Before the blundering but bighearted Ernest P. Worrell, a fictional character brought to life by the late Lexington native Jim Varney, won over movie audiences with his ubiquitous denim vest, ball cap and gaping smile, the affable persona first gained notoriety working television commercials in markets all over the country.
Ernest, always pestering the never-seen nor responsive “Vern,” promoted car dealerships, dairy companies, television stations, even natural gas utilities before the surprising box office success of “Ernest Goes to Camp” in the mid-80s.
Varney, a graduate of Lafayette High School, was in his 30s before “Ernest” began to materialize, and a new biography by the actor’s nephew Justin Lloyd, aptly titled “The Importance of Being Ernest: The Life of Actor Jim Varney,” sheds light on Varney’s career pre- and post-Ernest (although Ernest continued to bedevil Vern well into the late-’90s), which included regional theater companies, Los Angeles comedy clubs and even being a cast member on the television show “Johnny Cash and Friends.”
But it was the television commercials that first made Ernest a cultural icon.
“He was able to go market to market all over the country, like a slow invasion,” LLoyd said. “It’s interesting, that’s something you couldn’t do today, because of the Internet and YouTube – it would go viral. At that time, you could have a slow movement, and they were smart about it. They didn’t take any national spots until later, and I think that allowed them to be more successful and make more money the way they could spread slowly across the nation.”
Lloyd spent a considerable amount of time researching the book, interviewing family members, tracking down Varney’s first manager in California, reading old magazine and newspaper articles, even watching old video material he could find on the Internet.
“I’ve been writing this book, researching it, for almost six years,” he said. “I felt I needed to really do something to pay tribute to his legacy – something the fans could really sink their teeth into. I connected with his fans a lot, I know the people who grew up on the films especially have a deep connection to the character, and that was interesting to me.”