About Jim Varney

Jim Varney was born James Albert Varney on June 15, 1949 in Lexington, Kentucky. From a very young age, he entertained his parents and three older sisters with jokes and skits. When he was in the third grade, Jim’s family encouraged him to audition for a part in the local children’s theater and he won his first acting role. He continued to perform throughout high school, winning “best actor” awards in two statewide drama festivals.

Jim’s first paying role came at the age of 16 when he played Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He performed his first stand-up comedy routine that same year, for free at a local coffeehouse. After high school graduation, he further solidified his credentials as a dramatic actor by winning an apprenticeship with the nationally acclaimed Barter Theater in Virginia.

Jim related that, at age 18, he left for New York City “with $65 in my pocket and a tank full of gas.” The next few years brought moderate success: Jim performed stand-up routines in several comedy clubs and won leading and featured roles in dinner theater productions. Still, his big break did not come, so he would periodically return to Kentucky to lay tile or drive trucks to make ends meet.

In the early 70s, while working in Kentucky, Jim visited Nashville and won the auditions for a commercial character called Sgt. Glory. Carden & Cherry Advertising had invented the character for their client Purity Dairies. The humorous commercials were very popular and aired in middle Tennessee for almost five years.

During that time, Jim pursued fame and fortune in Hollywood, acting in four national network TV series: Operation Petticoat, Fernwood Tonight, America 2Nite, and Pink Lady and Jeff. He also had a featured role as Flo’s boyfriend on the series Alice. Other appearances included specials that starred Johnny Carson, Susan Anton, Alan King and Johnny Cash. Comedy club appearances continued on both coasts at venues such as The Improv, Comedy Store, Catch a Rising Star and Laff Stop.

When an actor’s strike ended opportunities in Los Angeles, Jim returned to Tennessee and Kentucky. In 1981, he visited John Cherry at Carden & Cherry at a time they were looking for the right actor to pull off a new character called Ernest P. Worrell. The story of that fateful meeting is colorfully recalled in Cherry’s book Keeper of the Clown.

As the nationwide popularity of Ernest grew, so did Hollywood’s interest in Jim. In 1983, he co-starred with Chad Everett in the NBC sitcom The Rousters. The series did not succeed, but syndication of Ernest commercials made Jim a star in more than 150 television markets across the country.

That exposure allowed Carden & Cherry to produce a TV special called “Hey, Vern! It’s My Family Album.” Jim portrayed numerous, humorous members of Ernest’s family tree. Meanwhile, Jim had purchased a farm in White House, Tennessee, creating his own home base.

Keeper of the Clown tells the story of how the incredibly high grassroots popularity of Ernest allowed Cherry to make deals with Hollywood and Jim to star in nine Ernest movies.

Jim also won an Emmy for “best performer in a children’s series” for Hey, Vern! It’s Ernest, the Cherry-produced Saturday morning children’s show.

See “Jim’s Film and TV Work” on this site for a listing of most of his on-screen roles.

Jim passed away from lung cancer on February 10, 2000, at the age of 50.

See a list of some of Jim’s Film and TV Work here.

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