Alumnus John Ratzenberger Shares Experiences with Students
While at Sacred Heart University, Bridgeport native John Ratzenberger of Cheers fame began building sets for the theater program to impress a girl. The rest, as they say, is history. Ratzenberger was on campus recently to share his experiences and offer advice to today’s SHU students.
“I ended up being the understudy for the lead in Summer and Smoke. When the lead quit the night before the play opened, I had to cut classes to learn the script and the blocking.” He confessed that by the second act, he was making up lines. “On the other hand, the audience was laughing. I turned a Tennessee Williams play into a farce,” he said.
After discovering that several members of SHU’s improv team, The Awkward Handshakes, were in the audience, Ratzenberger invited them up for a demonstration – one that he also participated in much to the delight of the audience.
He encouraged the students to begin networking now. “The friends you are making now will be your contacts in the future,” he said.
He told the group that Cheers was his first-ever audition. As he left, he asked the writers if they had a bar know-it-all character. “Every bar has the know-it-all with keys dangling from his belt,” he told them. He went on to improvise the part as he saw it and got the call to play Cliff two days later. “I got paid to sit in a bar all day and crack jokes. There is no hard job in show business; it’s not like tarring a roof. If you are lucky enough to be in the business, you are doing what you love, working with creative people and getting money for it.” He said he based the Cliff character on the parents of two of his childhood friends.
Ratzenberger believes in a strong work ethic. “I’m a big fan of western civilization and the Judeo-Christian ethic that built it. We’re living in the infrastructure that was built by our grandparents. Without people putting together our infrastructure, we would be standing in a field shoeless.” During his talk, listeners learned that he has been a carpenter, an inventor, a writer and more – in addition to his storied acting career.
During the Q&A session, Ratzenberger was asked why he has been in every Pixar movie. “I always thought it was a clerical error, so I didn’t say anything,” he joked. In reality, he has become good friends with John Lasseter, producer and chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney. Some even speculate that Lasseter considers Ratzenberger to be a good luck charm. “He is working at the most successful film company, and they have high standards. They challenge themselves, and it’s wonderful to be a part of that,” Ratzenberger said.
Much of the audience stuck around to meet Ratzenberger and ask more questions once the formal presentation ended.
“It was wonderful to have him back at SHU. We hope he will come by again and share more of his stories, experience and wisdom,” said Debbie Danowski, chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies.
To view photos from the talk, click here.