Lanky comic performer of TV and film with a prominent nose, best known for his portrayal of the dimwitted Southern nuisance, Ernest P. Worrell. Varney's signature character first appeared in commercials in 1980 and eventually graduated to star status in features and a children's TV program. Varney began as a stand-up comedian while auditioning for off-Broadway roles. In the early 70s, he starred for five years as Sgt. Glory in a series of Southern Dairy commercials. His first big break came when cast as a regular in the variety series, "Johnny Cash and Friends" (1976). He next appeared in a succession of short-lived TV shows: "Operation Petticoat" (1977), "The New Operation Petticoat" (1978), "America 2-night" (1978), "Pink Lady" (1980), and "The Rousters" (1983).
With the success of the Ernest TV commercials, Varney moved the character to features with "Ernest Goes to Camp" (1987), the first in a series of amiably stupid features (i.e., "Ernest Saves Christmas" 1988; "Ernest Goes to School" 1994; "Ernest in the Army" 1998). He received his highest profile film role as Jed Clampett, a newly rich "poor mountaineer who barely kept his family fed", in the hit comedy "The Beverly Hillbillies" (1993), based on the fondly remembered 1960s TV sitcom. Varney also entertained children of all ages by providing the vocals for Slinky Dog in the computer animated "Toy Story" (1995) and its sequel "Toy Story 2" (1999). During the promotional tour for the latter, questions over the actor's radical change of appearance led to his disclosing a year-long battle with lung cancer. In September 1998, Varney under went surgery to remove most of his right lung followed by aggressive radiation therapy.