From Cliff To Hamm: A Conversation With Pixar Vet John Ratzenberger
For 11 classic seasons, everybody in America knew John Ratzenberger's name. Well, at the very least they knew Cliff Claven's name, installed as he was at the corner of the Cheers serving area, spouting off made-up facts like some Miller-sipping human Wiktionary. The character actor with the unmistakable New England accent would then go on to an unlikely second career act, as Pixar's most dependable repertory player. Beginning with Toy Story, in which he voiced a pragmatic piggy bank named Hamm, Ratzenberger has gone on to appear in every Pixar release since, most recently as Up's Construction Foreman Tom. With that buoyant film sending audiences to animation heaven, and A Bug's Life's recent issue on Blu-ray, we thought it was time to spend a few minutes chatting with John Lasseter's rabbit's foot.
How did your partnership start with Pixar?
It was with Toy Story. I literally just got a call. My agent said these people are out in the San Francisco area, they're making a computer animated film, and would you be interested?
At that point Pixar had only produced a few short films.
Exactly. But when I met them, I so enjoyed the passion that John Lasseter put in his work, I thought to myself -- if I was six, this is the guy I'd want on the other side of the sandbox. And that's what it's been. Every time I do a Pixar project, it's like jumping in a sandbox with a bunch of friends.
Did you become a good luck charm to them? Why, of all the voice actors they work with, do they keep coming back to you?
That's an Andrew (Stanton) or John question. For years I thought it was a clerical error. They'd call and say, "We're doing a thing called Ratatouille. We got a great part for you in that." And I'd say, "OK. Great. Thanks." Same thing with Monsters Inc., A Bug's Life. "We got a great part for you in the next one." "OK!"
So at this point if they don't invite you on board, you might start wondering what you did wrong.
[Laughs.] Yeah, as long as I show up and don't bump into the furniture or make a mess of the catering table, I'll be OK.
Are you locked away in a tiny cell as you do these voices?
No. It varies. By and large, it's a big recording studio at Disney.
Are you working alone, or are there other actors there?
Usually alone, but in the case of Up, I worked with Ed [Asner]. I play a construction foreman named Tom, which worked out well for me because that was one of the jobs I used to have, working construction. The thing with Pixar -- it's no secret, I'm just waiting for the rest of Hollywood to figure it out -- is that all their films are from the heart. There's no attempt to be edgy, or figure out demographics. They just work from the heart like all good artists, and it always works. In the case of A Bug's Life, here's a film about bugs, but it's from the heart. They make movies that speak to them, and to their families. It's old-style Hollywood. In Up, you'll start weeping in the first five minutes. It's like the old Disney -- movies like Bambi, and Dumbo. You just feel. They do the job and do it well.
I gotta ask, as a huge Cheers fan, what was the germ for Cliff?
I improvised him in the Cheers audition. He was based on the father of a friend I grew up with in Bridgeport. And the fact that in every tavern in New England, there's always one know-it-all, at the end of the bar, who everybody would defer to with questions.
Or he'd volunteer his expertise...
The one I was thinking of was set up at the end of the bar where my father socialized from time to time. And even after they installed a television set, he refused to move his seat, even though it was right about his head. I think his name was Sarg. And people would say, "Hey, Sarg! What's the length of a whale's intestine?" And he'd say, "Baline or Blue?" and then give an answer. That always cracked me up.
So I took the fact that he existed, and every other pub I'd ever been to had one. And there's never two! They're kind of like gunfighters. If another wanted in -- I've seen that once or twice -- that's an interesting dynamic. And I took the character and the mannerisms from a friend of my father's that I grew up with, and that was Cliff.
So you introduced the producers to him at the audition?
I was already out the door. I had already failed the audition. I just turned around, and the writer/improviser in me came to the fore, and said to the room, "Do you have a bar know-it-all?" And I remember it was Glen Charles who looked up at me and said, "What do you mean?" And so I just started improvising the part, and got them laughing enough to win back my dignity. So I just left. And two days later I was headed back to London, which was my home at the time, and I got the call. ♦