Interview by: Noah Graff
John Ratzenberger is best known for his role as Cliff the mailman on Cheers. Today he hosts Made in America, a documentary-style television show on the Travel Channel in which he travels around the United States visiting American manufacturing companies and meeting factory workers. He also recently started the Nuts, Bolts and Thingamajigs Foundation to encourage and help kids develop the manual skills required to work in the manufacturing industry.
NG: John, tell me about your family background. What did your parents do?
JR: I grew up in a factory town. My mother worked in a factory, my dad drove a truck. I was a carpenter before I became an actor.
NG: Like Harrison Ford?
JR: No, No, everyone says that, but Harrison Ford was a different kind of carpenter. I was a house framer, he was a fine carpenter. I actually did it for a living. I traveled around the country and throughout Europe building houses before I became an actor.
NG: Why did you start the Nuts, Bolts and Thingamajigs Foundation?
JR: Traveling with my show, Made in America, it occurred to me after about 50 factory visits that the biggest problem [our country] is facing is the fact that kids now come out of high school without any manual skills. The average age of a factory worker is 52-years-old. So in six to 10 years, that’s it. And without people who manufacture things, there is no civilization. It’s over.
NG: Do you think in some ways we are headed in the right direction with TV shows like American Chopper and your show, and special technical Schools like Minuteman high school?
JR: There certainly is a trend, but still, [regular] high schools don’t have shop courses anymore and TV shows are not going to change that.
NG: What’s your greatest fear for the future of manufacturing in the United States?
JR: That we’ll become a slave nation to China and India. That we’ll have to do whatever they tell us to do, because without manufacturing we don’t have any power. None at all.
NG: What about the people who can only afford to shop at Wal-Mart because they need the cheaper goods made in China?
JR: I think that’s a myth. I think there are a lot of people who just don’t have money management skills. I’ve been to some of those homes, there’s a lot of stuff just lying around. You don’t have to buy a new bicycle if it breaks, you can always fix it. That’s what we used to do and that’s what gave kids skills.
NG: Do you see things going in the right direction in any respects?
JR: Not with the media. Any time you see a movie or a TV show, they depict someone who works with their hands as losers. Your job and my job are not important for the overall civilization. But if all the factory workers decided not to show up for work, or if all the heavy equipment operators decided not to show up for work, the country would collapse.
NG: What’s it like to live in Hollywood? You don’t exactly seem the type who would like it much.
JR: Well, it’s not a place you’re going to raise goats. But you’re here for a reason; because that’s where the business is. It’s an industry. They have raw material coming in one end of the building and a finished product going out the other end, no different from any factory town.
NG: Thanks John.