John Ratzenberger Interview

Get to know the real guy as he voices a truck in his 7th animated film with the studio

We loved him as everyone's favorite TV mail man, Cliff Clavin in Cheers; but, John Ratzenberger really is a guy who everyone knows his name. But there was something about his voice that attracted the folks over at Pixar Animation Studios. John has been a voice character in every single one of Pixar's feature films, and of course, their newest, Cars, is no exception. John plays Mack the truck in the Disney/Pixar collaboration; he gets to take Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) across country.

He even pokes fun at himself at the end of the film - don't worry, I won't give that away; all I will tell you is stay for the end credits!

What made this interview cool, was not only was I in a suite at Lowe's Motor Speedway in North Carolina, but they started rolling out the Busch league cars in the middle of our interview. John and I actually stopped chatting for a little bit and watched them come out of their trucks.

Who would have known John was named after John D. Rockefeller? I certainly didn't; and when he told me, we got into a nice discussion about our heritages. So I said, "See, you learn something new every day!" And his response to me was, "Isn't that the beauty of it; all you have to do is breathe in and out and pay attention and you learn something." From that point on, I knew this was going to be even a better interview than it already was.

We did actually talk about Cars; here's how that went:

What did you think of the story in this film?

John Ratzenberger: When I travel the country, I do a show called Made in America, and I travel the country, and go to a lot of factories. Every time people stop me about movies in general, they always say, 'When is Hollywood going to start making movies like they used to?' And this is one of those; and I tell them, 'Wait till Cars comes out.' Because it's like a Frank Capra movie; you know, if Frank Capra was alive today, he couldn't get his movies into any film festival cause they're not angry enough, there's not enough angst, there's not enough problems. This is a real life movie of, 'Folks, take a deep breath and check your priorities.' What's important to you, really important? Is it the vice presidency that you're trying to make, or spending time with your children. Do you know the names of your kids' best friends? And I think that's one of the things you need to ask yourself, cause if you don't know the names of your kids' friends, you're working too hard.

So I have to know, when Steve Jobs calls, do you just say 'yes' before even hearing what he wants?

John Ratzenberger: It's John (Lassiter), or Darla Anderson (producer). And yeah, cause you know it's quality; it's always quality and we share a curiosity about everything. And he shares a passion about his work, you know it's going to be. And this is something else I've learned from the Pixar guys, 'If you work for the love of what you're doing, it's always going to come out right.' Cause if you're working for a paycheck then it's not going to work in the long run; it's not going to feed your heart and soul.

So how did that conversation go?

John Ratzenberger: 'Your father used to drive a truck, right?' 'Yeah.' 'Ok, that's what you're going to be in Cars.' And then, Darla asked, 'What kind of truck?' 'A Mack truck.' 'Ok, you're going to be Mack, the truck.' Again, they bring such detail. Cause John was a NASCAR fan before this, and the golden rule, as I'm sure you know, write about what you know.

Are you a NASCAR fan?

John Ratzenberger: I was a stock car fan growing up; I liked to see the buses crash into each other. In the halftime shows, the jalopy races, or the figure 8 races. But this is a science; you talk about Richard Petty and all those guys - these are athletes. You couldn't take Mickey Mantle and Michael Jordan, you couldn't take them and have them do this. And I don't think a lot of people realize that. 'It's driving a car, so what.' Yeah, it's driving a car, but at 200 miles an hour and for how long. You see these turns, and these slopes, and one ¼ inch turn the wrong way and it's over. It's so much concentration, it's more than being a surgeon, I think.

Have you been out in a car before?

John Ratzenberger: Not on this track, I took a car around a track in Georgia; there's a company named Panoz. They make these high end cars. Oh, look, they're rolling out the cars! What fun! What a thrill to be here; to imagine by the weekend this whole infield is going to be full.

Are you staying for the race?

John Ratzenberger: No, they've got me going back on Saturday; I was thinking about changing that, but I think I have something Monday morning. But what a thrill.

So when you're in the booth, are you adlibbing a lot of your lines?

John Ratzenberger: No, John will say, 'Is there anything else you want to try here?' I'll give them everything there is on the script, but I'll give them more.

Not to give anything away but how did the end sequence come about?

John Ratzenberger: That was John; I recorded it, not really aware of what it was or how long it was going to be. But when I saw it, I laughed and was able to remove myself; especially the line, 'What a cheap outfit!'

Do you watch the other movies and remember doing them?

John Ratzenberger: No, but anything I've done; I don't know if I train myself, but I don't know anything about it. I didn't read the full script for this one; I don't have to do it for this one, cause John is there with me. He did this, he knows the lines, or Andrew (Stanton) or Peter (Docter) or Lee Unkrich; they've been working on the script longer than anybody. If they had been working on a Hollywood script for 6 months, yeah ok. But these guys have been working on it for four years; they know exactly what they need.

Do you have a favorite character you've played?

John Ratzenberger: Yeah, P.T. Flea (A Bug's Life) cause his fuse was so short for non-sensical things. It's the complete opposite for this movie; for him all the trivial things were important and he wanted to make that extra book.

So are you excited about Toy Story 3?

John Ratzenberger: Yeah, with Pixar. I had been asked about when it was with Disney and I turned it down because Pixar wasn't involved. But, how wonderful is that.

Have you heard anything about what's up or have you given your opinion on what you want?

John Ratzenberger: No, that's all John; I'm not going to get into all that, 'I think Hammy should be a frontiersman to go with the Mohicans.' No, that's all them; you know, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' That's exactly what I do.

Do you ever miss Cheers?

John Ratzenberger: Yeah, but 11 years was long enough.

What do you think about why that show lasted so long?

John Ratzenberger: It's different; if Cheers was on today, it wouldn't have lasted. It was last place in the ratings the first year. And normally, they would say 'that's it.' But Grant Tinker, who was in charge of NBC at the time said, 'It's funny and it makes me laugh, so leave it on.' And I think he was one of the last TV executives that went by their gut instincts. No one wants to take responsibility anymore. And also, the Cheers era, you had writers who grew up reading books instead of watching television. So they knew about character development and story arch. Now, I think the thery with a lot of shows is a lot of the same jokes, a lot of the same plots. I think you can see the joke coming a mile away. Where as Cheers, and Seinfeld was good for that; you didn't see where that was coming, and Taxi.

Do you think you'll ever go back to sitcoms?

John Ratzenberger: I'm asked, every year. But I don't want to be - I'm a middle-aged, white guy - the high school principal who's a buffoon. It's hard enough raising kids now a days, and I don't want to be a part of a show that I'll be embarrassed watching shows like that with my kids and my mother. A lot of shows feel they need to get that for humor. Pixar's a perfect example of that; you don't have to go below the belt. Laurel and Hardy never did that, and it still works; keep it simple. But you've have to have had a life experience; otherwise, it's toilet humor. If you've had a job before or experienced something, you get it. Some of these people haven't and they look for the cheap laugh. But, I'm sure something will come up eventually; we'll see. I guess I'll have to develop it myself.

Is that something you're interested in?

John Ratzenberger: Yeah, actually someone just the day I left, I got a message on my phone with a story that has a lot of merit, so I'm going to look into that.

To produce it?

John Ratzenberger: Write it, so we'll see.

What about directing?

John Ratzenberger: Well, nothing yet; it's not attached to any network, so we'll have to develop it and present it. Or, I might even put it on the internet. Cause if you think about it, the internet is going where we all can be a television studio; we can have our own network. We're actually going online with Ratzenberger.com talking about a lot of things and raising money for diabetes. And also, the other show I do, cruise around America, and kids things. I think it's important for every backyard have a sandbox, so kids can get dirty and learn common sense. And if they can pour too much water in their cup, it's going to overflow; if mom keeps doing it, you'll never learn.

How would you describe your character in this movie?

John Ratzenberger: My character is Mack the truck, the truck that takes Lightning McQueen from race to race. And somewhere along the line, he goes missing, and there enlies the story.

What was your first reaction when you first saw it?

John Ratzenberger: Like yours; within 30 seconds, you forget you're watching animated automobiles, you forget. And you actually invest emotionally in these characters.

You should invest your time into knowing the characters of Cars when it rolls into theaters June 9th; it's rated G.