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Varney: The Importance of Being Ernest : Movies: The character that began as a role for a commercial has grown into a big business. The current 'Ernest Rides Again' is the fifth installment and another is scheduled for August.

November 16, 1993|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The world loves an imbecile--it's not just the French.

After the Nutty Professor, and before Beavis and Butt-head, there was--and, for better or worse, still is--Ernest P. (Powertools) Worrell, the non-savant idiot who currently "rides again" in the fifth installment of the kid-oriented "Ernest" movie series. And each Ernest film has generated at least $25 million at the box office. This one, though, the first to be released independently, opened this weekend with an unpromising $905,000.

To certain intolerant adults, only a title like "Ernest Meets the Texas Chainsaw Massacre" might be welcome news. But don't count on it; in Varney's current film, the villains take a surgical buzzsaw to Ernest's hard head--and the buzzsaw loses. Like Jason, Freddy and Nixon, Ernest is indestructible.

Further bad news for the pinhead-phobic: "Ernest Rides Again" concludes with a built-in commercial for No. 6, "Ernest Goes to School," which is completing post-production and set for release next August.

Even if you have no kids to drag you to a matinee, thanks to the character's ubiquitousness in local TV and radio advertising, there frankly is no exit. Or, as Sartre might add, KnowhutImean?

"I'm just gonna let it kinda die a natural death, I think," says Varney, 44, the rubber-faced man behind the myth, promising no impending end to the phenomenon. "I'm sort of curious to see how long it'll go."

Varney sounds vaguely shocked that Ernest has survived as long as he has. For, although one hesitates to think of Ernest as "evolved," the character has expanded considerably since he was conceived as a one-shot doofus featured in three commercials for a now-defunct Bowling Green, Ky., amusement park 12 years ago. Then, Varney's behind-the-scenes partner, director John R. Cherry III, decided to keep Ernest alive in a series of local dairy commercials, with some 40 dairies, and that's when the character "just took off like a rocket," Varney recalls.

Eventually Cherry's Nashville-based company had personalized Ernest ads going in more than 200 markets, and they are still going strong. With such saturation, you would think that Varney and Cherry must be the two wealthiest men in Tennessee.

"If they were national commercials, yeah--we'd own Ohio," says Varney, who lives on a sizable farm in Whitehouse, Tenn. "But they're all local commercials. We've done 3,000 local commercials, at local market prices. When we finally got a national offer--I think Chevy trucks wanted to use Ernest--we couldn't take it, because we were in too many markets with exclusivity in the contracts. We had to stay with the local plan."

In Southern California, Ernest has been hawking Cerritos Auto Square for years, and effectively, apparently. A survey of dealerships there indicated that many customers mention Ernest and repeat his ad lines ("Anybody can whup a salesman at Cerritos Auto Square").

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The commercials were spun off into movies, beginning with "Ernest Goes to Camp" in 1987, the first of four Touchstone-distributed movies. But Disney didn't pick up the option after the four-picture deal ran out two years ago with "Ernest Scared Stupid." So Varney and Cherry are going back to their independent roots with "Rides Again."

But who is the man behind Ernest?

The obvious joke would be that Varney is really secretly a serious Shakespearean actor. And the truth, of course, is that he's really secretly a serious Shakespearean actor, although Varney is not the type to bring it up himself.

Walter Williamson, an L.A.-based actor and author of two books about acting, has fond memories of performing alongside Varney at the famed Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., 25 years ago. Recalls Williamson of Varney, "I have never in my life seen anyone more exciting doing serious classical theater--the focus, the concentration, the diction, everything. On stage he was one of the most exciting performers I'd ever seen.

"Years later I saw him doing the Ernest commercials and thought, 'Oh . . . OK.' He found something that worked for him and made him quite wealthy," Williamson adds. "I would love to see him utilize all his talents. He's got an amazing instrument."

Varney himself doesn't publicly push the angle that he's an under-appreciated thespian. He does say that he enjoyed doing "Hamlet" at a benefit for Nashville's Shakespeare company last summer and that he's looking at scripts with the hope of doing his first dramatic film role but is reluctant to sound ungrateful for his comedic success.

He considers his first major extra-Ernest film role, as Jed Clampett in "The Beverly Hillbillies," as "a nice segue piece. It wasn't too far removed, still within the context of comedy, but I think it showed a few different facets of things I could do."

Varney is, in fact, oddly enough, the straight man of the Clampett clan. "Granny's pretty much the Ernest of the 'Beverly Hillbillies,' " he says.

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