published Celebrity News, Mt. Airy, MD; Summer, 1991; copyright Linda Janus-Napier (aka Alexander)
NOTE: Jim Varney has since passed away. It's a shame. He was such a talented, intriguing man.
Tiny people, hairy boots, strange costumes . . . and I hadn't met Ernest yet! When it comes to Jim Varney--the man behind Ernest P. Worrell--what you see is NOT what you get. I'm in L-U-V. What sane woman would say THAT about Ernest?
Stop a second. When I say, "I'm in l-u-v," besides taking and paraphrasing the line from "Ernest Goes to Jail," my intentions are purely artistic. My husband and Jim Varney's helpful wife might get upset if I didn't clarify things. But something about a character actor is much more appealing than any of today's box office glamour stars. It takes a fertile mind to make the public believe in Ernest's craziness.
According to Varney, Ernest is so well-believed, HE has to grocery shop at midnight. "Yeah, and it's pretty hard to get through K-Mart." He made a face. "'Hey look, dear,'" he mimicked an old woman, "'it's that Vern guy.' It's made a hermit of me."
The latest film in the ongoing Ernest line is "Ernest--Scared Stupid," due this Halloween. I spent two days on set--watching little people don ugly troll costumes; sitting amidst a forest of menacing trees and eerie, cloying, misted air created by set designers; learning how a movie is really made. Hint: Next time you see a film, picture 20 technical people standing just behind the camera giving directions and then regularly changing their minds.
Amidst this, I observed the many complicated layers that make up Jim Varney, the man behind Ernest. After this experience, I felt it was time to dispel a few prevailing misconceptions about the man behind the face:
1). "Like Ernest, Varney is a redneck." -- No, he informed me with determination, he was a "hill william," from Lexington, Kentucky. He said hill williiams are "people with indoor toilets."
2). "Like Ernest, Varney is ugly." -- Jim explained, "I have a rubber face. I work at that cartoon look." He went on to say that his features are intentionally exaggerated because, during filming, a wide-angle lens draws them out. He's thin, wiry, the taller side of short. As far as physical appeareance, what you see IS what's there. Yet, his thinness is lean in person. His wiryness is more masculine, less klutzy, when not coupled with Ernest's mental ineptitude. And, overshadowing everything else, Varney has two wonderful features which, as Ernest, are obliterated by the lunacy. Varney has thick wavy brown hair with a few streaks of gray at the front, and his eyes are bluer and longer-lashed than any man has a right to own. These are very attractive qualities that get no attention when he plays at being Ernest.
3). "Like Ernest, Varney wears only jeans, gray tee shirt, jean vest and cap." -- I saw him in Ernest attire. However, I asked what he really likes when he's on his own time. "On the farm [where he lives], it's jeans and tee shirts. But in town, I like European styles. You know," he laughed, "they're much more like pajamas than American clothes!"
4). "Like Ernest, Varney only drives a pick-up truck." -- Not to say Varney wouldn't dirve a pick-up, but he has two sports cars and his motorized thrill is his DeLorean. "It's fun," he grinned like a little boy talking about a favored toy. "I don't drive it often because I can get into trouble. It goes very fast."
5). "Like Ernest, Varney is simple, stupid." -- Anyone who talks to Jim Varney any longer than a minute can't help but be amazed, even dizzy, trying to follow his intricate thought processes. In one example of the constant facts he can, and does, recount, in rapid-fire, and just because he can, he explained in painstaking detail all about the San Andreas fault--where it was, how it came about. He gave me an unsolicited, full-fledged geography lesson.
6). "Like Ernest, Varney is funny without thought." -- Varney is naturally humorous. He makes the simplest thing seam-splitting hysterical, and his punchlines come like battery fire. It's exhausting. Yet Ernest, the character, is not adept at subterfuge. He wouldn't even know what the word means. Varney, however, does, and he seems to intentionally hold back, watching, calculating. Jim Varney's humor is a disguise for what's going on in that complicated brain of his. He is always "on." When I asked him what the REAL Jim Varney was like, he made a comical face. "Don't know," he replied. "People often wonder about that. And if I ever find him, I'll ask him your question and get back to you." Behind that rubbery, well-worn face, those bright, striking eyes and that glib, quick tongue, I suspected there was a shy man, in awe, maybe even afraid, of all the fuss that has thus far been made over him.
7). "Like Ernest, Varney has one emotional expression: dumbfounded disbelief." -- Varney's face is a cornucopia of emotion, though most of it not necessarily spontaneous. Yet when he rarely slipped and talked of something personally important to him, he was incapable of disguise. Once the words were out of his mouth, his features literally exploded with underlying feeling. For example, he told me, "During the last film, we visited children's hospitals and paid a lot of attention to terminal kids. Most celebrities don't do that. It gets to you because these kids don't get better. They're sweet kids, they're real grown-up acting, but most people avoid them. To be, say, 8 years old, and know you won't get much older, it's hard, and talking with them is like dealing with little adults. But those kids did appreciate the attention." Varney shook his head, and his face showed the first unguarded emotion I had seen from him. "They were like forgotten people," he finished slowly, quietly.
Of everyone I've interviewed, Jim Varney is the least like his onscreen persona. Someone recently asked me if I there was anything about Varney that the world in general probably didn't yet know. After meeting him in person, I decided that, yes, there certainly is a Jim Varney that the public doesn't know if they don't bother to look beyond the Ernest character. There's much more, much of it he wouldn't begin to tell a reporter, yet a reporter could easily guess at by just spending a few days in his company.
I walked out of that filming during the second day. It was obvious that I'd learned all I was going to learn about the REAL man. He was going to hide the rest. He was like a moving train, and my attempts to find out what was at each stop was nothing but a brief slowdown, a bypass, for him on his solid, but occasionally shaky, track of life.
Was his bypass intentional? I felt confused by this man. It was as if I'd missed something he wanted me to learn, something I should've caught, but didn't. I was sure, however, that as simple-minded as Ernest is, that character was nothing but a mirror image of the complexities that made up Jim Varney. He said that someone once told him he should take his work seriously, but never himself. He said he'd decided to live his life by that philosophy. He stressed to me that he was nothing but a simple man.
I left shaking my head. One thing was for certain. . . . When it comes to Jim Varney, NEVER believe what you see--or hear. T'aint necessarily so.