Farewell, ‘Ernest’

“Hey Vern,” roll the credits. Jim Varney, the big-nosed, gawky actor who brought empty-headed hayseed pitch-man Ernest P. Worrell to life in a series of popular, albeit arguably annoying TV commercials and then in a skein of kids’ movies, died today of lung cancer. He was 50.

Varney, an actor since his teen years, had been in the public eye for more than 25 years. He was a stand-up comic in New York in the early 1970s, and became a regular on the TV variety series “Johnny Cash and Friends” in 1976. He also was a regular on “Fernwood 2-Night,” “Operation Petticoat” and other late 1970s TV comedy shows. His (literally) in-your-face TV ads, with his nose pressed against the camera and his incessant “Hey Vern” sales spiels, began airing in 1980.

But it was Varney‘s “Ernest” movies, with their innocent brand of slapstick, goofball comedy, that endeared him to kids. The movies always featured a story in which Ernest, the idiot savant, helps a group of children out of some problem or predicament. The first of these films was “Ernest Goes to Camp” (1987), followed by “Ernest Saves Christmas,” “Ernest Scared Stupid,” “Ernest Rides Again,” “Ernest Goes to School,” “Slam Dunk Ernest,” “Ernest In the Army” and others. Some were released theatrically, while others were of the straight-to-video variety.

Varney also did a lot of non-“Ernest” stuff, including “Wilder Napalm” (1993) with Dennis Quaid and Debra Winger. In that same year, he played Jed Clampett in the big-screen version of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Most recently, he played the voice of Slinky Dog in “Toy Story 2” (reprising the role from the original “Toy Story“). He also had roles in two yet-unreleased movies due out later this year.