Hey Vern: Nephew publishes biography of comedian and Lexington native Jim Varney

Lexington native/actor Jim Varney was best known for his character Ernest P. Worrell, a fixture in 1980s and '90s commercials and movies.
Lexington native/actor Jim Varney was best known for his character Ernest P. Worrell, a fixture in 1980s and '90s commercials and movies.

Actor and comedian Jim Varney did a mean impression of Peter O'Toole, loved his Rolex watches and, in one memorable TV appearance on NBC, recited a line from Hamlet, then reverted to his lovable Ernest P. Worrell character and finished with, "Know what I mean, Vern?"

Justin Lloyd, an at-home dad of twin daughters in Versailles and Varney's nephew, has spent six years writing his uncle's biography: The Importance of Being Ernest: The Life of Actor Jim Varney. It was self-published in December.

"I know it can sound corny, but I remember looking at YouTube and clips of interviews and some awesome montages that really touched me, especially where people would call him their hero," Lloyd said of his decision to write a book about Varney. "I never saw him as the 'hero' type. I felt a real connection, because of (those tributes) with the fans, and almost a sense of obligation in a way.'"

Lloyd's book reveals that Varney's antics cracked up Dan Rather when Rather was the CBS news anchor. The actor was friends with Johnny Cash and Billy Bob Thornton.

While Varney may not be a top-of-mind actor these days, back in the '80s and '90s he was a constant presence on television and in the movies — the persistent unwanted neighbor, delivering unwanted advice through open windows and atop ladders and finally getting his comeuppance, all in a minute or less.

The 'Hey Vern' character, was a calculated industry. He was featured in an extensive series of regional ads in the 1980s that eventually made Ernest a national presence, and served to provide financial stability for Varney after years of working to get by in gigs from standup comedy to stage to TV character acting.1

Despite the aw-shucks demeanor for which he was best known, Varney was a cerebral actor, citing Charlie Chaplin as an influence on the development of Ernest P. Worrell. Worrell would remind no one of Chaplin's Little Tramp, but he was a distinctive physical presence, with baseball cap, vest and T-shirt, hair slicked back, his eyes gleaming with a certain rural dementia.

Worrell pitched for everything from milk to convenience stores to car dealerships to ice cream parlor banana splits to local TV news teams with his signature "Hey, Vern!"

Ernest also was the face behind movies, including Ernest Scared Stupid and Ernest Goes to Jail. These days, that would be like Flo the Progressive Insurance lady perching herself on the Titanic prow in the arms of Leonardo DiCaprio and winning the weekend box office: Not the sort of thing that happens.

Internet Movie Database estimates that the four Ernest movies released between 1987 and 1990 took in nearly $100 million at the box office.

That sophisticated viewers found Ernest tacky mattered not a whit to Varney, who had struggled for years and knew he was capable of weightier roles. A heavy smoker, Varney died at 50 after being diagnosed with lung cancer, but not before he took his homegrown persona into roles such as Jed Clampett in the poorly received Beverly Hillbillies movie (1993) and as the voice of the slinky dog in the critically praised Toy Story II (1997).

In Ernest Saves Christmas, considered perhaps the best of the Ernest movies, Varney got to utter lines such as "I am one with the Yuletide, know what I mean?" and "What we have here is a failure to accumulate," a takeoff on the classic line in Cool Hand Luke where the verb is "communicate."

Varney attended but did not graduate from Lafayette High School where he won state titles in drama competitions, according to IMDb. He spent much of his life crisscrossing the nation, with stints in Los Angeles alternating with time in Lexington and Nashville.

He died in White House, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville, on Feb. 10, 2000, and is buried at the Lexington Cemetery next to his parents.

Lloyd's book addresses the hard times Varney had before his Ernest fame when he was so broke he could barely afford food. Later, when he obtained a measure of financial security, he and his Ernest colleagues paced themselves, trying never to oversaturate the Ernest market.

"They never got too greedy," Lloyd said.

To use an analogy from lottery winners, Lloyd said: "They kind of chose the 20-year payout, rather than the full cash option."