened to be there when Ernest made his entrance. When the president noticed that Ernest got more cheers and applause than Mickey Mouse, he signed Varney to a movie deal.
Varney had a film career before Ernest. He was on Johnny Cash’s TV show in the mid-70s, and even played a small role on the TV show Alice. But it was Ernest P. Worrell that sent his popularity into the stratosphere.
Jim wanted to play more serious roles, but he was typecast. Other than a handful of serious film castings, including his last major role in a film with Andy Griffith and Billy Bob Thornton (where Varney received good critical reviews), he mostly made Ernest movies.
Toward the end of his life, the Ernest movies went straight to video.
He did have a significant role as a toy dog in Pixar’s Toy Story and Toy Story 2. But, in 1998, shortly after completing the second Toy Story and a couple of other projects, he began to appear rundown.
Varney, a lifelong smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Ironically, early in his career, he had appeared in an anti-smoking public service announcement.
He died in early 2000 at only 50 years old.
I felt compelled to write about Jim. I happened across some of his old TV Commercials on YouTube when I was searching for something completely unrelated.
Over an hour later, I realized that I had watched one right after the other, lost track of time, and laughed and laughed. Just as my father and I had almost 40 years ago.
Jim Varney was an amazing talent. If you have an hour (or two), search “Best of Jim Varney” on YouTube.
It’ll be worth your time.
Know what I mean?