For different generations of fans, the name John Ratzenberger brings up particular cultural connotations. Audiences slightly older than me will certainly recognize him as Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all mailman from the generation-defining sitcom, Cheers. Not too shabby! But for fans who are a tad younger, Ratzenberger is inextricably linked to the films produced by Pixar.
Starting with 1995’s Toy Story, Ratzenberger has voiced a character in every one of the studio’s films. Some of the roles are substantial, like Hamm in the Toy Story series; some are mere cameos (such as the Underminer in the first Incredibles outing). Either way, legions of young fans have had that familiar New England lilt come into their lives in some way or another.
Now, if one were to only recognize Ratzenberger’s filmography through Pixar alone, that would objectively be a great career. But it is truly stunning to see the breadth of Ratzenberger’s roles, including in many films that are associated closely with the rise of “nerd” culture. With the release of Toy Story 4 this week, I had the fortune to chat with John Ratzenberger about all of this and more. It was a delightful conversation, as you will see. I started by asking about the need for Toy Story 4 at all, seeing as how Toy Story 3 seemed to have the crafted the perfect denouement for the series…
AJ FROST: For me, Toy Story 3 was the perfect ending for the series. Andy has moved on and left his toys with Bonnie. But now Toy Story 4 is about to drop! What does this new movie bring to the table? And how does it build on the previous three? I guess what I’m getting at is, what’s something new and exciting that Toy Story 4 brings to the franchise?
JOHN RATZENBERGER: Well, we have a new character being introduced. I look at it story wise story that, yeah, Andy’s gone off to college and Bonnie’s got the toys. And Bonnie will grow up. And Andy will continue to grow up and he’ll get married and have children of his own. And then come back to Bonnie’s and Bonnie will give him the toys back because she’s gone off to college. And so it’s really never-ending.
FROST: So, it’s a perpetual cycle?
RATZENBERGER: I’d like to see that sociologically: the different things that happen in different years to different people.
FROST: Have you just written Toy Story 5? [LAUGHS]
RATZENBERGER: I guess. It’s you and me, kid.
FROST: When the creative people at Pixar came to you and said that they were gonna do a new Toy Story, what were your initial reactions?
RATZENBERGER: It’s always great to hear from them, especially when they say ‘Oh John, we have a new part for you in the next film,’ whatever that might be. It’s just like any of your childhood friends that invited you into their sandbox a long time ago. It’s a treat. They’re just good people. They know what they’re doing.
FROST: Were you surprised with anything in terms of the arc for Hamm in this film? When they gave you the script, were you like: ‘Oh, this is really interesting’ or ‘This is pleasant?’ What were your thoughts of how Hamm might evolve as a character in this movie?
RATZENBERGER: You’ve made the mistake of thinking you’re talking to an actor. I’m not John Malkovich. I don’t tamper with what Pixar does. You know because there are so many actors who say their character should do this or their character should do that. But don’t forget it’s an animated feature. It’s their toys. And Pixar has been doing this for a long time So my philosophy is: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Let them do what they do and do what they ask you to do. Show up when they want you to show up and just record the voice. They’re not amateurs.
FROST: Toy Story 4 has a new creative team: Josh Cooley is the director this time around. What kind of energy did he bring to the recording studio? How was his direction different than say, John Lasseter or Lee Unkrich?
RATZENBERGER: Well, don’t forget the foundation that was laid by John Lasseter. They’ll work on a script for three years. And so if you’re writing a script for three years, you know every nuance, every comma, every exclamation point, you know every breath that a character takes and how the other characters should respond. So, when I say that Pixar does all the heavy lifting for the actors, that’s what I mean. They’ve already done the hard work and all I have to do is listen to the director.
FROST: Pixar just released the trailer for their next film, Onward. Can you say anything about your role in that one or is everything still under wraps for that?
RATZENBERGER: Well when they tell me I can I will. But I don’t want them to revoke my security clearance!
FROST: You’ve had the opportunity to voice a character in every Pixar film to date. What does that mean to you? As you know, it’s said that you’re the good luck charm for the studio. What does that mean to you as an actor and as a fan of film and animation? And what does it mean to you personally as a father and grandfather?
RATZENBERGER: Well, to roll that up for the purposes of a short interview… God’s been good to me. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I was given the brass ring of Cheers. You know, when I wanted to audition, I invented the character; Cliff did not yet exist. And for that to become the legendary show that it became… And now, having worked with Pixar 24 years, I don’t really think it gets any better.
FROST: And because this is The Beat, I have to ask about some other appearances you’ve had in popular nerdy films like Superman and The Empire Strikes Back. Any comment on any of that stuff? [LAUGHS]
RATZENBERGER: When you step out on Elstree Studios as an actor, you have no idea that this movie is going to make history. Take for example, just recently was 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing, one of my movies was on TV: A Bridge Too Far. I have scenes with Robert Redford in that movie. It’s extraordinary, the different people that I’ve worked with. I worked with James Cagney in Ragtime! Were you old enough to know what that was?
FROST: Of course!
RATZENBERGER: You’d be surprised how many people don’t know! Ragtime was his last film and it was my first.
FROST: Do you have any final thoughts about the legacy of Toy Story or where the entertainment industry is moving forward?
RATZENBERGER: I’d say for anyone wanting to get into this business, whether it’s in animation or to act action movies, go have a real life and do something. Learn how to have some kind of adventures, and something that requires you to acquire common sense. Then, you’ll have more to bring to the game. Experience. That what is needed in Hollywood. It’s all reflected in the direction and the acting and the writing. And now we’re losing it in a lot of things movies I go to. We’re losing that experiential moment that writers or directors don’t seem to have anymore. But yet here they are directing scenes of things they really don’t know much about. So, what I would recommend for young people: Go do something.
Toy Story 4 hits theaters June 21. Catch John Ratzenberger reprising his role as Hamm and catch him in a new role in Onward, which is slated for release on March 6, 2020.