A journeyman, made in America: an interview with John Ratzenberger

A journeyman, made in America: an interview with John Ratzenberger

Surely, John Ratzenberger is a man who needs no introduction. You know him as Cliff Clavin on Cheers. He has voiced a character in every single Pixar film, including Hamm in the Toy Story franchise, whose fourth chapter is out this week. He has even had small parts in movies like Superman: The Movie, Superman II, and The Empire Strikes Back, and has comic-adjacent cred as the voice of the Underminer in the Incredibles franchise.

We were given the opportunity to talk with the legendary actor, who called on a Friday afternoon… only to reach me when there was a phone signal outage. Despite a few dropped calls, we powered through, and after I mentioned my phone provider (“oh, you’re the one who uses that,” Ratzenberger wryly remarked), we had quite the conversation about his career.

I was actually watching the first Toy Story earlier and I noticed that your first line was “I don’t get it” after Don Rickles’ Mr. Potato Head makes a Picasso joke. It was very dry. Whenever you said that, recorded that line, did you ever think that close to three decades later you’d still be voicing the character of Hamm?

I was just hoping three decades later I’d still be alive.

[laughs] And very glad you are.

[laughs] That’s a lot of decades. No, you know what, people ask that question a lot, like with… a question I got recently was “when you first started showing up on set of Star Wars, did you think it was going to be as big as it got?” and “when you first started with Cheers, did you think it was going to be the legendary show?” and nobody does. For actors, you show up and you do your job and you’re relaly not thinking that it’s gonna be a part of history or a legacy event. You just don’t think about it.

I was actually going to ask about Star Wars, so I’m glad that you covered that base.

There ya go.

One thing that I like about Hamm in particular is that a lot of your lines sound improvised. Was there tight scripting on the movies, or did they let everybody go with their gut in a scene and maybe throw ot something that you think would fit?

Yeah, John Lasster welcomed… if you had another line that might work, he welcomed you throwing it in. He gave you the freedom to be creative. And he knew that my background was improvisation. Before i got to Cheers I spent ten years on an improvised comedy show, touring through Europe with a partner. We were a two-man improvised comedy show that we toured all through Europe before… this was back in the early Seventies.

Who was the other guy?

His name is Ray Hassett. He went on to become a homicide detective in New Haven, Connecticut. And hejust retired a couple years ago. Now the state department has him going around the world, teaching de-escalation and hostage negotiation techniques to police departments all over the world.

Wow. Believe it or not, I wouldn’t doubt that improv skills would play a hand in that kind of skill either, in a weird way.

Oh no, it does. Absolutely it does. Because when you’re de-escalating a situation, you don’t know what the guy’s gonna say or do. You gotta be on your toes. And the thing about improvisation is you have to be aware of your surroundings, and certainly as a homicide detective and a cop in general, you have to be aware of your surroundings. So the two skills go hand in hand.

Are there any experiences from these movies that you’ve held onto after all this time? From the Toy Story movies, any of the other Pixar movies, or even Toy Story 4?

What do you mean “experiences”?

Any memories or…

Well, from the beginning, the man who set the beat, the “drum major,” is John Lasseter. And he’s the one who established the technique and the style, and he’s the guy who created Pixar, really, and how they work. So his formula is still in place, thankfully, and they’ve just worked harder than most studios work. They don’t take it easy, they never rest on their laurels. Every project they make, they make it like it’s their very first project, and they always set themselves a task to conquer with the making of that particular movie. Like Finding Nemo, the task was to make water look like real water. Next time you see Finding Nemo, you’ll see they accomplished that in spades.

Mmhmm.

And so every single film, there’s something like that, that’s never been done before, never been achieved technically. And that’s what they set out to do.

I always think of in Monsters, Inc., a lot of the hair on those monsters adds to your point about the water in Finding Nemo.

Right.

There’s a lot of insanely animated hair on Sully.

From the beginning, did anybody plan on you being in every film, or did that arise from a good working relationship so you became their good luck charm, or you became Pixar’s good luck charm, as it were?

I don’t know, I wasn’t in on that conversation. I just remember it was Andrew Stanton or John Lasseter saying in front of a group of people that “Ratzenberger’s gonna be in every film we make.”

[laughs]

And the reason why is… I would hardly guess at the reasons. You’d have to ask them.

Sure, and is there any character from any of those movies that, if you could revisit it, you’d really want to?

What, to revisit, in a view to redoing it?

Well, you’ve been Hamm, and…

Or to do it again?

Maybe in a sequel to a movie that never got one. Because you’ve been Hamm, you’ve been the Abominable Snowman, you’ve been the Underminer multiple times. Is there a character like the flea in A Bug’s Life or even the school of fish in Finding Nemo that, if you could voice that character again, you’d like the chance to?

I would say P.T. Flea in A Bug’s Life. Yeah, I really enjoyed voicing that character. He just makes me laugh.

Absolutely. As far as Toy Story 4 goes… on a personal level, when I was a kid the first two Toy Story movies came out, I got engaged after the third one came out, and now I have my own son to take to Toy Story 4. How does it feel, hearing stories like that of this multigenerational aspect of these movies, where they can take their kids when they were once kids seeing them for the first time years ago?

Yeah, I enjoy having a lot of fun with that. Especially when I do work with kids, whether it’s Boys and Girls Club or Children’s Hospital. But to be able to come out and do Hammy the pig’s voice and see the eyes of all the kids open wide, because they recognize it. As you said, it’s part of their growing up. And even some of the staff in the hospitals, [laughs] it’s the same. I get a kick out of it. God’s been good to me.

Oh, absolutely. To us all. I would definitely agree there.

Is there anything else you’d like to leave as a parting word about your career, Toy Story, just the experiences you’ve had over the years in film and with this franchise?

Oh boy, it’d take a couple of hours to go through that. I never started out wanting to be an actor. I was a carpenter, a journeyman carpenter throughout New England, and by chance I went to London and met up with Ray Hassett there, who I had known in college, and… boom. That’s how I started becoming an actor. So it was all on the job training. I’ve never been to acting school even though I’ve taught in acting schools.

Oh wow.

I didn’t… never went to an acting school. So, we started off doing comedy, and I remember once in a coal miner’s club, there was a doberman pinscher under a table growling at us as we took the stage. So you talk about on the job training, it doesn’t get any better than that.

[laughs] How was that show, with the doberman pinscher?

Oh, I forget which show we did, but you learn right away that you never assume that you’re smarter than your audience. Always assume that your audience is smarter than you are. Then you can’t go wrong.

Absolutely. And, you know, starting out as a carpenter, I believe Harrison Ford started out the same way, so you’re in good company there.

Well, Harrison was a good finish carpenter, does a lot of fancy work. I was more of a 2x4, house framing… I was a house framer, basically.

Is that what led to American Made, your series--

Made in America?

Made in America. Made in America.

What led to that was the fact that my mother worked in a factory, my dad drove a truck, and I grew up in a factory town where everyone made something. Everyone was handy. There was nobody that didn’t know a lot of things when it comes to “do it yourself” when it comes to fixing things and making things and fixing metal and sawing wood. Everybody, regardless of what their profession was, everybody had a skill that made them capable human beings, and I enjoyed growing up amongst that. So that’s where the Made in America thing came from. Because I wanted to honor the people that actually made things. It wasn’t theory, and it wasn’t a dream. They actually made things that you can touch and use.

Sure. Honoring craft and skill, is quite honorable there.

Thank you, if you have to go there…

Yeah, gotta move on to the next guy.

Well thank you, John-- is it alright if I call you John?

Sure, Jay. Thank you.

Well thank you for your… persistence and calling back, and for talking to us today.

You might want to look into Verizon, Jay.

Toy Story 4 will arrive in theaters tomorrow, June 21.

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