Actor Jim Varney has perhaps been remembered most this week for what he wasn’t. Along with his obituary that described the details of his life and death at the age of 50 from cancer, many newspapers ran a photo of his alter ego, the character Ernest P. Worrell, the annoying denim vest-wearing idiot neighbor who seemingly couldn’t do anything right. His trademark line, ”Knowwhut I mean, Vern,“ was often delivered in the nine movies and 4,000 commercials that made Varney a very famous and rich man.
Varney was possibly too convincing; many people believed that he was Ernest, a country bumpkin, and not just an actor playing a role. But friends described Varney as the most intelligent man they had ever met.
An actor schooled in the nuances of Shakespeare, he spent much of his time reading literature and history books.
”A lot of people think he was just funny all the time and didn’t realize how sincere he was,“ says Janie Varney, his ex-wife who helped Varney with his cancer struggles. ”The tragedy is that they all knew Ernest and assumed Jim was always goofy like that. That was a part of him, but he was so intelligent. He was a walking encyclopedia.“
Varney was a collection of dichotomies. He was both Everyman and a man like no other; he was both saint and sinner (his nights of rocking were infamous). Famously frugal, he was overly generous with friends, even to a fault. Certainly he wasn’t perfect; perfect would have been boring.
”I have never known such a genuine, warm, intelligent human being who was as flexible as he was,“ says writer Gil Templeton, who worked with Varney for a decade. ”This guy could do a Hamlet soliloquy as quick as he could be the dumbest redneck in the same breath.“
During the 20th anniversary of Ernest, Varney had begun making great strides in establishing himself as a dramatic actor. The last few years were spent in independent films, such as 100 Proof and Existo.
And he was eagerly anticipating the spring release of Daddy And Them, a movie starring Billy Bob Thornton that features Varney in a plum role as the only non-drinker in a family of Southern alcoholics. Finally Varney was poised to earn the credibility that had eluded him for his entire career.
Two days after finishing his part in Daddy and Them (Thornton changed the entire shooting schedule to accommodate Varney’s illness), Varney was on the operating table, where doctors removed a lung tumor that had pierced his heart. In March, doctors discovered that the cancer had spread to his brain, but by fall it appeared he had beaten that too. His hair, which he lost after radiation treatments, was beginning to grow back. His spirit had never left.
”Not once did I ever hear him complain, åWhy me?’ “ Janie Varney says. ”He never got angry at the disease. He enjoyed it when people came to see him, and the littlest things made him happy.“
Nothing made him happier than his victorious stroll down the red carpet at November’s Toy Story 2 premiere, where his work as Slinky the dog was unveiled.
”He was able to walk on his own and he was really proud of that,“ she says.
Once inside, he enjoyed the attention of friends such as Tom Hanks, who ambled over to Varney to make a fuss over him. He told his attorney Bill ”Hoot“ Gibson, ”It’s been a great adventure.“
Says Gibson, ”I think it sums it up. He believed life was a great adventure and he lived it that way. I think he died at the age of 500. I figured he put 10 times more living into those 50 years than anyone else did.
”I wish he could have lived a lot longer because he was hitting a point in his career and in his life in which, at the age of 50, he started to take stock in his life,“ Gibson says. ”He wasn’t a rock ’n’ roller anymore. He was a mature adult who was doing more mature themes in his work. He was very honest about life. He didn’t blame the cancer on anything but himself.“
A former heavy smoker, Varney had once filmed a public service announcement warning of the dangers of smoking. As Ernest he said, ”Don’t smoke or the groundhogs will be bringing you your mail.“ He had planned on making another PSA about smoking, but hadn’t felt up to it. ”He really wanted to get the word out to children, so he said in just about every interview, åJust don’t smoke. It will kill you and it’s a painful death.’ “
Says Gibson, ”Yet he had no regrets. He said, åThat was my choice. I’m responsible for that choice.’ “
Twice divorced with no children, he remained faithful to his first love: acting. Forever a student of the craft, he was the first one on and the last one off the set. Gibson recalls, ”He said, åYou know, this acting business is like legal stealing. It’s like being a pirate. You can go to exotic places and do movies and meet exotic women. Then you can go home and rest.’ “
Varney was the rare fortunate actor who never had to support himself with a day job, and he hoped to help others achieve their acting dreams as well. A substantial portion of his estate will fund the Varney Foundation, which will provide college scholarships to acting students.
”It’s been such a revelation for me to go through this,“ Varney told the Scene in November, in what was perhaps his last interview.
”You’d think you would sort of lose a lot of inspiration in yourself, but it’s really fortified me. It’s made me a much more spiritual person.... You don’t really appreciate life until you look death in the eyes, until you see where you are one step from that point. It makes you appreciate life a lot more, every moment.
”It doesn’t change you so much as it makes you look inside yourself and not take so much for granted. It makes you look over everything and ask, åIf I had done it this way what would have happened?’ As I look back, I think I probably wouldn’t have changed much. I may have lived in some different places or had some different friends or taken a few paths I might not have taken, but generally I’d be right about where I am.“
Says Lynn Johnston, who worked with Varney, ”I had asked him in the hospital once last year if he was afraid to die and he said no. That gave me the most comfort, knowing that he has gone to a better place and he wasn’t scared to go and doesn’t have to hurt anymore. I know that in his new home, wherever that may be, that he is already the class clown.“
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