John Cherry

John Cherry poses with a piece of the Ernest Goes to Camp set. 

Really sad news, Vern. One of the men who brought Ernest P. Worrell to life has died. 

Filmmaker John Cherry died after a long battle with Parkinson's disease at the age of 73 Sunday, per the Ernest P. Worrell Facebook page.

"Buster, as his friends lovingly knew him by, was probably the most brilliant man I've ever met. Even as Parkinson's began to rob him of some things, that creative mind of his was always going full-force to the best of its ability," a post from the page written by Melissa Laster read announcing Cherry's death.

"He was kind, amazingly funny, generous and had a heart of gold. In addition to being a brilliant writer, he was also an amazing artist, a skilled fisherman and an all-around amazing human being."

Cherry, a longtime resident of Williamson County, helped create the lovable good-ole-boy Ernest P. Worrell for his ad agency Carden and Cherry alongside rising stand-up comic Jim Varney in the role that would wind up defining both of their careers. The character was created to help advertise a then-rundown Beech Bend Raceway Park in Bowling Green, Ky., that couldn't even be shown in ad footage. So, Ernest had to talk up the park for them. 

In a 1990 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Cherry described the appeal that Ernest had during the advertising days. 

”Every time we do a study on who Ernest appeals to, it’s the under-13 and over-35 age groups,” Cherry said at the time. ”If you’re under 13, it’s OK, and when you’re over 35, you know it doesn’t count anymore — you don’t have to be cool.”

The Ernest character first was used in regional advertisements (including an eight-year run with Nashville's Purity Dairies) and in short comedy skits before he hosting a direct-to-video special, Knowhutimean? Hey Vern, It's My Family Album, in 1983. He made his theatrical debut in 1985's subversive cult film Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam, which saw Varney play seven roles, including Ernest, the titular Dr. Otto and his recurring character Auntie Nelda. That film started Cherry's longtime practice of mainly shooting the Ernest films in and around Nashville. 

Film critic Will Ashton describes Dr. Otto as a unique footprint in Cherry's filmography. 

"Nearly everything that would probably turn off the casual Ernest fan won me over. It's frequently biting and bizarre, tackling sociopolitical and economical commentary at such a fierce and fearless pace that it's enthralling and kinda flabbergasting," Ashton wrote. "There's early Tim Burton in here. There's Robert Downey Sr. in here. Hell, there's a bit of John Waters in parts. It's reminiscent of Rocky Horror and even Maximum Overdrive at times. We're watching John Cherry III be fully unleashed and unbridled in this. I really admire the drive." 

That led to a short-lived, Emmy-winning CBS children's television show and, more notably, the start of the Ernest film series. It began with perhaps the most well-known installment, Ernest Goes to Camp. It was the first of four films made with Disney affiliate Touchstone Pictures, with the Mouse House catching wind of Ernest after his appearance in the Indianapolis 500 parade.

“Nobody paid much attention to anybody, but when Ernest went around, 500,000 people stood up and said, ‘Hey Vern!’ ” Cherry recalled about the Indy 500 event to the Nashville Scene in 1999. “Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were in the audience, and they had just taken over Disney. To make a long, boring story short, we took off from there.”

It was a signifier of the character's immense appeal in the 80s and early 90s, with Ernest even one time visiting the White House and conducting a press conference April Fool's joke announcing Ernest as the new "chief of the economy." 

Ernest Goes to Camp was filmed at Montgomery Bell State Park in Burns, Tenn. The state park holds a regular celebration of the film in the summer for "Ernest Day," which includes an outdoor screening and attendance from various members of the film's production. 

The other three films from the Disney run were Ernest Saves Christmas, Ernest Goes to Jail and Ernest Scared Stupid, which all were respectable box office hits. Jail famously had scenes filmed at the old Tennessee State Penitentiary, which also hosted films like The Green Mile and Walk the Line. That film and Scared Stupid also featured the late Nashville-based actor Barry Scott in two of his few silver-screen credits. 

Cherry and Varney then took Ernest on an independent production for theaters with Ernest Rides Again before switching over to a handful of Cherry-directed straight-to-video installments, including Slam Dunk Ernest, Ernest Goes to Africa and Ernest in the Army. One other direct-to-video film, Ernest Goes to School, was directed by Cherry's longtime creative partner, Coke Sams, who directed the locally made cult classic Existo in 1999. 

Cherry and Varney retired the Ernest character as the latter's health began to decline. Varney would die in 2000 due to complications of lung cancer, with Ernest in the Army being the duo's last collaboration. Cherry had his most prominent acting role in that project and shared scenes with Varney, his longtime friend and creative partner. 

“Jim is a good old boy, if you want to know the truth," Cherry said of his longtime collaborator to the Scene in 1999. He’s not pretentious. He was never caught up in the fact that he was a movie star. He’s never met a stranger. People just find him fascinating because of his wealth of knowledge. I used to tease him that he has a wealth of knowledge that he’ll never use.”

Cherry once joked that he and Varney would make Ernest films ”as long as Jim can stand up," a claim he lived up to with his close friend. 

"I miss him," Cherry shared with the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 2019. "The world misses him, because he could go right through your heart, and he got you every time."

After the Ernest series concluded, Cherry tried his hand at two non-Ernest, direct-to-video filmmaking projects in 1999, one a pirate adventure titled Pirates of the Plain that starred Tim Curry, another an attempt to revitalize comedic duo Laurel & Hardy titled The All New Adventures of Laurel & Hardy in For Love of Mummy.

That film was a collaboration with longtime Bozo the Clown stage actor Larry Harmon and co-starred actors Bronson Pinchot, Gailard Sartain, who played Chuck in a handful of the Ernest films, and Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham. 

That would be Cherry's final feature filmmaking effort, with only a handful of short films listed to his name produced after the Laurel & Hardy project. 

In his post-Ernest career, Cherry spent time engaging with Ernest fans in the Nashville community, attending a few "Ernest Days" at Montgomery Bell Park and doing a Q-&-A at a screening of Ernest Scared Stupid at The Factory at Franklin in 2016. Williamson County residents Ivon and Eyan Wuchina made a short documentary about "Ernest Day" in 2019. 

“We saw it as a duty of ours as fans to show that [Varney's] legacy is still alive and still strong,” said Ivon Wuchina to the Tennessean back in 2019. 

Cherry's benevolence over the Ernest franchise even led him to share unused Ernest scripts with the Ernest P. Worrell Preservation Society podcast group after an interview. 

"He enjoyed our chat so much and what we were doing in celebration of the movies he wrote and directed, he let us have all the unused scripts for the unmade movies," a post from the podcast group said. 

"Speaking on behalf of Derek, Jason, and I, we are truly grateful for being able to do the show. Not everything we read is great. He could’ve said No, this stuff shouldn’t be heard. But he handed them over and said to have fun with it. And we continue to do so.

"So raise a Mello My Yello cocktail (with 3 cherries for John Cherry The Third) and salute the man who always signed his memos Captain of the Ship of Fools. Rest easy, Buster. Thank you for the laughs."

Cherry suffered from Parkinson's later in his life, though he was still able to soak in the love from the Ernest devotees showing their appreciation for his and Varney's work on various occasions. 

"I want you all to know how much he loved hearing from you and seeing your love of Ernest," Laster wrote on the post the Ernest page shared. "Those of you who came out to meet him at Ernest Day, often bringing your children with you and telling him how you introduced your kids to Ernest and how they now love the movies too...it truly made his day. I will never forget the joy in his eyes after that first Ernest Day.

"You truly have no idea how much hearing those stories and seeing the love you still all have for his creations meant to him. Thank you so much for loving Ernest and bringing Buster so much joy over the years, especially in these last several years that have been so difficult for him. You truly brought him insurmountable joy in some of his darkest moments." 

Cherry wrote a book about his adventures with Varney titled Keeper of the Clown: My Life with Ernest, which was published in 2013. A documentary titled The Importance of Being Ernest about Varney's character is currently in production. That film more than reached its Kickstarter goal for funding last year, with $76,974 raised. 

"Buster was remarkable man," former Carden & Cherry employee Rhonda Parnell Barnes shared on the Facebook announcement of his passing. 

"Thank you for creating an amazing legacy of movies that will go on for years and thank you for being such a generous man," shared Ernest fan Randy Schmitz on the post. "I will never forget the amazing package of storyboards, artwork, and collectibles sent to me by the Cherry family for being a fan."

"RIP John Cherry," said another Ernest fan, Chris Cornwell, on the post, "if it wasn't for you and bringing Ernest into my life, there would have been a huge void in my childhood that nothing else could fill. I treasure and you and Jim for the rest of my days." 

Cherry is survived by his children Josh, Emilie and Chapman. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.