Jim Varney, 50, whose elastic face and hayseed handyman delivery in TV commercials and the "Ernest" series of films brought him celebrity in the 1980s and 1990s, died of lung cancer Feb. 10 at his home in White House, Tenn. He learned he had cancer two years ago and had two-thirds of his right lung removed.
In Mr. Varney's nearly 30 films, he usually played characters with the dimwitted country charm he parlayed into his best-known character, Ernest P. ("for Power tools") Worrell. His cannon of low-budget "Ernest" films included "Ernest Goes to Camp" in 1987, "Ernest Goes to Jail" in 1990 and "Ernest Scared Stupid" in 1991. Ernest later rode again, saved Christmas, went to Africa and joined the Army.
He titled one 1983 Ernest outing after his catch phrase, "KnowhutImean?"
Mr. Varney won an Emmy for outstanding performer in a children's series in 1988 for his short-lived CBS television show, "Hey, Vern, It's Ernest!"
"Everybody likes Ernest unless they're too cool," Mr. Varney told an interviewer in 1990. "The people who like sports cars and sunglasses are not our audience. They like that action-adventure, tough-guy stuff. From 14 down and 25 up, we have a huge audience. Older people aren't afraid to laugh at him, and kids aren't self-conscious yet."
In recent years, Mr. Varney had roles in "The Beverly Hillbillies" movie and was the voice of Slinky Dog in the 1996 hit film "Toy Story" and its 1999 sequel.
James Varney was born in Lexington, Ky., and started performing as a teenager in area nightclubs. By the 1970s, he had roles in television series such as "Operation Petticoat" but returned to Kentucky during an actors strike in 1980. Mr. Varney then met Nashville advertising executive John Cherry, who made Ernest a successful advertising vehicle in thousands of commercials, from soft drinks to amusement parks.
"Ernest Goes to Camp" made money and spurred the sequels as well as some tie-in books, including "Ernest P. Worrell's Book of Knowledge." It was a paperback, Varney once said, containing "the accumulated knowledge of Ernest P. Worrell. It's not a big book. We're not talking `War and Peace,' we're talking more like a pamphlet."
His two marriages ended in divorce.