You might not suspect it from watching him hang out at a bar for 11 years, but Cheers star John Ratzenberger has lived a fascinating life. “I’ve had a lot of adventures all over the world,” the former carpenter tells Closer. “I was on the crew that built the stage at Woodstock. Then I went to London to visit for a week with five dollars in my pocket and ended up staying 10 years.”
He toured Europe as part of a popular comedy duo and nabbed roles in hits like The Empire Strikes Back before becoming know-it-all postman Cliff Clavin in his classic sitcom’s 1982– 1993 run. “You’re actually getting paid a lot of money to sit at a bar and crack jokes,” says John, 71. “If that isn’t the best job in the world, then I don’t know what is.”
Voicing characters in Pixar films like Toy Story, Cars, and The Incredibles may run a close second. Now John, who lives in his native Connecticut with his wife of nearly six years, Julie, 52, is trying to help craftsmen like himself by joining the US Department of Labor’s Task Force on Apprenticeship and supporting the Made in America movement for labor workers.
We caught up with the funny star to hear his thoughts on being a dad to his son, James, 31, and daughter, Nina, 29 (from his former wife Georgia Stiny), “Papa” to three grandkids, and his many adventures. Scroll down to read our exclusive Q&A with John!
So what have you been up to, John?
I’m co-starring in a film with Kevin Sorbo called East Texas Oil, a true story about con men who go through Oklahoma and Texas in the 1930s to get money from widows.
You’re a lot more altruistic in your support of labor workers. What’s inspired that?
I discovered that [many] shop classes have been canceled. And when I did a [2004 to 2008 Travel Channel] show called Made in America highlighting manufacturing, I was told factories were having a hard time finding people with skills to build their products, people who know how to make and fix and invent things. If we lose that, we’re going to lose our culture.
Cheers is a huge part of our culture. How did you land the role of Cliff?
A friend of a friend said, “They’re auditioning for this sitcom that takes place in a bar in New England, Boston. You’re from there?” I said, “Yeah, I am!” I’d already done close to 30 films by the time I’d got to LA, and I’d never auditioned in my life.
Wait… how is that possible?
I got them through casting directors seeing me onstage [in England]. The system is different over there. Anyway, I walked in and some producer said, “What are you looking for?” I said, “A chair!” They said, “You’re not here to chat — you’re here to audition.”
In England, you chat with the director. So I knew I failed, because I had no background in acting school or auditioning, just a wealth of actual performing. On the way out, I said, “Do you have a bar know it-all? Every bar in New England has one.” And I just improvised my version of that. I think I was really getting them to laugh long enough so I could leave with my dignity. Two days later, they called and said they wanted to try out the character for seven episodes. Eleven years later I was still there.
That’s amazing! But were you afraid at any point that you’d be typecast?
I figured it was going to happen anyway. I could cure cancer and they’re still going to be talking about Cliff. As long as my kids recognize me as Dad, I don’t care.
Well, you’ve broken the mold with all your Pixar characters. They must be fun.
I always asked them to book my recording sessions before or after Don Rickles — I loved hearing his stories from the Frank Sinatra era. One thing I took from him was to enjoy every second of your time here.
You spent time on Dancing With the Stars. How was that?
Somebody dropped out because they physically couldn’t handle it. They said I had two days to rehearse, including a half day for costume fitting. I said, “How long did everyone else have?” They said, “Three weeks.” I thought This is a win-win. [Either way] they’d say, “He only had a day and a half!”
How do you continue to challenge yourself these days?
Pushing away a piece of pie — that’s a challenge! I think the biggest one for me is trying my best to be a good dad to my amazing children. That’s the most important job any of us have. But they’re doing well, and now I have grandchildren I can spoil.
What were you like as a dad when your kids were young?
I started little traditions. I read to them every single night. At the beginning of Cheers, they didn’t know I was an actor because they were always in bed at 9 p.m. They both told their teacher I was a carpenter because that’s what they saw me do. I built them a playhouse, a sandbox, whatever it was.
When they were young, did you face any tough times raising them?
Our son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was three — you need a shot of insulin every single day. The [person] you love most in the world is crying, “Don’t hurt me!” It just tears your heart out.
How did having a sick child impact your marriage?
Fifty percent of marriages involving type 1 diabetes can end in divorce. It’s brutal on a marriage, and it certainly didn’t help [mine].
But now you’re happily married again. Is it true that the third time’s the charm?
Oh, yeah! We live on the shore of Connecticut. She’ll dig for clams on the beach, and cook them up with linguine. At any time, a busload can come to the house and we’ll have plenty of food.
Were you scared to take a third trip down the aisle?
I don’t think that comes into it. We all need family, someone there not just for you but for your children, some kind of household that functions. Also, it’s no fun traveling by yourself. And it doesn’t make any difference where you live. It’s who you live with.
What’s left on your to-do list?
I fool myself from time to time thinking, geez, I’d like to run a marathon, but I’m still eating all that linguine! I still enjoy friendships with people I went to grammar school with. I’ll be with one of my best friends in two weeks — his son is named after me, my son is named after him, and we’ve known each other since third grade… You know what? I’d like to see my grandkids graduate from high school. The youngest is nine months, next up is 5 and then 9.
Any benefits to this stage of your life? At this age?
Oh, boy! I don’t know. It’s that phrase: “Youth is wasted on the young.” You know you’re on the last part of the roller coaster. If you’re lucky enough, you can look back on your life and smile and say, “You know, a lot of nice things happened there.”
For more on your favorite stars, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for exclusive news!