Reviving a Cultural Icon

Should some things be left alone?
March 04, 2008
One of the most identifiable cultural icons of the 80's and 90's is Ernest P. Worrell. For better or worse, millions of Americans counted the lovable, if hapless, redneck among their guilty pleasures, whether they knew him from his commercial spots or from the pantheon of movies that were in production up until Jim Varney's untimely death in February of 2000.

At the time of Varney's demise, Ernest the Pirate (the tenth film in the franchise) was still in production, and could not be completed. At the time, most people who hadn't heard about Jim Varney's battle with lung cancer just assumed that the Ernest phenomenon had played out--an assumption that the quality of his later movies would reasonably support--and that the character of Ernest had simply been retired while Varney was off doing other things. (His performances in Daddy and Them and Atlantis: The Lost Empire were released nearly a year after his passing.) Fans who were aware of his death simply assumed that the Ernest character had likewise been laid to rest in that small, unremarkable grave in Lexington, KY.

Fast forward five years. Suddenly fans started noticing a CGI version of Ernest popping up in commercial spots. Only it definitely was not Jim Varney providing the voice for the not-so-bright bumpkin. Fan reaction to seeing their "not so dead" Ernest back on TV was mixed. Some fans were outraged and expressed their feeling that resurrecting the character was disrespectful to Jim. Many felt that the impression wasn't good enough, the subject matter was ripped off from Jim's previous commercial work, or that it was just plain wrong to, in their opinion, sully the legacy of someone who had passed away. Others felt that it was nice and nostalgic to have Ernest back in any form, and hopes began building that Ernest the Pirate might eventually be completed after all. (What's your reaction? For the full commercial, visit

These hopes were further augmented when an Ernest-like character (played by John Hudgens) began appearing in local commercials in the Little Rock, AR and Nashville, TN markets. (These appearances were NOT official Ernest spots, but the source material was easy to spot.) Fans would later find out that Carden and Cherry--the advertising firm that produced all the older Ernest spots--had posted a demo reel featuring Hudgens in a series of new Ernest commercials, this time in full costume and with old buddy Vern thrown into the mix. The ads were predictable Ernest fare, with most if not all using similar or identical scripts to Varney's commercials. The demo reel mostly consists of Ernest talking to--and of course annoying--Vern, the unseen camera man. While Hudgens, a former TV weatherman, did a passable job impersonating the character, the demos lacked the true soul of Worrell. As mentioned before, there is no new material, and the pervasive feeling is simply that one is watching a fair-to-middling impersonation. Put simply, the performance lacks soul, and Hudgens' eyes and maniacal smile are quite off-putting at times. There's very little to love about this version. (Do you agree? You can view the demo reel at as the official site,, is no longer online.)

The leaked demo also lacked the support of fans. Once the reel was uncovered, fans almost overwhelmingly began to cry for John Cherry's head on a platter. After all, he had been a close friend to Jim Varney, as well as the creative force behind the Ernest movies. How could he, they reasoned, desecrate his memory in this fashion? There were a few exceptions in the fandom--very few. Some thought that having Hudgens to fill in for Varney would allow Ernest the Pirate to finally be completed, and thus released. Others argued that Jim wouldn't have wanted the character to have died with him. But the overwhelming majority were left screaming bloody murder at what they perceived as a inferior and illegitimate portrayal of the beloved character.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) the "New Ernest" spots didn't take. In fact, searching the yellow pages and Google indicates that the advertising agency of Carden & Cherry may no longer exist. Whether or not this is related to the failure of the "new Ernest" spots is unknown, though it is important to note that the older Ernest spots saved the agency from bankruptcy back in the 1970s.

The question to us is this: When a cultural icon has passed on, should his legacy be left untouched? Should it be left as is, with the book closed, preserved for posterity? Or should it be appropriately revived from time to time?

Some legacies, arguably, should be continued. For example, no one would wish for Walt Disney's work to have come to completion upon his death. A great many revived franchises from the 70's and 80's have done well and been received well in recent years.

But then one could argue that some things are just better left alone. Some performances can never be replicated, nor should they be. Some bodies of work should be left to stand on their own merit.

And some characters should be left to rest in peace.

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