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."