Many people can recognize Jim Varney, the rubber-faced actor who lived in Nashville and famously played the "Ernest P. Worrell" character in movies and on TV, but you may not know the amazing gift he left behind.
The Jim Varney Scholarship is like hitting the lottery. It's a $300,000-plus, full-ride scholarship to UCLA. To qualify, you must be from either Tennessee or Kentucky, and desire a career in acting while majoring in something else.
Now, for the first time since the actor's death in 2000, a Nashville high school student has won that scholarship.
Alexander Weber has never seen an Ernest movie, but that will soon change, because Varney is now Weber's benefactor, sending him to UCLA for a dream education.
"It's a blessing like I couldn't imagine," Weber said. "Lottery nothing, I can't believe how great this is, honestly."
The Hillsboro High School student was connected with the Varney Scholarship by counselor Meri Kock.
"Alex's heart is as big as all outdoors. That's part one. He's just a really wonderful young man. Incredibly intelligent, he earned the IB Diploma," Kock said.
Varney attended UCLA, but couldn't find work as an actor, so he came back to Nashville and hooked up with ad man John Cherry. Together, they come up with the Ernest character and started making milk commercials.
"All the Ernest commercials were 30 seconds, top to bottom. No cuts, no edits, no squeezing it," Cherry said.
"Hey Vern" and "You know what I mean" became catch phrases all over the country, but what led Varney to movies was, of all things, a celebrity lap at the Indianapolis 500.
"Half a million people stood up and said, 'Hey Verne.' And [Jeffrey] Katzenberg and [Michael] Eisner, that's right when they had just taken over Disney and they said, 'Who is that guy?'" Cherry said.
Cherry, who has written a book called Keeper of the Clown: My Life with Ernest, went on to direct his friend in nine movies. Varney was a classically trained actor and a gifted impressionist.
But it was the Ernest character that people loved, and he is paying that love back through an amazing scholarship to a young man ready to do some impressions of his own.
Weber is the perfect kid for the role. He's the son of inner city missionaries, and displays the kind of humility that Varney loved.
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