‘John Ratzenberger, voice of Hamm and Pixar lucky charm.’
It seems unlikely that this is the official job title of Ratzenberger, the actor some may remember as mailman Cliff Clavin from the sitcom Cheers, now known to Toy Story fans as the smart-alecky piggy bank Hamm’s voice.
But this was exactly how the 63-year-old American was described in the press kit for Toy Story 3. So how did he earn his special status as the ‘Pixar lucky charm’?
First of all, Hamm’s personality was inspired by the Clavin character, a know-it-all known for wise cracks and obscure facts.
Subsequently, Ratzenberger became the only voice actor to appear in all – yes all – of Pixar’s eleven animated features so far, from 1995’s Toy Story, to 2003’s Finding Nemo and 2004’s The Incredibles, to the current box-office hit, Toy Story 3.
(Despite his name, he didn’t play the rat in Ratatouille (2007); he was in fact Mustafa, the snooty waiter.)
With Pixar on a remarkable ongoing run of critical and commercial success, and Ratzenberger the one constant among the actors, it’s natural to anoint him the X-factor, that special ingredient needed for movie magic.
Speaking to inSing.com in San Francisco, he said he was ‘flattered’ to be considered a good-luck charm.
“I never think about it, because I don’t want to jinx it. When I got cast in my third or fourth Pixar movie, I thought ‘Maybe this is a clerical error. Maybe the computer kept spitting my name out, and nobody noticed.’
“I’m the luckiest actor in the world, really, because I get to come to ‘play in the sandbox’ with talents who bring the same amount of discipline, joy and love in every project since their first.
“Nothing’s changed,” he added. “Except the building (Pixar studios) has gotten bigger. That’s all. And the hair’s gotten a little lighter.”
With a full beard, and a receded hairline – all white already – Ratzenberger looks much different from how he appeared on Cheers, where he was more distinguished. But the Clavin wit, derived from Ratzenberger’s own sense of humour, remains.
At one point of the interview, he stopped to speak German with a German-speaking journalist. At another, he explained, in true Clavin fashion, how to troubleshoot a malfunctioning home-made mouse trap.
Once, he even explained how to cook pork on a rotisserie – “I’m a good cook,” he’d declared – so that it retains the juices. Don’t barbecue, he warned.
When asked, seriously, how he prepared for each role, the veteran actor whose early credits include Superman (1978), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Gandhi (1982) had a simple, somewhat surprising, answer.
“I just show up,” he quipped. “I don’t mean to be flippant, but I never went to acting school. I was a carpenter. What works best for me is to just show up.
“To try to prepare and think about the character, I find, it just gets in my way.”
Check out the rest of the Toy Story 3 behind the scenes, new characters, review and galleries here!