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"Brave" makes it Lucky 13 for Pixar favorite John Ratzenberger

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"Brave" makes it Lucky 13 for Pixar favorite John Ratzenberger

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With "Brave" opening at No. 1 this past weekend, that now makes it thirteen hits in a row for Pixar Animation Studios. A box office winning streak which has been applauded & envied by many in Hollywood for nearly two decades now.

And speaking of thirteen in a row ... By doing the voice of Gordon, a guard at Castle DunBroch in "Brave," that marks the thirteenth time that Pixar execs have reached out to John Ratzenberger and asked this "Cheers" vet to come voice a character for one of their animated features.

And how exactly did Ratzenberger wind up becoming Pixar's go-to guy? According to a June 2009 interview that Andrew Stanton (i.e. the director of "Finding Nemo," "Wall-E" and "John Carter") did with USA Today, this tradition dates back to the Fall of 1995, when ...

Gordon is the guard in the background of this photo to Merida's left
Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

"... We were at (the) press junket for Toy Story at Marino del Rey, and all the talent were invited to join us for a celebratory cigar and toast. John hung out with us all night. He was so much fun, I remember saying, 'Let's have him be in a film again.' "

So what had initially started as a one-time-only thing (Bringing Ratzenberger back to voice P.T. Flea in "A Bug's Life") just sort of snowballed from there when The Walt Disney Company decried that Pixar had to produce a sequel to "Toy Story." Bringing John back to voice Hamm the piggy bank in "Toy Story 2" was something of a no-brainer.

And speaking of snowballing ... When Pete Docter was looking for a distinctive comic voice for the character of the Abominable Snowman in "Monsters, Inc.," he knew just which performer to reach out to.

"Welcome to the Himalayayas!" Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

"(John Ratzenberger is) the ultimate Pixar character actor," (Docter said). "He's someone so clear, (the audience knows exactly who that character is) after only two lines of dialogue."

Now you'd think that -- given the number of times that Pixar has now called John in to voice a character in each of its new animated features -- Ratzenberger would have begun taking this admittedly unique working relationship for granted. But that isn't really the case.

"I never take anything for granted. That comes from being an actor for so many years," John explained to me last Monday night when we spoke at "Brave" 's world premiere at Hollywood's newly-renamed Dolby Theatre.  "I remember back in 1977 when I was working with Robert Redford on 'A Bridge Too Far.' And I asked him 'What's your next film going to be?' And Redford told me 'John, every film that I do, I always assume that it's my last.' And I'm exactly the same way. You just never take it for granted. Which is why I'm always so thankful that the people at Pixar up the phone, that they still remember my number."

John Ratzenberger as Lieutenant James Megellas in "A Bridge Too Far."
Copyright 1977 United Artists. All rights reserved

Mind you, "Brave" strikes a little bit closer to home with Ratzenberger than some of the previous Pixar productions that he's worked on. But that's because -- during the late 1970s / early 1980s -- John actually lived in the U.K. while he worked on films like "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Superman" & "Superman II." And when he wasn't appearing in these big budget productions, Ratzenberger would often travel around that region, taking in the sights.

"Scotland is really a beautiful country. Back then, I spent a lot of time at the Edinburgh Festival. Glasgow as well," John recalled. "And what I loved about the people of Scotland is what you see is what you get. When you meet someone there, you know instantly whether they like you or if they don't ever want to see you again."

That said, it did take Ratzenberger a while to get a handle on the local vernacular.

(L to R) Tom Staggs, Chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, John
Ratzenberger and John Lasseter at the grand opening of Cars Land
at Disney California Adventure Park. Photo by Shelly Valladolid

"The first time I went to Glasgow, I got in a cab and this guy turns to me and say 'Hey, Jimmy. I put my boot in your head.' And I thought that it meant that he wanted to fight. But I found out later that this actually meant 'Welcome to Glasgow,' " John laughed.

So given his personal knowledge of Scotland, did that then make Ratzenberger appreciate all of the effort that Pixar's artists put into the production of "Brave" ?

"Oh, absolutely. These guys are craftsmen.  At Pixar, they always make a point of taking the time that  they need to get the details right," John continued. "And since I'm a medieval history buff, I really appreciate that they got the construction of the castle right. Plus the shape of Merida's bow. It's all perfect for the period that this picture is set in."

Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

Which is why -- when it came time to voice Gordon the guard for Castle DunBroch -- Ratzenberger tried to be authentic as well.

"It's only a tiny little part with a handful of lines," John explained. "But I tried to make it sound as though Gordon had a bit of a Glasgow smile."

And speaking of tiny little parts, when I asked Ratzenberger which was his favorite Pixar character to voice, John was quick to point to "A Bug's Life" 's itty-bitty ringmaster.

Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

"P.T. Flea always makes me laugh,"  he answered thoughtfully. "And Hammy the Pig. He's funny too."

And speaking of Hamm the piggy bank: While "Toy Story 3" is supposed to  be the final feature-length installment of that acclaimed animated film trilogy, the "Toy Story" characters still live on. Thanks to the "Toy Story Toons," a well received series of shorts, and -- if the rumors currently coming out of Pixar Canada prove to be true -- a pair of "Toy Story" -based holiday specials.

To Ratzenberger's credit, when I asked him if he was getting ready to play a Christmas Hamm, John (being the longtime Pixar team player that he is) diplomatically changed the subject. Preferring to close out last Monday's interview on the "Brave" green carpet by once again talking about how much he enjoyed working with the team at this animation studio.

Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

"I'm so fortunate that in my life I get to work with people like this," Ratzenberger concluded. "Which is why -- whenever Pixar calls -- I just drop what I'm doing and head on over to the recording studio."

So will John be popping up in Pixar's 2013 release, "Monster University"?  Given that Ratzenberger voiced the Abominable Snowman in "Monsters, Inc.," I'd say that it's a pretty safe bet that he'll be voicing this same character in the highly anticipated prequel to this 2001 release. Which would then extend this "Cheers" veteran's Pixar appearance streak to 14.

Which brings us to an interesting question: If you were a performer like John Ratzenberger, would you prefer to be so famous that " ... everybody knows your name" or instead be someone like Nancy Cartwright (who voices Bart Simpson on "The Simpsons") or Tom Kenny (who voices the title character on "SpongeBob SquarePants") where no one really knows your name but everyone immediately recognizes your voice?

Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

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  • Please tell me one of those Toy Story holiday specials could be a Halloween special!  That seems to be the trend with Dreamworks, pushing out a Christmas and  Halloween for their big CG properties.

  • Good news for Brave! And John Ratz, may he do many more!  I can't wait to see Brave!

    Not looking forward to seeing Monster University but I may change my tune once a more in-depth trailer is presented. I would have preferred to see "Newt" over a thin-plot sequel, but I will settle for this if Pixar can't make anymore original films. Kudos to John Ratzenberger for making those Pixar films all the more enjoyable.

  • Met John at a function a few years ago, he is a real gentleman.  He did all his Pixar voices for my daughter! They don't make entertainers as real as him!

  • Nice article. Answering the question: I'd like to be like John.... I'd rather voice many wonderful characters and know that I gave life to them... than just be recognized by my voice. :P

  • It seems like Robert Redford was right. RR didn't act much lately.

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