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    "Hey, Vern!" Guy Dies

    Ernest is going to heaven.

    Actor Jim Varney, bumbling Ernest P. Worrell of "Hey, Vern!" fame, succumbed to lung cancer today in his Tennessee home. He was 50.

    Most recently, Varney was the voice of Toy Story 2's Slinky Dog. He announced his cancer diagnosis in November, just before the successful film debuted.

    The gangly actor first gained fame as a regular on the variety series Johnny Cash and Friends in 1976. His acclaim grew after his hilarious "Hey, Vern!" commercials and comedy albums hit the air in the early 1980s. Two of his character's catchphrases--"Hey, Vern!" and ""KnowhutImean?"--become embedded in pop-culture.

    "Ernest is a neighbor or relative that we've all had at one time," he once said. "He's abrasive, but he doesn't mean to be. He gets excited and ends up standing on your toes. I try to make him clownish and I don't want him too low key; and he's physically funny."

    "It's been my biggest sounding board. I've grown to know him well."

    The success of his act, featuring the goofy, tool belt-toting handyman Ernest (and his long-suffering, but never-seen neighbor Vern), was quickly parlayed into nine feature-length films (four released theatrically, five went straight to video), including Ernest Goes to Camp (1987), Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), Ernest Goes to Jail (1990) and Ernest Scared Stupid (1991).

    Varney took on yet another hillbilly role as Jed Clampet in the 1993 movie version of The Beverly Hillbillies. He also voiced Slinky Dog in both Toy Story films.

    The Lexington, Kentucky, born actor went public with his cancer battle in mid-November. He made the announcement after people began to ask him about his hair loss during the Toy Story 2 publicity junket.

    Varney, a heavy smoker, was originally diagnosed with the disease in August 1998 and had two-thirds of his right lung removed the following month, but the cancer still spread to his brain. Radiation therapy briefly put the cancer in remission, allowing him to make Toy Story 2 and the forthcoming Daddy and Them (with Billy Bob Thornton) and Disney's animated Atlantis, before his death.

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