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
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 leftCopyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved
"... We were at (the) press junket for Toy Story
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.
"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
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.
"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
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?
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.