Prepare yourself for one of the most staggering facts you’ll read all day: John Ratzenberger—that’s right, Cliff Clavin from Cheers—is among the most successful motion-picture actors of all time, based on the box-office totals of the films in which he’s credited. Granted, he’s not exactly the leading man in these films, but in addition to his voice appearing in every single Pixar film to date, Ratzenberger can also be seen, however fleetingly, in Superman, Superman II, The Empire Strikes Back, Gandhi, and, of course, House II: The Second Story. Ratzenberger spoke to The A.V. Club in the midst of a dual press blitz for Fan Favorites: The Best Of Cheers and WWJD II: The Woodcarver, discussing his days as an improv comedian in the UK, how he helped create Boston’s most famous fictional mail carrier, and how lying about his cycling skills got him into the movie business.
The A.V. Club: First of all, just to clarify The A.V. Club’s appreciation of your work, we’re currently in the midst of reviewing the entire run of Cheers.
John Ratzenberger: Oh, no kidding. What is it, almost 300 episodes? Boy, that’s a lot of writing. [Laughs.] But, you know, writing was always the secret of the series. Here’s something that not a lot of people know: Cheers was always written as a radio show. If you turn off the picture and just listen to the soundtrack, it still plays as a radio show.
AVC: Was that a hard and fast rule in the writers’ room?
JR: No, I think it was just happenstance. That was the standard that they always wanted to reach. Because Abe Burrows, Jim Burrows’ father, wrote a radio show called Duffy’s Tavern. It may have come off that. I don’t know. I just always found that interesting.
AVC: So what was the development process with the character of Cliff Clavin? Even from the very beginning, you can see elements of the Cliff that he would become, but what was he like when you first signed on to the series?
JR: Well, I invented that character in the audition, really. That was my creation. In the beginning, I was really just trying to feel it out and, in a way, just figure out the rhythm of what I was doing. I had worked and lived in England for the 10 years prior to that, so this was a different style of performance, and I spent a lot of time just watching and learning the rhythm and volume of the characters. The evolution, really, was just relaxing and having fun with it. At the end of the day, that’s all you can do. That’s the best you can do with whatever you do, I would imagine.
AVC: You said you invented the character. So there was no Cliff when you first came in?
JR: No, I auditioned for Norm, or the part that became Norm, anyway. I was actually on my way out the door, and I stopped and turned and looked into the writers’ room and said, “Do you have a bar know-it-all?” And they looked up, and I think it was Glen Charles who asked, “What are you talking about?” So I stepped back in the room and explained that it’s a necessity for a bar know-it-all, especially in a New England bar. He’s the guy that everybody defers questions to. Whether the answers are right or wrong, it doesn’t make any difference. [Laughs.] You just need someone with a voice of authority to answer the questions or settle any bar bet or controversy. So I gave them an example—I made up what I thought the character would be like—and they started laughing to the point that I was able to leave with my dignity. Two days later, I got the call that they wanted to try that character out for seven episodes. And 11 years later, I was still there.
AVC: What were the U.S. Postal Service’s feelings on your portrayal of one of their representatives?
JR: You know, I remember getting a letter from somebody—I don’t know if it was a local post office official or a national one—but it actually had quotes from the regulations for the U.S. Postal Service, saying that letter carriers can’t go into a bar or a place where they serve alcohol wearing his keys. I don’t know if you noticed, but he’s got his keychain very much in evidence in his pocket. So I got a letter about that, which very adamant about that point. “You can’t wear your keys into a bar,” and blah blah blah. But the reality is that I’ve been into places, especially in my hometown, where a place is full of mailmen, and they’re wearing their keys. But, anyway, a few seasons later, we actually had the Postmaster General on the show. So I guess all was forgiven by then. [Laughs.]
AVC: Does it ever surprise you when you hear that some small nugget of wisdom from Cliff has suddenly come back into prominence via the Internet? For instance, there’s a group of people who are still awaiting the arrival of Yelnick McWawa to the presidential race.
JR: [Laughs.] Well, there’s a few things at play there. First of all, it’s the power of television, but it’s also the power of good writing. Because nobody would’ve known who Cliff was if the show as a whole wasn’t as good as it was. And it still works. If you see an episode of Cheers now, it still works. There’s a whole new audience in colleges catching onto it, I’m told. So, no, it doesn’t surprise me, but if it’s happening, it’s because people are drawn to the show as a whole.
AVC: This new Fan Favorites: The Best Of Cheers disc has some solid inclusions, but it’s only eight episodes from an 11-year run. Do you have any favorites that didn’t make the cut?
JR: Well, I’m partial to “Squeaky Shoes.” That was the first one where I directed, so I always liked that. And the Jeopardy! episode [“What Is… Cliff Clavin?”] is the one that I get asked about all the time. Just last night, a guy in a convenience store said [Adopts an Indian accent], “Oh, I very much liked the Jeopardy! show!” [Laughs.] So I’d say that certainly seems to qualify as a fan favorite.
AVC: You’re also in a new film called The Woodcarver, which could safely be described as a faith-based film.
JR: Well, yeah, it is. But I liked the part, regardless of whether it’s faith-based or not. And I liked the idea of the film, because the American legacy used to be handing skills down from generation to generation, and that’s all but ended. That’s an endangered species in and of itself, a young person that can change their own car tire or can build something, where it used to be standard. So I liked the theme of the film: This older guy shows this younger kid the beauty of woodcarving and the fact that you can make a good living at it, too. It came to me just through a phone call. I think somebody contacted my agent, who contacted me, and I read the script and I liked it.
AVC: Is that how you tend to get parts these days, from people reaching out to you? Or do you still go to auditions if you hear about a part that strikes you as interesting?
JR: I think it’s a mix. You know, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I haven’t really thought about it, honestly. [Laughs.] It’s a mish-mosh, yeah. Some things get sent to me, sometimes I’ll go and meet with the producers.
AVC: What was your initial introduction to acting?
JR: Well, I was a carpenter. I did a little bit of acting in college, but nothing serious. I found out that I had a knack for comedy in college, when I forgot the lines of a play and just started making the lines up. Unfortunately, it was a Tennessee Williams play. [Laughs.] Very, very dramatic, but I turned it into a farce. I thought, “Hey, I kind of like this!” I didn’t know what I was doing was improvising. I just thought it was called “making stuff up because you forgot your lines.” I enjoyed it, but I didn’t get into it seriously until I went to London. I went to London to visit for three weeks, and I ended up staying for 10 years.
AVC: Which, according to IMDb, is where you did your first film, The Ritz. Is that correct?
JR: Yep, that was my very first movie. I met with Richard Lester, and—the process over there, you don’t really audition at all. You just sit and chat with the director. I was doing my own shows throughout Europe, and one of the casting directors, I guess, had seen my show and called me and said, “Hey, there’s a movie going on, and the director would like to meet you.” So I went in and met him. There’s no auditioning. You just have a cup of tea and talk. That’s the auditioning process, because the job of the casting director is to make sure that everyone that he or she sends in are professionals.
AVC: You said you were doing your own shows. What did you mean by that?
JR: Oh, myself and another Yank, another American, we formed a two-man comedy duo, and we traveled all through Europe for six years. We were based in London, so every year we’d come up with a different idea and a different show, and we toured a circuit every year, all through the British Isles and Europe. Then we’d come back to London and start working on another show.
AVC: Are any of those performances documented on film?
JR: Oh, no. I wish! I wish they were.
AVC: Do you? I wasn’t sure if it might be a case where you’d be afraid to look back, in case it didn’t hold up as well as you remembered.
JR: Well, no one’s done it before or since, what we did. We’d have a beginning, a middle, and an end of a story, and everything else we’d make up on the fly. And the audiences knew that, so we’d get repeat audiences. Through word of mouth, we’d do three weeks of standing-room-only crowds just on the fact that we were in town. That probably started in our second or third year, when we started to get a really good reputation as the top of the fringe comedy contingent throughout Europe. In Amsterdam and Holland, they called us The American Pizza Freaks. [Laughs.] The name of our duo was actually Sal’s Meat Market. I dunno, I’ve never looked it up on the Internet. I wonder if anything exists.
We toured across Europe, and we were basically making it up on the fly. We’d have a cornucopia of props. Some of them we’d literally find on the way to the theater that night, in an alleyway or something. I remember finding an old junk bicycle frame in an alleyway in Amsterdam, and we put that behind our curtain as one of the props we used onstage. Like I said, we had a beginning, a middle, and an end, so we knew where the show began, and at some point one of us would make some excuse to leave the stage. After we left the stage, we’d go behind this curtain, grab a prop, and come out the other side and enter as a whole new character and then somehow add him to the story to get to that second phase. But up until that moment, up until you grabbed that prop, you didn’t know who the character was going to be or what you were going to say. You’d literally step out onto the stage, and my partner or I, neither one of us knew what was going to come at us. But the audience knew that. They knew that that was our style, so they delighted in that. And we would crack each other up an awful lot. [Laughs.] And stump each other once in a while. But that just added to the fun of it.
I’m not saying that no one else has done anything like it, but I haven’t seen anything like it. I don’t think anyone else has done it quite like that. Our show lasted about an hour and a half, and I think each show we probably averaged 12 to 15 characters apiece. It was wild. And pretty amazing, really. I look back on it now, and I think, “Wow, that was quite an achievement.” But at the time, we had no idea that things like Second City existed. We really didn’t know there was an art form called improvisation. Now it’s a brand name like McDonald’s. [Laughs.] But then, we thought, “Well, we’re just figuring it out as we go along.” And we became really well known for it. So well known, in fact, that we were asked to teach our style and our technique to students at the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts, a real prestigious acting school over in London. I remember being on the bus, and we were talking, saying, “Uh, what’s our technique?” [Laughs.] We had to figure out what that meant. And this was on the way to teach the class! But we thrived on it. And it really worked for us.
AVC: That’s funny that you were coming from that background before you started working in film. Looking at your roles beyond The Ritz, they’re almost exclusively in dramas or action films.
JR: Well, again, I just kind of rolled with the punches. The dollar was very strong against the pound in the ’70s, so consequently there were a lot of American movies being made in Europe, and a lot of them were war-themed: Yanks, A Bridge Too Far, you can go on down the list. And even in The Empire Strikes Back and Superman, I was the right age and height and weight to fit into a uniform, so I was in, I think it was something like 28 films during my 10 years over there.
AVC: Not that they were big roles, but do you have any anecdotes from working on The Empire Strikes Back or the Superman films?
JR: No, but I always wish that I did. [Laughs.] It was really just showing up, going to work, doing what I was supposed to go, and going home. There was no real hijinks or anything. But I remember once I was doing a film, I think it was Outland, at Pinewood Studios, and a friend of mine was doing another film there at the soundstage next to the one I was in. Anyway, once I was in the parking lot, and here was my friend, this other American actor, talking to Sir Laurence Olivier.
JR: That’s what I thought: “Wow…” [Laughs.] And Sir Laurence was sitting up on the trunk of a car, as if on a throne, and my friend was talking to him as a supplicant. I mean, really, the whole body language of the moment was really interesting. And afterwards, I saw him and asked, “What were you talking to Sir Laurence about?” And he said that he had asked Sir Laurence Olivier what advice he could give to a young actor, and Sir Laurence thought for a moment, and then looked at him very sagely—I would imagine—and said, “Never leave your wallet in the dressing room.” [Laughs.] And that was it! But, you know, I still follow that advice, even though it wasn’t given to me directly. That’s really good advice!
AVC: So how did you end up being the good-luck charm for Pixar? You can be heard in every single one of their films to date.
JR: Oh, that’s a Pixar question. That’s a head-scratcher to me. But I’m very happy to provide that service. [Laughs.]
AVC: At one point, you said that P.T. Flea, from A Bug’s Life, was your favorite of the characters you’ve voiced. Does that still hold true?
JR: Yeah, I always liked P.T. Flea. He just makes me laugh. He’s just very avaricious. He’d sell out his grandmother for a nickel. [Laughs.] And he’s an optimist, too, that somehow, with that rag-tag group of insects in that moth-eaten circus of his, he’s gonna make it rich. Somehow he’s gonna pull it off and hit the jackpot. I always gave him credit for that.
AVC: Hamm from Toy Story would be the character you’ve voiced the most, though, right?
JR: Yeah. I’ve done Hamm in the three films, and then in various other cameos here and there.
AVC: Do you enjoy the opportunity to do voice work, be it for Pixar or elsewhere?
JR: Yeah, y’know, it’s just part of the bag of tricks that you carry with you as an actor. It’s just part of the skill set that you provide. It’s like being a plumber. You don’t know if you’re gonna show up and fix the faucet or the water heater, but you have those skills walking in the door. I enjoy that, though, because all the action has to go on in your head. When you’re running in a movie, you’re actually running, but when you’re doing voice work, you’ve got to do it all in your head, and you’ve got to work out how exhausted you should sound and have all that come out in your voice.
AVC: How was the experience of doing a reality show, Made In America?
JR: Oh, I enjoyed that. The first memory I have is of people giving me advice and telling me I shouldn’t do it, but I said, “No, there’s a very large audience out there that nobody’s paying any attention to,” and I was talking about people who actually get up in the morning and go to work. Coming from that kind of background, I wanted to give dignity and respect to the people who actually made things, because I’ve always viewed them as the essential workers. Whereas actors and sports celebrities and people in our business, we’re really not essential. [Laughs.] We’re just the icing on the cake. But somehow we’ve come around to the point of thinking that every syllable that comes out of a celebrity’s mouth is like it’s come out from on high, and I wanted to give people a chance to meet the people that actually made the things that keep civilization running. I mean, they’re the ones who actually give us a civilization.
So that’s why I did that show, and I really enjoyed it. A lot of the work I’m doing now springs specifically from that time, like the MOST program. We identify jobs and train returning veterans and others, and we guarantee them work. So far we’ve got a thousand graduates from our program, but we don’t just train them for a job and say, “Good luck!” We actually find the jobs first, then train them and guarantee them work. So that’s going along real well. It’s early days. We’ve got three 18-wheelers and motor homes that are equipped as classrooms and workshops, so we go anywhere.
AVC: You’ve also spoken out about the Manufacturing Crisis in America.
JR: Yes, that’s it. Right now, there’s 600,000 jobs available in manufacturing in the United States, and most people don’t understand that. The reason those jobs are unfilled is because—well, I mentioned before about the endangered species of young people who can actually use tools. Again, it used to just be standard: You grew up building a treehouse or fixing your own bicycle or repairing a lawnmower. Whatever it was, you sort of became handy with tools. But now that’s an endangered species, and not only among the youth, but among the skilled-worker ranks, because no one is filling those jobs. I mean, at this time of unemployment, and you’ve got 600,000 jobs available just in manufacturing? And it’s not like manufacturing was in the 1930s. It’s not a dirty job anymore. You can eat off the floors of a lot of these places, and you get a really good living wage, with insurance and everything else that goes along with it. But we’ve kind of turned our backs on manufacturing, as if magically someone’s going to appear and do those jobs, which is not the case. Manufacturing has always been the real strength of the United States, if nothing else, but we couldn’t fight World War II today. We just couldn’t, because we don’t have the people to make all the armament and everything else. Not enough people have those skills anymore.
AVC: Is there any particular project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
JR: Yeah, there’s a project that I co-wrote for TBS. It’s what brought me from London to Los Angeles. It was a late-night comedy based on the life of the emperor Nero. And it’s still funny today. They thought it was so good that they wanted to bring it to primetime, but the changes that they made to put it in primetime took the heart and soul out of the script, so it never got on the air. But the original late-night show that we wrote was fantastic. Because it pretty much wrote itself. Nero, he was a complete nutcase. The historical facts didn’t have to be changed at all. We just went right along with his history. It’s crazy. He had a ship built that was designed to fall apart at sea, and then he talked his mother into taking a vacation on it, because he was trying to kill his mother. So the ship fell apart at sea, and the captain of the ship jumped into the water to save the emperor’s mother, thinking he’d be made an admiral for sure. And when he got to shore with his mother, Nero cut his head off on the spot. [Laughs.] Things like that. But you’ve got the whole history of Nero and the rise of Christianity under him. I mean, he’s the reason Christianity became popular, because he blamed these Christians for all of the mistakes that he made. Christians were just a small little group at the time, but he blamed them for everything, so they were put in the Colosseum to be eaten by the lions. But instead of running away from the lions, they stayed in one spot and prayed, so everybody got curious, wondering, “What’s going on here?” And that’s how Christianity grew. [Laughs.] Because of Nero.
AVC: That definitely sounds like it would’ve been unique late-night fare.
JR: Oh, geez, yeah. But, you know, I think it’d still work.
AVC: Looking at your back catalog of work, the game of Six Degrees Of Separation that can be played with your credits is pretty amazing. Even setting aside your films and just sticking to your TV work, you can be directly connected to both George Clooney (Combat High) and Jennifer Aniston (Camp Cucamonga).
JR: Oh, no kidding. I definitely remember Jennifer Aniston—what a delight she was. And still is! But I don’t remember George Clooney. What did he play?
AVC: Reportedly, he played Major Biff Woods. Some of his finest work, no doubt.
JR: No kidding. You’re right, that is some serious Six Degrees Of Separation. [Laughs.] That’s another one of those head-scratchers for me, because I just show up. But I love the industry. I love what I do, and I just try to enjoy every second. It’s not going to last forever.
AVC: But at least you can fall back on the knowledge that, if you add up the box-office grosses of all of the films in which you’ve been credited, you’re the sixth most successful actor of all time. Which, frankly, is just staggering.
JR: What’s even more staggering is that I’m apparently up to No. 3 now. [Laughs.] You got that from my website, right? Yeah, I guess Cars 2 has been added to the mix since then. But geez, you know, number three, number six, it doesn’t make any difference. Either way, it’s still staggering. Like, to the point of barely being comprehensible. But again, it’s like I said: I just go to work, pay attention, do what I’m told, and go home. [Laughs.]
AVC: And to think that it all started with the role of Patron in The Ritz.
JR: [Laughs.] Yep. Pretty much. I remember Richard Lester asked me, “Can you ride a bicycle down a flight of stairs?” And I had no idea if I could or not, obviously, having never done that. But I gave him the answer he wanted and said yes. I said, “Oh, sure!” And he laughed and he gave me the part. But we were almost done filming, and I said, “Hey, when am I gonna ride that bicycle down the stairs?” And he said, “Oh, I just asked you the question to see what you’d say.” [Laughs.] So, yeah, that was the beginning. Good thing I said yes!