Remember Ernest? The Strange Life Story Of A Forgotten Movie Star
If you are anything like me then you most likely have watched and rewatched movies like Ernest Goes To Camp some much that it is getting completely worn out.
But you also probably wondered exactly the same thing that I did: who really is Ernest? Clearly, we knew that Ernest was a humorous guy who always wore the same clothes and got into wacky hijinks, but why did they make so many movies about this Ernest guy anyways? It turns out that the character had a long and interesting career.
Ernest was played by a great guy named Jim Varney, a celebrity from Kentucky who won awards for his acting in plays and musicals but also worked in a Wild West-themed tourist attraction known as the Pioneer Playhouse early in his career. Varney’s big break – and also the beginning of the Ernest happening – came around in 1980.
Varney was cast as the lovable but annoying pitchman Ernest P. Worrell in a series of commercials by a Nashville ad agency named Carden & Cherry. After his first ad promoting a local theme park, the company realized they had a hit on their hands, and soon they were cranking out Ernest ads for small businesses across America.
Each advertisement stuck to the identical formulation: Ernest would bug his neighbor Vern (played by the cameraman, together with the advertisements filmed by his point of view) while mentioning that a product or company. Carden & Cherry can churn out 25 advertisements in one day as a result of Varney’s secret gift: he had a photographic memory.
Varney could read a script once and act out the commercial dozens of times, flawlessly replacing the name of the product for each business. While he taped ads for big brands like Coca-Cola, Varney’s bread and butter were small businesses like Cerritos Auto Square in L.A., ABC Warehouse in Michigan, and Braum’s Ice Cream in Oklahoma.
But his hugely popular ads were just the start of Varney’s career…
By the late ’80s the Ernest ads were so popular that compilations of the commercials were being sold to Ernest fans on VHS. Yes, really.
Huge media companies like CBS and Walt Disney realized that the Ernest character was a gold mine, and soon his face was everywhere. Varney starred in the children’s show Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! and a number of TV specials that introduced Ernest’s family members (who were all played by Varney). There were even talking Ernest dolls, and children’s books starring the character.
Then, Ernest made the jump to the big screen with a series of nine original movies. The first one, Ernest Goes to Camp, grossed $23 million from a tiny $3 million budget, proving that anything “Ernest” was a guaranteed profit. While the later entries were less successful, they continued to be released on VHS and created a whole new generation of Ernest fans – who had probably never seen his original ads.
While Jim Varney had a handful of other commercial characters, such as stuffy Sgt. Glory and the kindly Auntie Nelda, none were as popular as Ernest. Varney also attempted to branch out using other acting jobs, but audiences saw him as Ernest, which made it tough to pull gritty and serious functions.
A rare meeting with Varney from the character.
Still, you might remember Varney from the remake of The Beverly Hillbillies, and he even did the voice of Slinky Dog in the first two Toy Story movies.
Sadly, Varney died from lung cancer in 2000. His final project was Atlantis: the Lost Empire, which was dedicated to his memory. Varney played prospector and comic relief “Cookie” Farnsworth.
But even after Varney’s death the sheer popularity of Ernest has kept the character alive. He starred in a new commercial in 2005, as a CGI character voiced by another actor. There was even talk of a new “Son of Ernest” film a few years back, proving that this hilarious character will never really be forgotten.
Share this story if you remember Ernest!