John Ratzenberger is both a tireless worker—with dozens of films and several TV series to his credit—and a tireless activist. Success may appear to have come easy for the man most of us remember as either Cliff Clavin or Toy Story’s Hamm, but Ratzenberger himself wouldn’t chalk any of it up as mere happenstance.
Instead, the actor, writer, and director sees himself as part of an entire cultural heritage that values hard work, self-motivation, and ingenuity. Several years ago, he was instrumental in helping launch Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs, a foundation that funds camps, grants, and scholarships to provide children with the opportunity to learn manual trades—to "nurture the tinkering spirit."
Ratzenberger has also had the distinction of being the only actor to voice a character in every Pixar feature film. This week, Disney is releasing Pixar’s A Bug’s Life on Blu-ray—and in his characteristic hard-working spirit, Ratzenberger signed up for the press tour in support of the release.
Courtesy of a national publicist, I took the opportunity to talk with John a little bit about his career—and a lot about his passion for kids and what they can learn.
You have had a long, long career. I just watched "A Bridge Too Far" again recently, and spotted you there—and confirmed via IMDb that you were indeed in that film.
John Ratzenberger: Oh, yeah.
Now, I imagine that you didn’t get to hobnob too much with the cavalcade of stars on that film, but that had to be a pretty head-spinning experience.
John: Yeah, it was, for a young actor. I was living in London at the time—and also, at the time, the dollar was very strong against the pound, so a lot of American movies were being made over there. So with me living over there, and being the right height, weight, and age to be in uniform, I did a lot of war movies: Twilight’s Last Gleaming, Yanks, certainly A Bridge Too Far, and Gandhi. And since I’d never gone to acting or directing school, I’d stand next to the director and say things like, "Why are you doing that? What’s that over there? Why would the camera—"
To me they were just these very nice people; but it was John Schlesinger, Richard Attenborough, and Milos Forman. They were all very gracious, and they answered my questions—and that was where I learned my first directing chops, just by asking questions. I’ve always been interested in the mechanics of things; to me there’s sometimes more artistry in that than the result.
You also wound up later in another film with Sean Connery, "Outland"—one of my favorite science-fiction films.
John: Oh, "Outland," yeah—that was Peter Hyams.
That never got that much attention, but I think that was one of the best sci-fi action films ever.
John: That was basically the story of High Noon.
John: Set in space.
You also did a couple of films with Harrison Ford—"Hanover Street," and of course "The Empire Strikes Back."
John: That’s right—and I have an action figure from that! Major Derlin. Someone told me recently that I have more action figures ever than anyone in Hollywood. With all the Pixar figurines and Major Derlin, I haven’t counted yet; but they might be right!
Now, Harrison Ford was an interesting case. It’s much written about that while Ford was a struggling actor, he did a lot of carpentry work. Did you also do any kind of blue-collar work while you were establishing your acting career?
John: I was a carpenter.
You were also a carpenter?
John: I still am. I think my kids were six or seven years old, and their teacher in school asked, "What does your father do?" And they said, "He’s a carpenter." Because that’s all they ever saw me do!
John: Yeah, I used to build houses. I was a journeyman house framer. Harrison, from what I understand, does beautiful finish carpentry.
Yes, cabinetry and things like that.
John: And I’m the two-by-four guy.
Well, in "A Bug’s Life" you played P.T. Flea, who dreamed how one day the streets would be paved with Golden Retrievers. So now that your ship has indeed come in, you still keep your hand in.
John: Yes, I have a full shop. As a matter of fact, I just bought a new vise for the bench. I actually look for excuses to build something—whatever it is.
So how did you come up with the concept for Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs?
John: Well, it was answering a need. As I was traveling for my Travel Channel show John Ratzenberger’s Made in America—
Great program, by the way.
John: Thank you. Thank you. —what I wanted to celebrate was the Judeo-Christian ethic of "get up in the morning, put your hand to something useful, and be responsible for yourself." So I really wanted to celebrate the people who do that—not only by going to factories to see how things are really made, but also by getting those people on camera. And the more companies I visited over those five years, and the more CEOs and foremen I talked to, I realized that they were running out of such people: the people who actually make society work, the people who put the nuts and bolts together. Because everything we do—what we’re doing right now!—depends on some person’s ability to put a nut and a bolt together. Like with the electricity-generating turbines in hydroelectric dams: someone has to build those turbines; otherwise this conversation is not taking place, and the computer is not working.
John: So the average age, I found out, of such factory workers, or any artisan, is around 55 years right now. So in six to ten years, those people are all going to be retiring. And then we’re going to be in big trouble because for the last 25 years, we haven’t been doing vocational training in the public school system. So that’s how it started. I figured someone’s got to be the Paul Revere and shout from the rooftops that it’s okay if your kid goes into vocational training. And also the tinkering is a big aspect of that.
As a kid, I could play with a cardboard box for a day and a half! Or build a treehouse. If you were off on your bicycle and it broke down, you had to fix it yourself if you were going to get back home. You had to figure all that stuff out, because there were no cell phones. So if it was getting dark and the chain broke on your bicycle, well, okay—deal with it. And that makes the people who grow up having to do that as children more of Renaissance personalities. I think that, once moms and dads realize that, they won’t be afraid of their kids taking a hammer, some nails, and some scrap wood and making an airplane in the back yard.
On your website, you talk about how all the great inventors—Edison, Carver, Ford—had "all been inveterate tinkerers: fiddling with things, taking things apart, putting them back together, wondering how everything fit together." I surprised my mom the other day by informing her than when I was eight years old, I disassembled our washing machine and put it back together again just because I was curious about how it worked.
John: There you go. And that becomes part of your DNA from that moment.
Well, and then I did end up going into Engineering and spent ten years in software project management; so I think that observation is right: the more you can encourage kids to work with their hands, the more they end up working with their minds, too.
John: Yep. There’s a definite cause and effect there. Even if the child doesn’t grow up to be a plumber or a carpenter, and instead grows up to be a brain surgeon, he or she will be a better brain surgeon for having done that—for having that dexterity, and that understanding of how things come together, things like tensile strength. And also you become a better architect, a better engineer, if you tinker as a child. So that’s what I trying to raise awareness of as I do speeches and travel around the country: to convince parents that it’s okay. Your kids don’t have to be sitting in front of a computer. It’s okay if they get dirty. When my kids were little, I’d get a shovel and dig a hole, turn on the garden hose, and say, "There you go!" And they just had a ball! And that was okay. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Well, what was one of your earliest disassembly, tinkering projects?
John: Old vaccum-tube radios.
John: I remember being at—what was it they used to be called?—a rummage sale at a church. And I saw this old radio, and my mom got it for me. I had to be maybe four or five years old. I just wanted it. And so I took it apart and took out the radio itself, the guts. And so you have the chassis, with all these tubes stuck in it. And then I got another one, and then I got another one at another rummage sale—or maybe we had another radio that we were going to throw out—and I put them all together on the floor and it became my City of the Future, and I’d fly my little plane through it.
Oh, right—like futuristic skyscrapers. Kind of like a Pixar vision!
John: I guess, yeah! I very clearly remember that, at the age of four and five years old. But I’ve always been banging nails and making things. I remember making an airplane. I got an old nail barrel—a wooden barrel—and a two-by-twelve, and made a mock airplane in the back yard.
Do you still have any of your old projects from when you were a kid?
John: No; but I think my mother has one or two. At my sister’s house, they have corner shelves still there. But I’m always building stuff. In fact, I just bought a big model ship and I’ve got to build a shelf for it.
Well, one notable thing on your website is that you refer to that type of work as "the manual arts" rather than the conventional "blue-collar work."
And I think that’s really interesting because the general terminology we tend to use for those kinds of jobs does tend to be a little denigrating.
John: Oh, yes. That’s one of the big problems here—unlike in Germany or Norway where, if you’re an electrician or a plumber, you get as much dignity and respect as the attorney or the brain surgeon or the CEO: because they understand that you can’t have the one without the other. But here, I think the media has done it; you know, if you watch Saturday Night Live!, for instance, or in any comedy, any time there are blue-collar workers they’re depicted as fools, or drunk, or stupid. So why would any child who grows up watching that want to grow up to be that?
Well, I first heard about your work with "Nuts and Bolts" down at the WALL-E junket in L.A., and was disappointed at the time not to be able to get a follow-up one-on-one with you to pursue it further. So I’m very glad to get that opportunity now, in support of the Blu-ray release of A Bug’s Life, and to use the media to help get the word out.
John: Well, thank you. Thank you. There’s no shame at all if your kid wants to be a stonemason. You know, someone had to actually build the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo could go to work!
Greg Wright is Managing Editor of both Past the Popcorn and Hollywood Jesus. An ordained pastor, Greg is the author of Tolkien In Perspective: Sifting the Gold from the Glitter (2003) and Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004). A widely-known lecturer on Tolkien, Lewis, film, and fantasy, Greg resides in the Seattle area with his precious wife Jenn and their two cats, Grynne and Bearrett.