CONCORD, N.C. - He's been a piggy bank, a flea and the voice of a school of fish.
Now, the folks at Pixar have turned John Ratzenberger into a tractor-trailer named Mack - a stock-car hauler charged with getting race car Lightning McQueen to Los Angeles for the final race of the NASCAR-style Piston Cup season in "Cars," the Disney-Pixar release that opened over the weekend with a supercharged $63 million in ticket sales.
Best known as the inanely garrulous postman Cliff Clavin on the long-running television comedy "Cheers," the 59-year-old Ratzenberger has enjoyed a second act to his career with Pixar, which pioneered computer animated movies with "Toy Story" in 1995. With the release of "Cars," Ratzenberger's voice has been featured in each of the studio's seven feature films.
Like Jay and Silent Bob in a Kevin Smith feature or Eugene Levy and Fred Willard in Christopher Guest's movies, Ratzenberger has become Pixar's company player. He's never the lead, but pops up in key supporting roles like the villainous Underminer in "The Incredibles" or the Yeti in "Monsters, Inc."
"I never take anything for granted," Ratzenberger said recently, a few days before the "Cars" premiere at Lowe's Motor Speedway outside Charlotte. "I realize how lucky and blessed I am that I get the call and show up, do a little work."
"Cars" is set in a world entirely populated by automobiles, right down to the tiny Volkswagen Beetles with wings buzzing around - they're the "Bugs," of course. Hard-charging rookie race car McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) ends up stranded in the forgotten Route 66 town of Radiator Springs after Mack loses him during a cross-country trip to the year's last Piston Cup race.
McQueen befriends a motley assortment of cars in Radiator Springs, including a loyal, broken-down tow truck named Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a cute 2002 Porsche 911 (Bonnie Hunt) and a 1951 Hudson Hornet with a secret past (Paul Newman).
It's the kind of dense, detail-oriented universe found in all of Pixar's films, and within the world of "Cars," director John Lasseter - the Pixar chief for whom "Cars" is the first directorial effort since 1999's "Toy Story 2" - has placed two special tributes to Ratzenberger.
The first is his character, a truck named Mack who is, naturally, a Mack truck.
Lasseter knew that when Ratzenberger was growing up in Connecticut, his father was a truck driver. And early on during the production of "Cars," producer Darla Anderson asked Ratzenberger what kind of truck his dad drove.
"I said, 'The Mack,'" Ratzenberger said. "They had already started talking to another truck company to make the (product placement) deal, but they stopped that process and went right to Mack. Without me knowing - I didn't ask.
"When you have people who care like that, that attention to detail... It meant a lot to me."
The second tribute comes during the closing credits of "Cars," as Mack watches clips of other Pixar flicks - at a drive-in theater - and marvels at the genius of all the Ratzenberger-voiced characters. In keeping with the film's theme, all have become automotive versions of the original characters.
"That was a surprise to me, a wonderful surprise," Ratzenberger said. "I had recorded these voices and he (Lasseter) told me, 'Well, we're going to do this thing'... and I really didn't get it until I saw it.
"It was shocking - in a wonderful way."
Ratzenberger spends much of his time these days hosting the documentary series "Made in America" for the Travel Channel, which features everyday products made in the United States. The father of teenagers said he turns down plenty of film and voice roles he thinks send the wrong message, but always ends up back with Pixar because of the family-friendly content of their films.
"I only want to be involved in projects that I can sit there with my kids and not be embarrassed by, not be ashamed of," he said. "I just don't want to be part of that message that adults, authority figures, are stupid and only kids are smart because in the real world it doesn't work that way."
That's not an issue with Pixar and Lasseter, with whom Ratzenberger said he shares a curiosity about the world that has made them more than just colleagues.
"John does things the old-fashioned way," Ratzenberger said. "He'll work on a story for four years before they get to the animation part. That's what used to happen in Hollywood that unfortunately doesn't happen much anymore.
"Like in 'Toy Story,' where the baseboard in the kid's room has scuff marks.... He'll go right down to that detail. The research he did here, there's a passion for it."
Being asked to voice Hamm, the piggy bank in the original "Toy Story," was, said Ratzenberger, "like being invited into a good friend's sandbox."
He's been happy to stay and build sand castles ever since.
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