John Ratzenberger is Pixar’s favorite all-star, the only actor to appear in every single Pixar film. His face is known to “Cheers” fans as the know-it-all mail carrier Cliff Clavin, but his voice is Pixar’s good luck charm and he has appeared as everything from a piggy bank (Hamm in all three “Toy Story” movies) to a whole school of moonfish in “Finding Nemo.” He spoke to me about his background in improv, failing the audition for Cheers, his Nuts and Bolts foundation to inspire hands-on creativity in children, and his favorite Pixar role.
Tell me about the early days of Pixar.
It was 15 years ago, but I remember liking them enormously because they were so passionate about the work. This wasn’t a hobby or a way to make some quick money. This was a passion. They just do things right, the old-fashioned way. And they have children — they get it. They don’t talk down to anyone. They understand how absorbent children are. You won’t get any below-the-belt humor with Pixar, which is pretty much all you get with some of the other people who do animation.
Why is that so important?
When my son was five — he’s 22 now — we were driving down the road and he dropped something and he let go with the s-bomb. I said, “Hey, that’s a new word from you. Where’d you pick that up?” I was thinking maybe one of his friends. He said, “ET.” That’s what really brings it home. In that scene, the kid swore and the mother didn’t do anything; there was no recompense. When did that become acceptable? When did that become hip? You can reverse-engineer it right to the Woodstock generation. That’s where it all started. Most of the problems of today can be laid to the feet of the Woodstock generation and their world view. There’s no hardships in their lives; everything was handed to them. That’s why we have the problems of today, the educational system, this nonsense of self-esteem. You can’t have self-esteem handed to you. You get it from doing things, from achieving things. Not from just showing up.
Do you have a favorite of the Pixar characters you’ve played?
P.T. Flea in “A Bug’s Life.” They actually went out into the park with magnifying glasses and got down on their hands and knees and that’s the care that Pixar takes. Now they can afford to go to South America to research “Up.” But when I started with them, they could only go into the back yard. They set the bar very high for themselves; they never rest on their laurels. Every project they undertake has the same passion and love they had for the first one. Could you imagine going to any other film studio with the story of “Up?” They’d throw you on the street in five minutes.” An 82-year-old guy? They pick a difficult subject and they ground-break in every single movie, always something that has never been done in animation before. Like in “Finding Nemo” the water. Up to that time water had never been done in a way that felt realistic. It’s like a master work of art.
What kind of training did you have in acting?
My background is all improv. I had my own troup touring Europe in the 1970’s. I never went to acting school. That’s how I got the part in “Cheers.” I actually failed the audition. I was walking out the door. And I turned around and said, “Do you have the bar know-it-all? They said, “What are you talking about?” I just improvised the whole thing and got them laughing enough to get my dignity back, and I left. Two days later I got the call. Scripts don’t get in my way, but I come from the Tim Conway, Jackie Gleason school. I’ll learn the script, but there’s ways of having a little more fun with it.
What is the Nuts and Bolts Foundation?
We fund camps nation-wide that teach kids manual skills. We made the mistake in this country of sending everyone to college. We forgot that someone’s got to build the college. Someone’s got to repair the college. Someone’s got to fix things. Who’s going to operate the motor pool? Statistically, we’re running out of people who can do that. We had one kid who wanted to be a stone mason but his parents said people would think he was stupid. We need to get out of that way of thinking. Forget that he wanted to do it and could make a good living at it. We need those people.
I’m a carpenter. I still build things. Now I’m working on furniture, a little rocking chair for my grand-daughter.