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.”
Along with fleshing out Varney’s professional acting career, which also included playing the voice of Slinky Dog in the first two “Toy Story” movies and a critically acclaimed role in the sinister locally produced 1997 film “100 Proof,” Lloyd discusses some the struggles Varney faced through his life, including depression.
“He suffered from depression, from a teenager onward. He kind of tried to tough it out, I think,” he said. “He self-medicated with alcohol and never really sought professional help. I don’t think it was until the mid-’90s that he finally got onto (the antidepressant) Wellbutrin, and he talked about that in one of his last interviews of his life that he didn’t know what normalcy was until he got on that.”
After a bout with lung cancer, Varney passed away in 2000 at his home in White House, Tenn.; the author and other family members were visiting at the time. But Lloyd says he made a conscious decision not to dwell on Varney’s health decline very much in biography.
“In the end, I thought that Jim spent his whole life making people laugh, if there’s going to be a book about Jim, it should also be positive and about making people laugh,” he said.
Lloyd says the book will have a lot of appeal for “Ernest” fans as well as Lexington and central Kentucky residents, since many familiar places and organizations make appearances, such as Lexington Children’s Theater and the Carriage House, where Varney participated in many Studio Players productions in his early 20s.
“He really had a special place for the Carriage House, and would often visit there when he came to Lexington and would attend some Studio Players’ plays,” he said. “I often thought if Lexington was to erect anything in his honor that that area with the Carriage House and the Bell House would be a fitting place.”
Author Justin Lloyd will be signing "The Important of Being Ernest" at 2 p.m. Jan. 19 at Joseph Beth Booksellers. The book is available at other local bookstores, as well as online. For more information, visit http://importanceofbeingernest.com/.