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John Ratzenberger began his career in the performing arts while living in London, England. Through the 1970s, he performed with Ray Hassett as the comedic theatrical duo Sal's Meat Market, which toured throughout Europe for eight years. Sal's Meat Market heavily influenced Peter Richardson and Nigel Planer as a duo in The Outer Limits and in The Comic Strip. His first role in a major feature film was as a patron in The Ritz (1976). Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ratzenberger appeared in various roles in feature films throughout Europe including: A Bridge Too Far, filmed in Holland, as Lieutenant James Megellas; Superman, as a missile controller; Superman II, as the NASA control man; Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back as Major Derlin; Outland as a doomed mine worker named Tarlow; and Gandhi, filmed in India, playing an American lieutenant.
John Ratzenberger played mail carrier Cliff Clavin on the sitcom Cheers. As an improv artist, he asked the producers if they had written a bar know-it-all character; the producers decided it was a great idea, and the character of Cliff Clavin was born. Ratzenberger also came up with the idea for Cliff's trademark white socks, which he wore as a tribute to French comedian Jacques Tati. Cliff became known for his outlandish stories, trivia, and his trademarked (and oft repeated), "It's a little known fact..." Cliff and Norm, the primary customer characters of the iconic bar, Cheers, played buddies who met at Cheers to talk about the day or nothing in particular. Ratzenberger provided the voice for an animated version of Cliff on The Simpsons sixth-season episode "Fear of Flying". Ratzenberger was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1985 and again in 1986.
John Ratzenberger has had a voice role in each of Pixar's first 22 films. His roles include:
John Ratzenberger's tenure at Pixar was parodied during the end credits of Cars, where his character, Mack, watches car-themed versions of Pixar films (Toy Car Story, Monster Trucks, Inc., and A Bug's Life, the latter of which references the Volkswagen Beetle). Mack notes that all the characters that John Ratzenberger has played had excellent voice actors until he realizes that they are performed by the same actor, at which point he remarks, "They're just using the same actor over and over," and asks, "What kind of cut-rate production is this?!"
Ratzenberger said that his favorite Pixar character was P.T. Flea, because "...in real life, I always get a kick out of those kinds of characters, people who just go into a rage for [no] explicable reason. He was always on edge. His blood pressure was always way over the top, and everything that he did was done in a panicked state. So it was a lot of fun to play him." John Ratzenberger voiced characters for other studios as well; he played Harland the Jet Tug in Disneytoon Studios' Planes (2013) and a mustached plane named Brodi in its sequel, Planes: Fire & Rescue (2014), Additionally, Ratzenberger reprised his role as the Abominable Snowman in the Disney+-exclusive series Monsters at Work, which is set after the events of Monsters, Inc. Ratzenberger has also voiced a character named Rootie in Skydance Animation's first film, Luck, which continues his collaboration in animation with former Pixar filmmaker and visionary, John Lasseter.
Soul, Pixar's 23rd feature film, was the first Pixar film not to include Ratzenberger's voice or personal involvement.