Jim Varney was consumed by the desire to perform, and over time he proved to everyone he was damn good at it. He could have done anything, and did in his early days, but he eventually became the integral part of a marketing machine that not only made him a wealthy man, but made his face one of the most identifiable in show business for many years.
For many actors, this might sound like a dream come true, but when you are a multi-talented performer, who is trapped in a part that is a cultural sensation like Varney’s Ernest P. Worrell character, it can be a blessing and a curse.
Varney’s nephew, Justin Lloyd, explores this conundrum faced by his uncle, in the book, The Importance of Being Ernest: The Life of Jim Varney (The Stuff Vern Doesn’t Even Know). LLoyd’s familial connections opened the door for him to get to the heart of the real Jim Varney, which is something very few were seemingly able to do.
The book begins before Jim does, with a peek into his family’s origins in West Virginia and Kentucky, and then follows Jim as he struggled to find his way as a performer before Ernest was ever conceived. Then it covers his big break, the massive wave of popularity it started, and Jim’s sudden crash right when he was finally starting the get the roles he’d wanted throughout his entire career.
Justin Lloyd paints the picture of a man without pretentions, who was humble, and loyal to a fault. He also shows us Jim’s battles with depression, alcoholism, and relationships. These are the kinds of things he was able to put out of his mind while harassing his neighbor Vern during commercial shoots, or mugging into the camera with his jaw moving like a swinging bridge in a wind storm and saying, “Eeeeewwww.”
The following is what I took away from reading Jim Varney’s life story, so you can stop reading now, and just go buy the book and read it yourself if you want, and avoid my blatherings altogether. You can find links to the book and associated social media channels at the bottom of the page. Fair warning.
While I love Ernest, and appreciate the fact there are so many movies, thousands of commercials, and a tv show, I also wish Varney would have gotten the opportunities to take off the Ernest costume and play roles beyond the physical comedy he was known for, even though I know that opportunity would have probably been the death of the character, and I wouldn’t have nearly as much Ernest footage to watch today.
Even though I grew up watching Ernest, I didn’t know his real name until I was an adult. He was always just Ernest to me. I never imagined he could do, or be, anything else. In that respect, I, like everyone else, was guilty of putting Jim Varney into a cage, and then standing outside the bars watching intently to see what he would do next. While Jim Varney played a character, who some might consider to be the equivalent of a dumb animal at the zoo, he was most certainly not dumb. He knew he was in a cage, and he wanted the opportunity to get out and walk around for a while. He just couldn’t reach the keys so he could unlock the door.
I have had jobs where I was so good at specific aspects of it, I believed I would never be promoted to a higher position because I was so much better at it than anyone who had the job before ever dreamed of being, that promoting me to another position would be detrimental to the company. It was the kind of situation that made want to bang my head against the wall after a while, and it was a job I didn’t even really like all that well to begin with.
I eventually just quit and walked away. It took the better part of five years to eventually find a gig making the same amount of money I left behind.
Jim Varney lived in that kind of job for almost his entire career. Even though he made millions, and that’s not speculation, it’s in the book, I can only imagine he felt the same way I did, but walking away from that kind of financial security is much harder than leaving the average job.
I had a lot of respect for Jim Varney when I started reading the book, but now that I’ve finished it, I’ve got even more respect for the man.
It wasn’t easy being Ernest.
Until the next #ReadAnFnBookFridays post comes around why don’t you turn off the TV, the computer, and the phone for a while, and read a fucking book or something. Know what I mean?
Right now on Amazon, The Importance of Being Ernest: The Life of Actor Jim Varney (The Stuff Vern Doesn’t Even Know), is available for Kindle ($7.99) or paperback ($10.40).