February 28, 2000 12:00 PM

In November 1999, Jim Varney—better known as Ernest, the wide-mouthed, redneck goofball he played in nine movies and some 4,000 TV ads—was the center of attention at the L.A. premiere of Toy Story 2. The actor, who played the voice of Slinky Dog in the animated films, had been battling lung and brain cancer since 1998; now, with his strength back after radiation therapy, “he was able to walk down the carpet,” says ex-wife Janie. “He was really proud of that.” Many of the movie’s stars, including Tom Hanks, came over to wish him well. As he waited for the film to start, he turned to his friend, attorney Bill “Hoot” Gibson, and smiled. “Hoot,” he said, “it’s been a great adventure.”

The adventure ended Feb. 10 when Varney, 50, finally succumbed at his home in White House, Tenn., about 30 miles from Nashville. All along he had insisted that his illness enlightened him. “You don’t really appreciate life,” he told PEOPLE last year, “until you look death in the eyes.”

Varney began acting at age 8 in his native Lexington, Ky., doing stand-up before inventing Ernest for a 1980 raceway park ad. Colleagues viewed the history-and-Shakespeare buff with near awe. “This guy could do a Hamlet soliloquy and be the dumbest redneck in the same breath,” says Gil Templeton, a writer on many Ernest films. Twice married and divorced, he struggled for years with depression and alcohol abuse but managed, with the help of medication, to overcome both. In the end he had few regrets: If he could live his life over, he said last year, “I wouldn’t change much. I’d be right where I am.”

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