CJAD: Jim, you're here working on this movie, SNOWBOARD ACADEMY, just north of Montreal. I'm curious to know. You've done a lot of things. People are familiar with you as Ernest, but you are a classically trained actor, are you not?
JIM: Yeah, I started in theatre. I apprenticed at the Barter theatre in Virginia and did summer stock for a long time before I ever got in front of a camera.
CJAD: The thing I'm getting at is that with a classically trained actor as yourself, people know you as Ernest. People know you as some of the kind of goofy characters you play. Do you find sometimes when you go to casting directors, especially in New York and L.A., they hear the good old boy southern accent and they go, "oh, there's only one thing this guy can do." Has that been a problem?
JIM: Well, it almost became a problem on BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, because Jed Clampett was basically a straight man and most of the comedy takes place around him. He's sort of the patriarch. And Penelope Spheeris had to go to the studio and say, "well, you know I want Jiim Varney to play this" and they all went, "well, is the audience going to associate with the Ernest character?" So I had to go out and test. The first time in my life I had to do screen test. I did a very straight scene in the screen test and Fox was satisfied. It can be, to play one character too long, especially a comedy character.
CJAD: Is that one of the reasons you wanted to do THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES? Because it was more of a straight role, even though it was a comedy?
JIM: Yeah, and it was a stretch. It was a little older character, because Ernest for some reason for 15 years has stayed the same age, or we keep putting more and more pink makeup on me (laughter). So, yeah, I got to play somebody more my own age and a little bit straighter role.
CJAD: How did that Ernest character come about in the first place? I know it was predominately from commercials, right?
JIM: Well, necessity is the mother of invention. The actor's strike was happening back in 1979. I went back to Nashville basically out of work. And John Cherry, who is a local adman there, approached me about doing this character for some local commercials. They were very successful. We won a lot of local advertising awards and we started picking up clients and picking up clients all over the country. Before we knew it, we were everywhere. And this is the fifteenth year of Ernest commercials.
CJAD: Are you still doing Ernest in commercials?
JIM: Still during Ernest commercials.
CJAD: That's amazing! As I mentioned, you did some off Broadway, you've done some television, you've done some films. Do you have a preference as to what medium in the entertainment field you like?
JIM: Not really, I like doing stage. I like doing stand-up every now and then. I like to sing. I write music. Country songs. You have to if you're in Nashville. It's part of the lease. You sign a lease that says, "I will write country songs and pay my rent on time." Just showbiz. I've always loved it.
CJAD: How about the children's show you did on CBS. You did that for awhile and that was certainly a lot of fun. I don't necessarily believe that it was for kids even though it was on Saturday morning.
JIM: Well, we wanted to do a show that parents would watch with their kids, so we wanted to add some tongue in cheek stuff for the adults. We ended up adding a lot more then we expected, but adults were getting up with their kids saying, "get up, get up, your favourite show is on."
CJAD: Did you ever have any problem with the networks? Did they ever try to reign you in saying, well you can't do this or you can't do that? Was there things you didn't anticipate dealing with a network in a children's show?
JIM: We didn't have to pull back to much because we realized we were doing a children's show and so it worked out. CBS was with us.
CJAD: What about doing the Ernest movies. Taking Ernest from television commercials and going into film. Were you concerned about wondering if somebody with a sustained life of 30 or 60 seconds could sustain life for 90 minutes or two hours?
JIM: Well yes, that was a big concern, especially with John Cherry. He said, "well we know it works for 30 seconds, will it work for and hour and a half?" And it was very successful. Our first film was very successful. And Disney was very satisfied so they ended up releasing four of our films. Two under Buena Vista and two under Touchstone. They're still big renters.
CJAD: Did you ever say to yourself, just like Leonard Nimoy did at one point about getting away from Spock, did you ever say, "I've gotta get away from Ernest"?
JIM: I think he's going to die a natural death. I think the Spock's pointy ears will go away eventually. He'll stop logicising eventually.
CJAD: And Ernest. Is Ernest with you forever.
JIM: As long as I can do the gags, until I'm on crutches or too old to actually fall off a ladder.
CJAD: I was looking through the bio information here and I noticed something that I kind of forgot and that is that you were on a show called PINK LADY.
JIM: PINK LADY, yes. One of the great tragedies of television history, I'm afraid. Yeah, that was a six episode thing.
CJAD: If I'm not mistaken, that was a singing group. Two girls from Japan who did not speak English.
JIM: Yeah, it was a bit of a problem. I think when the producer hired them for the show, they were playing stadiums in Japan. They were like the biggest thing in Japan. And because they were singing English in English...Shirelles, Supremes, that kind of thing, he just assumed that they spoke English. Doing comedy with an interpreter is very nearly impossible. "How cold was it?" "Just a minute, what did he say?" "Cold, cold, let's see, cold would be....oh yeah, it was so cold." So we were having those kind of problems.
CJAD: While doing that show, at some point you walked into the show saying, "this is a good idea. I'm on a variety show," even though variety was kind of dying at the time, but you're on a variety show on a major network. At what point did you say, "wait a minute, something's wrong here."?
JIM: Well, when they brought Jerry Lewis out of retirement and it still didn't work. He came out to bail us out and did a show with us and it was just very strange. It was like oil and water. There was something wrong with the chemistry on the show.
CJAD: You've had several network experiences. Would you like to go back and do a network television show.
JIM: It would depend. I enjoy most of the stuff I did on television. FERNWOOD was a lot of fun, and ROUSTERS, the thing I did with Chad Everett, we had a ball on that action adventure, but it was...doing an hour a week on film is really tough. It takes a lot out of you.
CJAD: In television, with the exception, I guess, of the children's show you did, most of the time you would be a sidekick, I guess.
JIM: Yeah, comical sidekick.
CJAD: Would you like to have an opportunity to have a television show where you're not the sidekick?
JIM: Yeah, where I had my own sidekick? "Come on, Gabby, get on the horse!" (laughter) Ride off into the sunset and save the girl, end up with the girl. Yeah that would be fun. Play some dramatic roles for a change.
CJAD: Is there something in film or television that you haven't done that you would to do?
JIM: I'd like to do a piece of Shakespeare. Any upcoming Shakespeare film. Just a bit to say I did a classic.
CJAD: Have you called Kenneth Branaugh yet?
JIM: No, I missed OTHELLO by just that much. I haven't seen that yet, by the way, but I'm looking forward to seeing it. I loved his HENRY V.
CJAD: How about more stage work. Would you like to, for instance, go back to Broadway? A lot of movie actors these day, or people who started on stage, had success in film or television, are heading back towards Broadway. There seems to be a trend.
JIM: Well oddly, I did have an offer. Roger Miller offered me Pappy Finn for six weeks in BIG RIVER, which I don't know if you've seen. It's a great Broadway show. It's a musical version of HUCKLEBERRY FINN, and I was doing a movie at the time and I couldn't do it and I thought, "God, I thought I'd never turn down a role on Broadway", but as fate would have it.....yeah, but I would love to do some Broadway. I haven't done stage in so long. It would be refreshing to do it again.
CJAD: Let's talk a little bit about this film, SNOWBOARD ACADEMY. What role do you play in this movie and tell us a little about what it's about.
JIM: I play Rudy James, who's sort of a comic that closes out a town. He's a lounge act, and a very bad lounge act. He's hired by this resort as comic/handyman/safety engineer. He wears many hats because they are too cheap to pay three or four people. He has to do a lot of jobs. And he doesn't do any of them very well. He's sort of a shlep anti-hero.
CJAD: Now, you've actually done stand-up and that is some of the loneliest work one can do on a stage. Do you bring any of what you've done in stand-up to the role you're playing here.
JIM: Yeah, in fact, there's a segment in the film where he's playing to the club and he's dying on his feet and it's sort of based on all the comics that I've seen die on their feet. The obvious...the jokes like, "I just flew in from out of town and boy are my arms tired!" All the old jokes that don't work. I started to do a study on how not to do stand-up comedy. Yeah, it's lonely work. You die, you die alone. It's you the light and the audience. If you win, you win big. If you lose, you lose big time.
CJAD: Another type of work that is sometimes lonely work for a different reason is doing voice in animation. You were recently in the movie TOY STORY, playing the wiener dog, the Slinky dog. What was that like?
JIM: Well it's kind of odd doing animation, because you do it in pieces. It's like putting a puzzle together. So they do a piece of animation and bring you in and you do that and then they would sort of base the animation on your characterization. So they watch you and you watch them and they watch you and you watch them and it all kind of comes together as a project. I was very pleased with the end result, but I only saw it in pieces after that point, but I had no idea what it was going to look like when it was finished.
CJAD: And when you saw the finish?
JIM: Oh, I was very impressed. It was a great film. People were going back to see it three or four times. Nothing like it ever was.
CJAD: Is it an experience you'd like to repeat?
JIM: Yeah, TOY STORY 2. Yeah, I'd love to do that. After I saw it I said, "whoa, it was worth it!" Two years of work. Tom Hanks was on it four years. It was well worth it.
CJAD: Is there ever a situation with two years of work like that, do you sometimes want to say, "gosh can we get this over with?" or when you see the end result do you say, "oh well, it was well worth it?"
JIM: Yeah I could see where you would do something for two.....I mean, something like CLEOPATRA. You know, how long....three years, or four years in the making. If you did something that took that much of your time and it wasn't good, you'd say, "oh God, part of my life is gone for nothing." But I think it was very well worth the two years we put in TOY STORY.
CJAD: And what's up next for you after doing this particular film and still taking the accolades from TOY STORY. What would you like to do? What do you have planned?
JIM: Well, some other movie offers this year. I want to put together some television, because I love to work in television. And it's a real challenge. It's a week to week thing. You get in that fever mode. You get in fifth gear and it's an exciting thing.
CJAD: Talking a little bit about the children's show you did for CBS....why is it no longer on? It was such a great show!
JIM: Yeah, we won two Emmys. I don't know. We did thirteen, I think, theme shows. Each one had its own theme. They just kept replaying them over and over. They went through the summer and on into the next season and then they syndicated them, so I guess they got all that they needed out of it. They might bring it back, I don't know. I think there is an open door at CBS when you win them an Emmy.
CJAD: I remember when PEE WEE'S PLAYHOUSE was on, they actually attempted at one point to say, "gee, let's see if we can do this show in the evening." Did they ever think of perhaps doing that with your show?
JIM: No, but I could see where they would. I could see where we could sort of adultize a little more and take it into the evening hours, because we had a lot of adult fans. We had a lot mail. SPIN MAGAZINE said we were the most creative show on television, in any time slot, so yeah, why not? Are you listening CBS?
CJAD: Who actually owns the rights to that show. CBS or you guys?
JIM: I think we own like a half and half situation.
CJAD: Because I was wondering. Sometimes a show goes off the air and they find new life in syndication or cable.
JIM: We did that with Deke. M-SHELL AND DEKE. M-SHELL is John Cherry's production company in Nashville, with whom I am associated.
CJAD: I thank you for talking with us and continued success.
JIM: Well thank you, I enjoyed it.