Interview: John Ratzenberger – Major Bren Derlin, Master of the Improv

The veteran actor talks with a fellow Empire Strikes Back alum about Star Wars and Maj. Derlin’s career -- before and after the Battle of Hoth.

Best known as the TV show Cheers’ beloved postman raconteur, Cliff Clavin, John Ratzenberger, a.k.a. Major Bren Derlin in The Empire Strikes Back, also has garnered a loyal following from his time as Toy Story’s Hammy the Pig and many other pursuits. He’s a renaissance star who’s covered the waterfront and stood up for a number of worthy causes — most recently playing an important role as a leading spokesman for American manufacturing and Made In America. A solid New Englander originally from Bridgeport, Connecticut, Ratzenberger is now bicoastal, remaining very busy. For a full bio and more details on his many activities visit his web site at ratzenberger.com.

John Dak Morton: So, John, may the Force be with you. It’s been a long time since we spoke. Except for that brief cell-phone hook-up in October provided us by our mutual friend and collector, Boston’s own Frank Rich. You were a guest that day at a con in Connecticut, right?

John Ratzenberger: I guess that was actually Springfield, Mass. No, wait, maybe it was Worcester. Yeah, it was Worcester. Massachusetts. This fellow approached me two years ago and said you got great credits, Star Wars, Superman, Pixar. You gotta do these shows. It’s easy duty. You can make a little money, buy your kids a new pair of shoes, or something.

John Dak Morton: Tell me again how you found yourself in London in the seventies? All of us North American actors have a story about that, right?

John Ratzenberger: Yeah, well, you know [The Empire Strikes Back actor] Ray Hassett.

John Dak Morton: Sure. I think he’s now a cop, up your way in Connecticut somewhere.

John Ratzenberger: I think he’s retired now. I haven’t spoken to him in a couple of years. We went to college together, and he left to go to London as a social worker. I was a carpenter in Northern Vermont and got this tax refund check that just about covered a one-way airfare to London. So this I saw as a sign from God. So I went over to see Ray for a couple of weeks and ended up staying 10 years. I got work as a stage carpenter at the Oval House in Kennington, South London. Its director, Peter Oliver, gave you the right to fail. He had a philosophy that came from Winston Churchill that you go from failure to failure with enthusiasm. So Peter gave us a go and that’s how Ray and I ended up starting Sal’s Meat Market at the Oval House.

John Dak Morton: Now, Star Wars. I did four weeks on Empire in March and April 1979. You were there on the set. You were a Rebel officer, Major Derlin, with our great friend, Jack McKenzie, whom we met doing A Bridge Too Far in ’76. Jack was Cal Alder. I know that because I see him often on the convention circuit both sides of the Pond. So, how many days did you put in, and what are some of the things you recall?

John Ratzenberger: I don’t know how many days I worked there, John. The thing I do remember was I somehow got a parking space next to Kermit the Frog. It was Jim Henson’s space, with this Kermit the Frog sign. So I took a photo of it and sent it to my mom with a caption that read, “Look, Mom. I made it. I got a parking space next to Kermit the Frog.” I was always fascinated by the film-set infrastructures. I guess it comes from my being a carpenter and building things. I remember being fascinated by the graduated sizes and perspective on the sets. And how they put shorter people and kids in the uniforms and placed them in the distance to give the idea that these sets had more depth than they really did.

John Dak Morton: Yeah, I really noticed that on Superman II when we did that scene on the Moon and you were in Houston Control. I swear, from the camera’s POV it was a most believable lunarscape with these two 10-year-olds in astronaut suits looking like they were a football field away. And they were only, what, 20 yards maybe.

John Ratzenberger: Yeah. I’m still really into set design and construction when I do films. I notice that stuff. Except with Star Wars, it was much more intricate. The acting part, well, I never went to drama school, so that was more like I was getting away with it. Of course, I had a crush on Princess Leia. I really wanted to ask her out, back to my place, or something. But at the time, I was living in a squat on Fitzroy Road in Primrose Hill. It was pretty derelict. So what was I going do? Ask her to come back with me and watch me catch mice?

John Dak Morton: Fans love to hear about special effects, props, costumes. What were some of the things that really struck you while you were on set? And don’t tell me you got hit by a flying Yoda.

John Ratzenberger: My uniform was cool. Not much else I can think of at the moment. You know, you don’t know the enormity of these kinds of films until well after you’re done. I mean, Cheers was just a job while we were doing it. All of us were really only hustling to pay the rent, weren’t we.

John Dak Morton: Oh, yes. John, I should tell folks why I was being cute back there. You have a legendary rep for improv which had a lot to do with the success of your London two-man show, Sal’s Meat Market. You might want to talk about that. But somebody, maybe our fellow London actor Bob Sheedy, a fun Boston guy, loved to tell the story about you in A Bridge Too Far. The great Bill Goldman — who was there with us in Holland, remember — wrote the screenplay, and your character, an officer, had a scene where you were behind a log with a grenade to lob at a bunch of Germans. Bill wrote a line for your guy, something like “Take this, you dirty Krauts!” You asked Dickie Attenborough, if you could improvise. He said yes. And so with camera rolling, as you lobbed the grenade over the log, you came out with “Scrambled eggs.” So where does that skill come from?

John Ratzenberger: I don’t know where that comes from. One of the high points in my career came from a time I had with Tim Conway on a film when I had him fall down with laughter. I had this scene with him where I was this mechanic down fixing his car. I can’t remember what my line was as written, but they were okay with me doing a made-up line. So Tim asks me what’s wrong with his car, and I look up and say, “Well, looks like you got a squirrel caught up in there.” Really, improv is all about creating for what’s around you, in the moment, so it fits in a way that you can’t see the seams. It’s like a great jazz combo. I still do it. Recently, I did this Hallmark film and the director’s only direction to me was, “Do your make-‘em-up-stuff.”

John Dak Morton: So, John, when did you get that Star Wars was kinda different and not just another credit? I mean, you are universally known as Cliffie from Cheers. When you were doing the TV series in the eighties, did many folks give you the oh-wow-you-were-in-Star-Wars? Or is it more often, “Oh, wow, you’re Cliffie!”

John Ratzenberger: I don’t know that I ever did see Star Wars as any different. I was certainly proud that I did it. Yes, absolutely. Maybe, I got a sense when it came out, and there were always these lines around the block. We didn’t understand the popularity of Cheers until maybe five years into the series. It was when Boston invited us to do a parade one November, and I was the only cast member skeptical of the willingness of people to come out to see us five actors drive by in antique cars in the Boston rain. Well, it was the first time I really understood the show’s popularity. That parade was supposedly the largest event Boston had ever seen — we out-drew the Celtics, the Red Sox, and the Pope!

John Dak Morton: So what about now? At conventions, do you sign more as Derlin or Cliffie, or does it depend on the con?

John Ratzenberger: I think it’s about even right across the board. They give me all the photos to sign. Star Wars, Superman. And Hammy the Pig is right up there.

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John Dak Morton: Any plans for increasing your number of convention appearances? How would you manage that, given your other commitments?

John Ratzenberger: For me, it’s when they pop up. I look at the calendar. If it’s a nice place, I go, like I did in London when it came to choosing to do a film. I always choose the best locations. New Orleans. That’s fun. I’m available. Let’s go.

John Dak Morton: John, I recall we both came back to the States in 1980 with screenplays in development in Hollywood. Mine, as you may recall, got hung up in early 1981 when my option ran out during the writers and directors strike. But yours, you had some deal with the British producer John Dark about a story you wrote on the legendary professional wrestler Haystacks Calhoun. Tell us about that, how you came to the story, what happened to the project and how it all led you to Cheers.

John Ratzenberger: That was actually Lloyd Phillips who was a Kiwi film producer in L.A. And it was about Gorgeous George, not Haystacks Calhoun. I was in a couple of Lloyd’s films and got approached to write the story. People don’t realize it, but Gorgeous George had this flamboyant, camp stage persona that had a tremendous influence on other celebrities, like Elton John, Liberace, Elvis Presley, and Mohammed Ali, who all wanted to establish their own outlandish stage personas. The project died because Gorgeous George’s wife refused to give up the rights. So I wrote another wrestling film script. And we finished the shooting. But Henry Winkler came out with his own wrestling film, which did poorly. So the studios passed on ours, and it never got released. So then I went on to write on another project with Ruby Wax. It was on the life of Nero. And that led to an audition for Cheers where I was able to craft the character of Cliffie.

John Dak Morton: What’s on the horizon for you in 2005? Acting or otherwise.

John Ratzenberger: Ah, 2005? You just lost 10 years there, buddy.

John Dak Morton: Lost in space like Buzz Lightyear, Hammy. So, plans for 2015.

John Ratzenberger: I got a company out there. We’re pitching a few things and will get back into it the first week of July.

John Dak Morton: That’s light years away.

John Ratzenberger: That’s wishful thinking. First week in January, after the holidays. We’ve also got this partnership with Made In America. Go to madeinamericastore.com. We sell stuff made in America. And I do a lot of public speaking. This year, I did two commencements: at Providence College and Penn State. I’m coming to your part of the world, Washington, D.C., in February. I speak to women’s groups, Chambers of Commerce, manufacturing organizations. Just did the Mike Huckabee Show. I do about two speaking engagements a month. I still enjoy travelling.

John Dak Morton: Hey, thanks, Major. I really hope we find ourselves together in the galaxy real soon. Or maybe we can go down a few blue milks in some London tapcaf with Cal Alder. Or even go looking for those droids in Mos Eisley with that errant stormtrooper Tony Forrest.

John Ratzenberger: Be well and stay cool my friend.

John appeared as Dak, Luke Skywalker’s back-seater in the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. He also appeared in the film substituting for Jeremy Bullloch as Boba Fett on Bespin when he utters his famous line to Darth Vader, “He’s no good to me dead.” Follow him on Twitter @tapcaf.

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