John Ratzenberger is excessively fond of cars.
"Cars stand as a perfect example of technological ingenuity and sheer mechanical genius," Ratzenberger says. "And if that isn't enough, a lot of people think they're pretty gorgeous to look at, too."
Those sentiments also hold true for Cars, the new animated Disney-Pixar film for which Ratzenberger--best known as Cliff on the hit TV series Cheers--once again provides a major voice. This time he plays Mack, a truck who serves as faithful transport manager for the hot, young racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a selfish, up-and-coming NASCAR superstar who learns a few things about friendship, love and high-speed racing when he is stranded in a fading desert town named Radiator Springs.
In the world of Cars, humans do not exist, and all things with motors are alive, even tractors, which are kind of like cows: slow, simple and easily spooked. Radiator Springs, located on historic Route 66, has been bypassed by an interstate, and the change has been bad for the town's automotive residents, including a kind-hearted, country-boy tow truck named Tater (Larry the Cable Guy); a sexy, motel-owning Porsche (Bonnie Hunt); the mysterious Hudson Hornet, who serves as the town's judge and chief mechanic (Paul Newman); and Ramone (Cheech Marin), a 1959 Impala lowrider who owns the local body-art shop.
To Ratzenberger, who is the host of the Travel Channel series John Ratzenberger's Made in America and who just launched his own pro-tinkering website, the new movie is a celebration of a kind of American ingenuity he sees as an endangered species.
"I'm all for art and culture," he says, "but to me, the manual arts always take precedent over the fine arts. I hope that never changes, but I'm not so sure it's not already changing. Somebody's gotta build a guitar before Bruce Springsteen can go to work, and somebody had to build a ceiling before Michelangelo could go to work. The manual part comes first, and to do that, you have to have people who know how to do the hands-on work."
This jovial rant is fairly typical of Ratzenberger, the kind of Hollywood actor who actually seems to enjoy talking to the press. It's a good thing, because today, he's doing a lot of it--talking to the press, that is. As part of a massive promotional junket for the film, most of Cars' numerous voice-actors are spending the day talking to journalists about the flick. Within 30 minutes, the Bohemian receives spirited phone calls from both Ratzenberger and Cheech Marin.
As animation trivia buffs already know, Ratzenberger is the only actor to haveprovided a voice in every single Pixar film since Toy Story. The new film, directed by John Lasseter--a Sonoma resident and Pixar's founder and executive vice president of the creative department--is his first as director since Toy Story 2, but it is Ratzenberger's seventh. (Cheech Marin jokingly suggests that "Ratzenberger must have Polaroids of John in a compromising position.")
In The Incredibles, he had one line. "Whether it's one line or sixty, it doesn't make any difference to me," says Ratzenberger. "I'll keep making these movies as long as they keep asking me, and I hope they keep asking me. I'd be happy sweeping the floor around here. I just like being involved in something this special.
"As to playing Mack, it is a little bit bigger of a part," he says, "and there was certainly a lot more to play around with than some of my other parts."
Lasseter makes his own comment on Ratzenberger's lock-down on Pixar voice parts with a hilarious sequence at the very end of the movie. As the characters sit watching a series of car-themed Pixar flicks at a drive-in movie--Toy Car Story, Monster Trucks, Inc., etcetera--Mack suddenly notices that one voice is the same in all of the films. "What a cheap outfit!" he says. "They use the same actor over and over again."
Ratzenberger recorded the lines, but didn't quite know what was planned until he saw it, with Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Billy Crystal and others redoing their voices, Cars-style, for the little tribute to him.
"That was quite a surprise," he says. "When I actually saw that put together, I near about hit the floor."
Ratzenberger, and nearly everyone associated with these films, enjoys calling attention to the astonishing sense of detail that appears in the average Pixar film.
"I loved the mountains in the background in this one! Did you notice the mountains and all the different rock formations in the desert?" he asks. "All the rock formations are shaped like car parts, or classic car logos and all that. That's kind of brilliant if you think about it, because when you and I look at a mountain range, we might recognize something in it. We'll say, 'Hey that looks like a guy on horseback' or 'That one looks like George Washington's nose.' Were always seeing human images, identifying these recognizable human things and human creations whenever we look at nature. But when cars look at nature, when cars look at a mountain range or a formation of rock in the desert, they would see car types of things--a fin of a car or a radiator cap or a fender. So if people look closely, they'll notice that."
Compared to Ratzenberger, Cheech Marin (Nash Bridges, Tin Cup and all those Cheech and Chong movies) is the excitable rookie, who comes to the phone as ready to praise his new employers as Cheech and Chong were always ready to light up a fat one. Marin is currently writing a comedy series about politics for VH1 and is preparing to bring his Chicano art show to the de Young museum in July. But today, he's all about Cars.
"This is my first time working for Pixar, and I'm just overjoyed!" he says. "Pixar is so cutting-edge, you know? But the main thing I'm thrilled about is working with John Lasseter. He's the reason I wanted to do this film. He's an incredible director, he has a great vision and imagination, and he knows how to pull the story together so it's real good. You know you're going to be in good hands with John Lasseter."
Asked how it was decided that he'd play a cherried-out 1959 Impala, Marin laughs, "Typecasting. We knew Ramone was going to be a lowrider character, and the first discussion was about what year the car would be. I was kind of partial to 1958, but John pointed out that 1959 was when the fins came out for the first time in cars. He kind of wanted to capture that era of car, because it's so American."
Marin recalls that Lasseter's key piece of direction regarding the Ramone character was to make him energetic, positive and, above all, very romantic.
"John told me, 'Ramone is a lover,'" says Marin. "So I played him that way, as if I was playing a romantic part, because he is. In animation, an actor can play it really big, because in this particular art form, there is no fear of going over the top. It's supposed to be big. With animation, I don't think there's any top to go over. In a lot of ways, doing a voice for an animated movie is a lot more like performing onstage than acting in a movie or on television."
And with a Pixar movie, there's the added benefit of being instantly immortal, destined to be rereleased and re-merchandised for a long time.
"These movies will last forever," Marin predicts. "Or at least as long as a good classic car."
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