Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Hey Vern! I'm Dead!

Jim Varney was born on June 14, 1949 in Lexington Kentucky.  From an early age, it was obvious to all who knew him that one day he would annoy millions of people.  Can you believe this spaz won a daytime Emmy Award?

Recognizing that her son had a knack for imitating popular cartoon characters, Varney's mother enlisted him in local theater productions when he was just eight years old.  He was a quick study, and by the time he was in high school, he was already winning drama competitions.  He studied Shakespeare in Virginia and became a regular performer at Opryland In Nashville.  Not bad for a kid of 17.

In 1980, Varney signed with an advertising agency in Nashville to play what would become his signature character, Ernest P. Worrel.  Watch Varney discuss that historic decision with ABC's Joan Lunden here.

Ernest's first commercial was for a local amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, but his pitchman career soon took off.  By 1984, Varney had played the part in more than 800 local commercials throughout the south, selling everything from milk to Toyotas.  KnowwhatImean, Vern?
I paid $5 to see this in the theatre.

It wouldn't take long for Hollywood to notice, which decided to quickly cash in on his character.  The first Ernest movie, Ernest Goes to Camp, was released in 1987.  Watch the trailer here.  It was a box office success (!), bringing in more than $23 million (produced for a mere $3 million).  Incredibly, seven additional Ernest films would hit theatres before the franchise burned out in 1997.

Varney had other roles besides Ernest, including that of Slinky Dog in the popular Toy Story movie franchise.  Hear a sampling of that character here. He also took over the role of Jed Clampett in the 1993 big-screen remake of The Beverly Hillbillies.  Watch the trailer here.

In 1998, Varney was filming a movie called Treehouse Hostage when he started coughing up blood.  He hid his condition until the production was complete, but as a longtime smoker, he knew how serious it potentially was.  When production on the film was completed, he was officially diagnosed with lung cancer.

For two years, Varney continued to act, while also taking time off for chemotherapy.  Sadly, he'd succumb to the disease on February 10, 2000.  He was just 50 years old.  He was buried in his hometown of Lexington in the town cemetery.  His final film, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, was released the following year, and Disney dedicated the film to his memory.

Next: New year - new graves!

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Surely You Can't Be Serious - "Airplane's" Stephen Stucker

Stephen Stucker was never a household name. But to fans of the 1980 comedy smash Airplane!, he'll forever be Johnny Henshaw, a wisecracking air traffic controller with a license to ad lib.  Fans of Airplane II: The Sequel will know him as Johnny Jacobs, but hey, what's a little continuity among friends.

Stucker was born on July 2, 1947 in Des Moines, Iowa.  We're familiar with it.  His family moved to Ohio, then later to Alameda, California.  There he attended the Lincoln School, making a name for himself as both the class clown and an up and coming concert pianist.  Makes this scene all the more funny.

Stucker's high school yearbook photo.
Stucker's first film was 1975's Carnal Madness, aka Delinquent Schoolgirls.  Watch the trailer here.  Viewer discretion is advised.  He had an itch for comedy, and he eventually found himself in Madison, Wisconsin, where he joined the Kentucky Fried Theatre, a sketch comedy group founded by brothers David and Jerry Zucker and their friend Jim Abrams.  This led to a role in the group's first film, the aptly titled Kentucky Fried Movie, in 1977.  Watch the trailer here.
Stucker's antics in that film earned him the role of Johnny in Airplane! just three years later. Watch a compilation of his finer moments in the film here.

Following the success of that film, Stucker continued to find modest work in the industry, including this 1981 episode of the long-forgotten Marie Osmond Show.  Don't have time for the whole episode?  Watch his parody of Hostess cupcakes here. His last role of significance was a walk-on in the 1983 film Trading Places.

In 1984, Stucker was diagnosed with AIDS.  He became one of the first celebrities to publicly announce their affliction, which he discussed in great detail with talk-show host Phil Donahue. He passed just two years later, on April 13, 1986.  He was just 38 years old.  What a pisser.

Stucker was unmarried, and he preceded both of his parents in death.  For years, it was something of a mystery as to what had become of him.  It wasn't until his father's passing in 2008 that all was revealed (Stucker's mother had passed 20 years earlier in 1988).

All three family members were cremated.  Their ashes were placed in matching urns at Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, California.

Trivia:  Airplane! was released on July 2, 1980 - Stucker's 33rd birthday.