He’s been in every single Pixar movie, and they’ve all been blockbusters. As Toy Story 3 is unleashed, John Ratzenberger tells Paul Byrne, “I just have the touch”.
For John Ratzenberger, there’s no such thing as useless knowledge. Which pretty much explains why his Cliff Clavin in Cheers was so funny. And how he got to play Hammy, the cowardly but fact-filled piggybank in the Toy Story movies.
“That’s the way I am,” says the 63-year old comic actor, “because when I was fourteen, I decided I wanted to learn how to build a house, and everything in it. And I did. So, you just pick up things that you don’t normally cross in the day-to-day. I just love any kind of knowledge, no matter how small or trivial it might seem. You’re going to use it sometime, somewhere, at some point.
“Also, the beauty of it is, the more knowledge you have, the more you can take a little bit from here, and a bit from here, and put it over there. I almost convinced someone back in college that I was a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, and that Jesus had a dog named Tippy.”
Nice. Having seemingly fallen upwards in his career rather than climb, John Ratzenberger first came to notice over here as know-it-all postman Cliff Clavin in the long-running sitcom Cheers, but the Bridgeport, Connecticut-born actor has also had the good fortune to pop up in some of cinema’s biggest blockbusters, including The Empire Strikes Back, the Superman adaptations of the 1970s, Ghandi and, more recently, each and every one of computer animation giant Pixar’s ten blockbusters. Including this week’s Toy Story 3, in which Ratzenberger’s Hammy the Piggy Bank and the rest of Andy’s toys – including Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Rex the Dinosaur and Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head – find themselves in Day Care hell, having mistakenly thought that their college-bound owner didn’t want them anymore. Incredibly, it’s a third outing of a popular franchise that doesn’t suck.
PAUL BYRNE: Given that you’re Pixar’s good luck charm, it must feel more like a family reunion than another day at the office when you work with them?
JOHN RATZENBERGER: Yes, it’s like just playing with friends. Oh, good, I get to go over to Johnny’s house and play. That’s just what the feeling is.
Given that the third outing in most franchises is a dud – The Godfather 3, Spider-Man 3, the next Transformers outing – were you in any way nervous about dropping the ball here?
You have to consider the source. This is Pixar. How many Academy Awards?
Six, seven thousand, or thereabouts…
Yeah, so they’ve got a whole basket, and a truckload of kudos and honours, over the years, and I know them well enough, and I’ve worked with them long enough, to know, it’s because they just work hard at it. They will never rest on their laurels, and that’s what happened with The Godfather 3, or whatever; they got a little bit lazy. Or they didn’t consider the audience. Well, with Pixar, every single film they do, they do it as though it was the very first one. And they’re trying to prove themselves. It’s extraordinary.
So, you’re returning to Hammy the Piggy Bank after ten years. Miss him? I never left the character, because what happens is, I bump into people at the airport, or friends of mine, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, oh, my four-year old loves Hammy The Pig’. And I usually say, ‘Well, get them on the phone. What’s his name?’. And so, you talk to the kid, ‘Hey, Jason, it’s Hammy The Pig. I understand you’re not eating your spinach!’. And so, I’ve been doing that since the first Toy Story came out. It’s always in my pocket somewhere.
Do you find there’s a new generation know you now for Pixar as opposed to Cliff Clavin?
Oh, with the kids, absolutely. It’s either Cliff, or the pig, or Mack The Truck.
I was delighted to read that you’re actually the sixth most successful actor of all time. Thanks to the likes of Pixar, The Empire Strikes Back and Superman, your films have garnered over three hundred billion at the box-office. Given that Pixar is in fine health, and you’ve still got a few years left in you, I’m guessing you’re aiming for that number one spot…
You never know. I only found out this fact recently, and it’s pretty incredible to me. I just have the touch…
That would be nice, to have on your business card – ‘John Ratzenberger: The No.1 Box-Office Star Of All Time’.
[Laughs] Yeah, just that. No phone number, no address. Do you know what, I will do that. But it’s all a case of right place, right time. There’s no explanation. None. During The Empire Strikes Back, I was living in an abandoned building in London. The green grocer down the road would save his rotten vegetables, and I would carve out the rotten bits, and put it in a pot, and make a stew or soup, out of a stove I’d made out of an old oil drum. A wood stove. So, to me, getting The Empire Strikes Back, was just some much-needed work, but I was throwing rocks at rats back home. I wasn’t thinking about worldwide success, or fame.
You’ve got some other claims to fame, besides your fine acting skills. You started Eco-Pak, and you might be running for office in your native Connecticut…
I don’t think I’ll run for office – I’ve been asked – but Eco-Pak, yeah, that’s something I started ten, twelve years ago. That was to replace styrofoam, and it’s been used worldwide.
Is this all connected to that need to know how to build houses at fourteen?
I just like inventions. I like looking at things, and thinking, what can we make out of that? I’ve always been like that. My mother used to buy me radios, old radios in rummage sales – now they’re garage sales – and that’s when they had old glass valve tubes, and I’d just take them apart, and put them all together, and making a space city out of it.
Are you sure your mum loved you? She bought you a broken radio as a present?
Yeah, and she’d put me on my bike twelve miles from home, just as it was getting dark, and there was no telephone, and I was six years old. There was a time though when you could do that, and get away with it.
Where did the acting come from then? As a kid, you were more nutty professor than a budding Marlon Brando…
I didn’t act until I got to college, and that was just because they were having more fun than anyone else. I got the understudy for the lead, and I thought, this is great. I can go to the parties, and not actually do any work. And then the lead quit the night before opening night, and I hadn’t even read the play.
It was Tennessee Williams’ Summer And Smoke, and I was Doctor John…
You could improvise that, no problem…
I did. Second half of the show. The first one, I tried to do it the right way. The script girl was behind this curtain ‘Hello, Miss Alma’. There was seventeen-hundred people in the auditorium. And I go, ‘What?’. So, people in the audience were getting a little impatient with the whole thing. For the second half, I just thought, I want to get through this, and get out of here. And I knew the story, because I did read the whole thing, to try and get an idea of what to do. So, I just made up my lines. I turned the whole thing into a farce. I was standing up on the sofa, delivering lines. The audience, thankfully, got it, and that was my baptism of fire.
Did that lead to the comedy troupe, Sal’s Meat Market, which was your real beginning here?
Yeah, someone in the audience said, ‘You’re a real good improvisor. I know Summer And Smoke; I teach drama’…
‘There’s no gunfight in Summer And Smoke’…
[Laughs]. Yeah, there’s no whistling. I’ve been making it up as I go along ever since…
Check out our interview with Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich later this week