John Ratzenberger will forever be pompous-yet-lovable blowhard Cliff Clavin to Cheers fans – or Rex, the insecure tyrannosaurus of the Toy Story films and shorts to later generations. Last week, he began a recurring role on FX’s Legit (Thursdays, 10:30/9:30C), playing Walter, the father of Jim Jeffries’ roommates Steve and Billy – and took some time to talk to a group of journalists/bloggers about his work.
John Ratzenberger: Can I ask a question?
Moderator: You sure can.
Ratzenberger: I don’t have one. I just wanted to know if I can ask one.
I’m actually calling along with my sister, who’s my writing partner. We’re calling from Burbank, but we’re Boston girls originally, so we have an affinity to you to begin with.
Ratzenberger: Thank you. Boy, it’s getting hammered with a lot of snow this weekend, right now I think.
Yes, it’s been a brutal winter; not good.
Ratzenberger: I know.
Harrington: We tell … to move here and they don’t listen. We can only do so much. We were wondering if you could just start by telling us a little bit about the part you’re playing and why you wanted to get involved with Legit.
Ratzenberger: Well, they sent me the script and I read it. I thought, “Oh, this is really politically incorrect”; and, I thought, “Oh, but it’s really funny.” You know, the political correctness is; it’s really choking the life out of our civilization, I think. To have something like Legit come down the pike and say, “Hey! It’s okay. You can laugh. You can relax and laugh.” I was impressed with that. So, I showed up on set, went to work and loved every minute of it.
That’s excellent. Speaking of political correctness, we were really interested in hearing a little bit about M.O.S.T. and your work with that. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Ratzenberger: Sure. M.O.S.T. is a program. It’s Mobil Outreach Skills Training. What we do is we pull up our trailer trucks that are outfitted as classrooms with computers. We put people to work. We do it the opposite way that it’s normally done. We’ll go to a company and we’ll say to the company, “What do you need?” They’ll say, “We need ten welders and five CNC machine operators,” and maybe some other things. We say, “Okay, yes.”
Then, we look for the people; they come to us right at the parking lot of the factory and watch some of the programs, and guarantee the job. We’ve put over 1,000 returning vets back to work in the last year. So, we go anywhere in the country.
I wanted to let you know that Bob Pearlman from the Diabetes Research Foundation…
Ratzenberger: …so you’re calling from Florida?
Ratzenberger: It’s all nice today. What a good man.
Is there anything you’ve found particularly challenging about this role, or maybe something that you added to it that wasn’t originally scripted for you?
Ratzenberger: My calling card is that I always add things. I always look for what’s not on the page. I look for the laughs between the words. So, when they hire me, they know that’s what they’re getting in. My biggest challenge is staying away from the donuts. Because Jim Jefferies and Dan and D.J. are such quality actors to work with, it’s a lot of fun. It’s like being in a sandbox. They make it fun. So, no, there wasn’t any agitation, no.
Every Wednesday night, I play on a trivia team at the local bar. Last night, the quiz master asked us to name the only actor who had been in all 11 Pixar films.
Ratzenberger: I know the answer.
I bet you do. I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about your long association with that company and what it means to you.
Ratzenberger: Well, it was 18 years ago that I started working with Pixar. The first Toy Story came out about 16 years ago, so my first meeting with them was 18. It’s sort of like getting the brass ring on the merry-go-round twice. The first one was Cheers and all of a sudden, these fellows from Northern California give me a call. They wanted me to put my voice to a pig. I really like these guys: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Darla Anderson. I thought, “What fun people they are.”
I think the … phrase is high standard. They start with a high standard and they stick to it. They never lower their standards. That’s why Pixar is Pixar. So, my association with them has been nothing but a blessing. It’s been nothing but good because to be associated or work with or work for a company, whatever you’re doing, whether you’re making brake linings, pencils, or animated films, if you have a high standard, that lifts you. That makes you work harder and better and smarter. It’s been a joyous ride.
Since you have been such a long time partner with them, I would expect to see you in the next film. Are you a part of creating any of those characters? Do you come to them with ideas or how do you work together?
Ratzenberger: No, my philosophy, whether it’s in this industry or out of it, is if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. I just leave it as it was right from the beginning because they do a good job. So, I don’t stick my nose into where it doesn’t belong. If I’m asked, certainly, we’ll have a discussion about this or that or what the character should do or what the lines should be. But, otherwise, no; I let the captain steer the ship.
I’m curious. You have a wide experience with comedy acting. Do you think there’s a formula for good comedic TV?
Ratzenberger: A good formula for what?
For good comedic TV.
Ratzenberger: Comedic TV? Is that as opposed to comedic stage work or being funny on a school bus?
Ratzenberger: For TV specifically, no I don’t know that there’s a formula. I know there’s a formula when you’re filming it and when you’re writing it. But, actually making it funny is…the old expression, “If it’s not on a page, it’s not on a stage.” The writing is the most important part. If you ever noticed with Cheers and Legit, they’re very similar in that you never see the joke coming. With most TV comedies, you know what the joke’s going to be. You can see it three pages away, but with Legit, you don’t see it coming. That’s what I like about it.
Do you have dream role that you would like to take on one day that you haven’t yet?
Ratzenberger: A dream role? I’d like to be a tugboat captain, because I like tugboats.
Why is that?
Ratzenberger: Well, I grew up near a shipyard. I’d watch the tugboats come in and out at all times of the day and night, in the middle of blizzards. These tugboats would just all of a sudden appear through the storm. I thought, “Wow! How cool is that? They just never stop.” So, I guess it’s just part of me. That’s why I like going out to sea. I spend a lot of time on boats and things like that. I’d like to do a whole series as a tugboat captain. So, if you can arrange that, let me know.
As an actor, what keeps you coming back to take on new projects like Legit? What’s your biggest motivation for doing what you do?
Ratzenberger: The bottom line is if you can do it in life, I mean how lucky we are in the acting industry, first of all to be in it, and then, secondly to make money at it. Really, the trifecta is if you can enjoy it and have a good time. So, it’s laugh, make money or, make money and laugh.
If my job description is someone who gets paid to go to work and laugh, I don’t know if there are many people on Earth, living or dead, that is more blessed. That’s what keeps you coming back. It’s such a joy to be in and amongst people who are creative and someone’s writing me a check at the end of the week, saying, “Okay, go buy some Melton shoes.” It just doesn’t get better.
Do you think you’re more choosy when it comes to roles at this point in your career? Or, are you still willing to take some chances?
Ratzenberger: Taking chances? I don’t know about taking chances. My bottom line was when I read the Legit script, I laughed. I thought, “Boy, this is really politically incorrect. But, man, is it funny.” So, if I laugh, and I don’t think I’m any different than anyone else as far as sensibilities, if this is done right, if everybody else does their job, and the editors and the music people and the director, this is going to be good. It turns out that it is.
You’ve been acting so long doing comedies, anything else on your bucket list? You’ve already done dancing and writing. Is there anything else that you want to try that you haven’t already?
Ratzenberger: Yes, the dancing part. I like to dance. Maybe I was born too late. But, that era of Hollywood where you were expected, if you were on stage, to be able to sing, dance, act, to have all those skills. If you look at the old movies like James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, that was an actor. He could be a tough guy; he could be a tap dancer. I wouldn’t mind doing a show where they got back to the tap dancing.
If they were to have a Cheers reunion, where would you see Cliff now?
Ratzenberger: Well, the backstory of Cliff. I would say, let’s see, that was how many years ago? Okay, ’93. So, the beginning of the end to that, Cliff would have started a web site called “Ask Cliff” where you could ask him any question in the world, and which he then sold for $63 million dollars. Then, he just spent all that money on stupid things, stupid inventions, and people, and traveled to places nobody wants to go. So, now he’s broke. He’s working part-time in the UPS store and it’s driving him crazy. That’s what I think his back story is.
I absolutely love it. Thank you, and by the way, your book is so inspirational. I hope there’s another one in the future.
Ratzenberger: You know, my daughter’s been asking me to write another one. She said, “Daddy, you’ve got to write your story.” My journey when I left home at an early age and ended up living in Europe for ten years—while I agree it would be a good story, it’s just finding the time and the space to do it in, but maybe one day.
At this point in your career, you’re able to really work steadily on some shorter term projects whether it’s guesting on the … or the Pixar stuff or whatever. Would you consider a return to being a series regular or even anchoring a show? Are you more comfortable with the way you’ve been working lately?
Ratzenberger: I like doing series. With the advent of reality television, the demographics that the networks always insist that they have to follow, the amount of really good shows on TV are going to be less and less; that’s why doing Legit is such a treat because it’s a good show. But, the networks are really going to have to start playing catch-up with cable because you’ve got people running the networks that really don’t understand the social media and what we’re doing now today, bloggers and the power of the internet. Once they catch-up with that maybe there’ll be a change. But, no, I would go back to a series in a heartbeat if it was funny.
You did a sort of reality TV. Would you go back to doing Made in America? Did you enjoy that?
Ratzenberger: Yes. I really enjoyed that. That was a labor of love. I’m a big fan of America, a big fan of Western Civilization and the standards and what we bring to the world. As I said, you don’t hear stories of people risking their lives trying to get into any other country except the United States. People swim through shark-infested waters to get here.
There’s a reason, because the standards are so high. When you turn on the hot water, the hot water comes out. When you switch the light switch, the light goes on. If you’re anywhere in the world and you have millions of dollars, you still are going to come to the United States if you need good medical care. Wherever you live, every day that happens.
Yes, doing Made in America was my celebration for giving back because manufacturing is to America what spinach is to Popeye. That is, you have to make something. You have to build something and repair it. That’s where inventions and innovations come from. So, I’ve always been a big fan of that. I would do that show again, sure.
I was just wondering because they’re such totally different people in almost every way, could you talk a bit about Walter’s relationship with his sons?
Ratzenberger: Yes. Walter is a guy who is old school. Probably still goes to church and believes that there’s a power higher than him. He thinks that his job is to keep that family together. Now, the mother, we know, has gone off the curve a while back. I mean she’s out to lunch.
I think Walter’s job is to keep it together. It’s almost like he spends his time building ramparts against madness. I think he’ll do whatever he can within his power, within his ability, his pocket to support his sons. He’s been dealt a tough hand, but he keeps going forward. He doesn’t want to give up. He can very easily just go down to the bus stop and disappear. He’s not going anywhere.
As a kind of follow-up to the same question, Jim is probably the least likely person in the world to be anyone’s best friend, and yet, he gets along so well with Walter’s sons. What’s Walter’s relationship like with him?
Ratzenberger: Well, I think Walter looks at Jim as somebody who gives Walter a break. I think Walter has to worry less about his kids because Jim is obviously from another country, so he’s a little bit more worldly than his sons. I think Walter would rather live with the sons and Jim than live with his wife. That’s for sure. But, I think he enjoys the relationship.
Legit photos by Matthias Clamer and Patrick McIlhenny/Photos courtesy FX, Disney and NBC