By DONALD PORTER
Standard· Examiner staff
SALT LAKE CITY -- As the door to the hotel suite opened, Jim Varney could be seen sitting in a chair across the room, barefoot with one leg pitched over the armrest, and the other sprawled out on the coffee table. He was relaxed and laughing, enjoying a cigarette between interviews.
Such a sight is comforting to an interviewer, because it sends a strong signal that a pleasurable experience is about to follow, instead of an agonizing 30-minute slug-fest with an uptight and defensive celebrity.
As Varney rose from the chair to greet his guest, two gold chains swung out of his sport shirt; open half-way to his navel. But as the talk progressed it became apparent that this show-biz fashion" statement probably owed a lot more to comfort than ego.
Varney, a 37-year-old actor who has become famous playing obnoxious next-door neighbor Ernest P. Worrell in some 6,000 TV commercials over the past several years, was in Utah recently to promote his new film, "Ernest Goes to Camp." Ernest, for the uninitiated, is the lovable bumpkin who's always shouting "Hey, Vern!" and "KnowhutImean?" during TV, commercials designed to sell milk and other consumer goods.
"Ernest Goes to Camp" marks the first time Ernest has been the lead character in anything other than commercials. Varney used to work hard at burying the Ernest persona, concentrating on other characters in projects like the TV series "The Rousters" and "Operation Petticoat," and his film debut, "Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam." Nowadays the actor is more friendly to his creation, and has finally accepted the character's
pivotal role in his success.
Ernest first appeared in a commercial for an amusement park, then went dormant for a year before Varney saw the wisdom in resurrecting him for a dairy ad. People loved him so much, and the dairy's sales jumped so dramatically, that within a short time 40 more dairies had signed Ernest as their pitchman.
In his typically unassuming manner, Varney recalled that Nashville advertising executive John Cherry gave him the idea for the Ernest character.
"He said, 'I want an obnoxious neighbor who always knows more than you do, who bought the right product when you didn't.' And we just fooled around with some costumes and hats and it took about two hours before we decided what we wanted."
Varney says Cherry's crew cranks out an average of 16 30-second commercials a day when in production in Nashville, but have done as many as 26 in a single day.
"That's about three times what they do in Hollywood," he said with a toothy grin. Then he paused for a moment, unable to resist telling a stupid-journalist anecdote: "One reporter asked me, 'How long does it take to do an Ernest commercial?' I said, 'Thirty seconds.'"
Then he laughed loudly, as did the two publicists sitting on the other side of the coffee table.
"There are no cutaways. It's either a take or it's not." And Varney can't do a Bob Hope by relying on cue-cards, because his face is always too close to the camera lens. All the dialogue is in his head.
Having his mug in everyone's living room hasn't always been good for him, though. He sometimes finds it difficult moving unrecognized in public.
"I don't shop in the malls at Christmas anymore," he says, slipping in and out of a Southern accent. "Once I smile, then they got me. This woman nailed me in a mall one time. It was Christmas and I was shoppin' -- this really scared the hell out of me. ... I went in to get my mother some earrings and I was going to the jewelry store, which was right near the entrance.
"Well, there were 25 million people in the mall that day, half the population of Canada. And this woman from way across the mall says, 'Hey, Ernest!' And the more I tried to avoid her and walk away -- she was on the other side of mall and sort of followin' along with me -- she'd yell, 'Ernest! Hey, Vern! KnowhutImean?' I even had a mustache and a motorcycle jacket on, but it was all over."
Fans quickly surrounded him, he said, and it took an hour of signing autographs before he could get out.
"I was gonna spend five minutes in there, but sometimes it's instant Personal Appearance and there's a crowd following you everywhere!"
Big time success -- the kind that makes it difficult to walk the streets unmolested -- was slow in coming to Varney, who began acting in child theater as an 8-year-old in his native Lexington, Ky.
After high school, he went to New York in hopes of finding success on the Broadway stage, but ended up doing stand-up comedy at various clubs on the East and West coasts to help pay the bills. Then came John Cherry and commercials, and Varney was on his way.
Since then, Ernest has been a popular figure at parades, fairs and all sorts of public gatherings wherever the character appears on TV. Such public appearances, however, have been cut back since Varney started focusing on a film career.
"We used to do a lot of personal appearances. We're gonna write a book one of these days about our adventures on the road."
The best story, he said, concerns a helicopter ride.
"We were doin' a Clemson game, and it was a big tournament game. Gettin' in and out of the (football) stadium by car was impossible because of the crowd. So they decided they were gonna fly us out of the stadium. So we get in this helicopter, and just as we were leaving this London pea-souper comes in -- a fog you would not believe, a high fog. As we're going up the fog is dropping; we're flying at about 500 feet -- blind. You can't see in front, around or anywhere.
"And we're whippin' along at a hundred and some-odd miles per hour, as helicopters are wont to do, and this guy had been a 'Nam pilot. He was hardcore. We're cruisin' along and all of a sudden there's this giant SMITHVILLE! -- a water tower in front of us. There was a water-tower in front of us!"
Varney thrusts his hands down onto the armrests of his chair and pushes himself back and up into the chair to show how he reacted to the near miss.
"He just banked it away and Julie (one of the publicists who travels with Varney) says, 'Put it down. Just put it down.' So he put us down in a cornfield and we walked. A water tower flyin' at you at 200 miles per hour is somethin' you don't wanna see. Didn't bother him, though. I guess when you've been to 'Nam and people are shootin' at ya, a water tower can be a refreshing sight."
Even though road trips will be dwindling, Varney said the pace will not slow on production of the commercials. Ernest will continue to hawk just about anything -- for local advertisers, not national accounts -- allowing people to experience the impossible: actually enjoying TV commercials.
Still, Varney is realistic about Ernest's popularity. "We try to sit around and second-think everything like when will all this end? And you can't predict a date; I'll ride it while it lasts."
Riding the Ernest wave includes at least one more Ernest movie from Touchstone Pictures, the adult-oriented filmmaking arm of Walt Disney Pictures responsible for "Ernest Goes to Camp." Furthermore, the studio has offered him dramatic scripts to read in addition to more comedies, easing the natural fear of Hollywood typecasting that would sentence Varney to playing Ernest in movies the rest of his life.
"They would, I think, like very much to have a follow-up film to this one. And we have some ideas, like 'Ernest in Paradise.' " Varney added that there have already been conversations with Marty Erlichman, the film 's executive producer, about ideas for sequels.
"Marty said kids are gonna love this and it's such a nice little fun movie that you can leave your kid off at the mall and let him watch it three times," Varney explained. "He asked us if we had any more ideas and we said, 'Yeah we've got one, Marty, and we kind of wanted to run it past you to see what you think. How do you like this idea -- Ernest and the Curse of Hitler's Brain'?
"He laughed, then said, 'That's OK. But how about 'Ernest vs. the Space Commies from Hell?' "