If your childhood was anything like mine, you probably wore out the tapes of movies like Ernest Goes to Camp by playing them over and over again.
But you also probably wondered the same question I did: who was Ernest? Obviously we knew that Ernest was a funny 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 Jim Varney, an actor from Kentucky who won awards for his acting in plays and musicals, but also worked in an Wild West themed tourist attraction called the Pioneer Playhouse early in his career. Varney’s big break – and the start of the Ernest phenomenon – came about 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 ad stuck to the same formula: Ernest would bug his neighbor Vern (played by the cameraman, with the ads filmed from his point of view) while mentioning a product or business. Carden & Cherry could churn out 25 ads in a single day thanks to Varney’s secret talent: 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, like stuffy Sgt. Glory and the kindly Auntie Nelda, none were as insanely popular as Ernest. Varney also tried branching out with other acting roles, but audiences always saw him as Ernest, which made it tough to pull off gritty and serious roles.
A rare interview with Varney out of 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.
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