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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 419


This is the grave of Jim Varney.

Born in 1949 in Lexington, Kentucky, as a young child Varney had an incredible ability to do imitations of cartoon characters. His mother, realizing her child had a special talent, put him in acting classes. He took to it like a duck to water, was heavily involved in theater in high school, and won some acting contests. He was performing professionally on stage by the time he was 17, including Shakespeare in Virginia and performances at the Opryland in Nashville. He was mostly working around the South in small-time productions trying to make a few bucks but largely unable to do so. One of his gigs was an old-time Old West show in Danville, Kentucky where he specialized in throwing knives into trees.

Things did get better over time. He was a cast member on the 1976 show Johnny Cash and Friends and worked in some other short-lived television shows. In 1980, Varney started using a character he had developed named Ernest in commercials, first for a Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders’ appearance commercial. His catch phrase, “KnoWhutImean, Vern?” became instantly popular and his commercials began to be used to sell milk products around the South. He had other characters too that were used in various commercials and his star began to rise. If nothing else, he was a heck of a comic actor. He became a commercial staple around the country for many products, often the Ernest character but sometimes others.

Of course, this led to what we all know him for, which is the 1987 film Ernest Goes to Camp, which as a 13 year old, I found hilarious. Not so sure I would now, but whatever. It made a ton of money. Only costing $3 million to make, it pulled in $23 million domestically. This then led to a whole series of Ernest follow-up films of rapidly diminishing quality. After 1993’s Ernest Rides Again, the films went straight to video and continued all the way up to 1998’s Ernest in the Army, which I’m sure is just spectacular….There were 9 in all, not counting his television show in the late 80s, Hey Vern! It’s Ernest, for which he actually won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Children’s Series.

He worked throughout this period on other things too, including as Jed Clampett in the 1993 version of The Beverly Hillbillies and as one of the voices in Toy Story and Toy Story 2. Unfortunately, Varney was a heavy smoker and contracted lung cancer, which killed him in 2000, still only 50 years old.

Jim Varney is buried in Lexington Cemetery, Lexington, Kentucky.

If you would like this series to visit more people associated with the Ernest series, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Iron Eyes Cody, whose last role was in Ernest Goes to Camp, is buried in Los Angeles. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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